Is Rick Santorum facing a brewing 'women problem'?

Recent statements about women, and passages from his 2005 book, have put Rick Santorum on the defensive. Even within GOP ranks there are signs of a gender split.

By , Staff Writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum poses for a photo with a supporter at a rally, Tuesday, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
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Does Rick Santorum have a women problem?

Or would he have one, in a general election?

Certainly not the way, say, Newt Gingrich might. Mr. Santorum has been married to the same woman for more than 20 years, and regularly talks about his devotion to her.

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But increasingly, his statements about women – both in interviews and in his 2005 book, "It Takes a Family" – are raising eyebrows.

Last week, women in combat was the issue. Santorum told CNN's John King that he has "concerns" about women on the front lines, adding that "I think that can be a very compromising situation, where people naturally may do things that may not be in the interests of the mission because of other types of emotions that are involved."

Santorum later clarified that he was referring to the emotions of men, who may have emotions "when they see a woman in harm's way."

Among those who have objected to his statements is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, whose daughter served in Iraq. “I like Rick Santorum a lot. I just disagree with any inference that he might have made that somehow women are not capable of serving in the front lines and serving in combat positions," Governor McDonnell said on CNN on Monday.

And in the past few days, Santorum has been pressed to explain some of the statements in his book – particularly the section where he wrote that, "the radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness."

In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopolous, in which Mr. Stephanopolous asked him about the quote, Santorum defended himself, noting that he grew up with a working mother. He just wants women who work both inside and outside the home to feel "affirmed for the choices they make," he said.

"You say that now," Stephanopolous replied, "but you also wrote in the book that radical feminists have been making the pitch that justice demands that men and women be given an equal opportunity to make it to the top in the workplace. Isn't that something that everyone should value?"

Santorum replied that he wasn't familiar with that quote from the book, and agreed that people should have equal opportunity to rise in the workplace – before punting on responsibility for the quote by saying that his wife, Karen, actually wrote that section. (He does not credit her in his acknowledgements as one of those "who assisted me in the writing of this book.”) When his wife gave up her career as a lawyer and nurse to have children, he told NBC's David Gregory, who also pressed him on the section, she "felt very much like society and those radical feminists that I was referring to were not affirming her choice."

Add that to his strong stances on abortion and contraception (forget the recent flap about whether Catholic-affiliated organizations should be required to have health insurance that covers contraception – Santorum believes birth control "shouldn't even be in an insurance plan" of any type since it's "affordable"), and it's clear why some pundits are wondering about his ability to get votes from women in a general election.

Already, even among GOP ranks, there are signs of a gender split.

In a CNN poll released Tuesday, Santorum and Mitt Romney are essentially tied nationally. But who their supporters are differs significantly. Santorum's voters are more committed, more conservative, more blue-collar – and more male. Among Republican men, Santorum holds a 10-point edge, while Romney beats Santorum among Republican women by 9 points.

If Santorum gets the nomination, he may have an even tougher time convincing women who are independents that he believes in issues important to them.

"The book 'It Takes a Family' was written in response to Hillary Clinton's 'It Takes a Village' in the 1990s, and it was not generally taken by women's rights groups as a tome of affirmation," writes Politico's Maggie Haberman about the latest controversy. "And it's one of the reasons Santorum will keep facing questions about whether he can appeal to a key general election swing group."

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