According to CPAC, Democrats reduce women to their vaginas, but the GOP hasn't gotten much beyond the uterus

I feel bad pointing this out, but the reason the (apparently sincere) "What Not to Wear at CPAC" Pintrest post got a lot of attention is because some attendees do need instruction on what not to wear. This applies to both male and female CPACers, but the fashion crimes committed by each gender said more about a Republican gender divide than it did about what they had in common. Guys crossing fashion lines at CPAC wore hats, costumes, or costumes that had hats. Women in suspect outfits wore (I saw each of these things with my own eyes): sequined tops before noon, gold lamé pants, and short skirts with knee-high patent leather boots (one pair in red, white and blue).

Men covered up; women exposed. Both groups were dressing to attract attention; I think only the women could reasonably appear on Fox News without changing clothes. Fox News teaches young people a lot of wrong lessons, among the ones apparently absorbed by young women is that "attracting attention" means the same thing as "being taken seriously".

The GOP has a parallel problem, one that pre-dates Fox: Its leaders seem to think that paying attention to women is the same thing as taking them seriously. This kind of thinking was the great folly of the Republican National Convention in Tampa last year: a showcase of diversity at the top undergirded by policies that suppress it among the rank-and-file, not to mention outreach that seemed to underscore the essential air of condescension. Remember the "Young Guns' Woman Up! Pavillion," were delegates could get "hair and make-up touch-ups" and salads? Remember "Tuesday is Ladies' Night"? Remember "I love you, WOMEN"? Remember Romney losing the female vote (or, as the New York Post put it, "gals'") by 10 points?

Well, the organizers at CPAC learned sure their lesson from that debacle. They didn't feature women or women's issues at all.

Yes, women were there. Plenty of them spoke! And not all of them introducing men. But the schedule was barren of any panel focused on outreach to women, any nod to the particular problem of attracting women to the conservative cause. If the Republican party's gender gap got addressed at all, organizers folded into "minority" outreach, which is really the kind of blindly patronizing identity politics that conservatives usually criticize liberals for. The one panel actually sponsored by a women's organization – the Independent Women's Forum – was about "alarmist" environmentalism.

The panel "Conservative Inclusion: 'Promoting the Freedom Message to all Americans' was a hot ticket, and its title at least identified the problem. "The Right View … and The REAL Issues," held to an echoingly empty main ballroom, turned out to address the party's lack of minority and female support.

Maybe if that had been in the title, more people would have come; there was clear confusion and even anger in light of the decisive victory Democrats had won in that demographic. There were also no illusions about the central tactic in that victory: convincing women that the Republican party wanted to strip them of the chain of reproductive rights that women have slowly pulled over to their side. A "Right View" panelist put it more vividly: "Democrats reduced women to their vaginas!"

I don't think that's true in the first place, though there's an argument that Democrats do acknowledge that's a thing that women have and use. What to make of a a conservative, however off-handedly, locating the central arena for the fight for a woman's control of her body in her vagina as opposed to, say, her uterus … or even her wallet? It's a blinkered view of both women's anatomy what motivates them in the voting booth. I think it may be a fundamental misunderstanding of how most people think of abortion as well.

A panel about the legacy of Roe v. Wade took as its starting point that abortion rights are part of "the left's anti-child utopia". Ask any woman who's struggled with what she even might do in the case of an unwanted pregnancy if she thought the choice to end it would a "utopian" solution, or even a happy one. The same panel lauded the use of ultrasound images in changing the minds of erstwhile advocates for choice, though I wonder if the potential efficacy of that approach has less to do with forcing women to look at a fetus and demanding a specific outcome about it than it does with engaging in a woman in conversation of equals about an almost unbearably difficult decision.

For the past decade or so, pro-life advocates have adopted the language of "rights" to discuss their cause. At the Roe v. Wade panel, they made a further rhetorical link to the suffrage and abolition movements. I understand the parallel they're drawing, but there's a reason large numbers of women remain unconvinced that it's "rights" and not control that motivate pro-life Republicans: it's hard to argue your cause of fetal rights is a continuation of the expansion of rights to women and blacks if you don't actually continue to fight for the rights of women and blacks.

Or, to turn it around a bit: If there's nothing inherently anti-women's rights about a pro-life stance, then why has that cause found its home in a party that opposes federal supports for working women, dismantling the judicial structure that enforces anti-discrimination, and would rather not vote for a bill funding policies proven to reduce domestic violence?

Maybe conservatives have had a hard time wooing women over to their side not because women are so immune to the appeal of "pro-life as pro-woman," but because conservatives aren't convincingly pro-woman in any other way. The rhetoric on the issue sounds better than it used to, but the underlying ideology hasn't, which makes all the talk about "outreach" to female voters the same hucksterish "gotta get a better message" vamping that marked most of the other discussions.

The rhetoric of pro-lfe-as-pro-woman might also lack weight because the vast majority of those spouting it lack conviction. They come to be pro-life in the first place not because they're pro-life or pro-woman, but because they're conservative. (During the Roe panel, a participant was stumped by the simple query, "How did you come to your pro-life views?" "You're just born to it," she said. "Your family.")

Years from now, Republicans might actually regret introducing that language of human rights into the pro-life discussion. Earlier, at a panel featuring the "next generation" of conservatives, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, talked about more than doubling the group's number of chapters:

"When we win on this issue on campuses, it's because we talk about it as a human rights issue."

But pushed on whether or not "social conservatism" could be a part of the new iteration of the Republican party, Hawkins made a meaningful dodge: The people running Students for Life groups across the country "probably disagree with each other on gay marriage and disagree with each other on legalizing drugs".

A genuinely progressive, pro-woman argument against abortion would organically be a part of a world-view that wouldn't necessarily fit into any other aspect of "conservatism." You might find yourself supporting early childhood education, or gay adoption, or gay marriage, or federal involvement in economic stimulus. You might find yourself no longer a member of the Republican party.

© Guardian News and Media 2013