07/15/2014 11:43 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

The (Other) War on Women

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John Milton, the great English poet, once pondered, "For what can war, but endless war, still breed?" The answer: flawed Supreme Court decisions, countless email fundraising solicitations, and a surge of new attack ads.

The "war on women" is back. Following the Hobby Lobby decision, Democrats have resurrected the narrative first popularized in the 2012 campaign. Senator Barbara Boxer, often credited with coining the expression, argued, "five Republican-appointed men on the Supreme Court" gave "bosses... total power to deny critical medical care to their employees." Democratic Party Chairman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz went further, declaring, "Republicans want to do everything they can to have the long hand of government, and now the long hand of business, reach into a woman's body and make health-care decisions for her." When introducing legislation to overturn the decision on July 9th, other prominent Democrats used similar rhetoric.

Hobby Lobby represents but one battle in the "war on women." After gaining 680 state legislature seats in 2010, Republicans acted decisively to limit women's reproductive rights. In 2011, for example, Republicans in 24 states enacted 92 abortion restrictions, surpassing the 2005 record when state legislatures approved 34 laws curbing abortion. As many pro-life activists have acknowledged, the laws serve a simple purpose: return America to a pre-Roe v. Wade environment, where women in certain parts of the country do not have access to safe, legal abortion. Congressional Republicans also defunded Planned Parenthood, slashed funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), delayed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, and mocked women's claims of pay discrimination in the labor market. The results have not just been bad policy, but bad politics for Republicans; in a recent CNN poll, 59 percent of women indicated that the GOP is out of touch with their gender.

Yet the GOP's hostility towards women does not just touch public policy and rhetoric. It infects the core of the party's culture. Women are dismally represented in positions of leadership and power in the Republican Party. The "war on women," as used in the contemporary public discourse, often overlooks this reality. Moreover, the lack of Republican women exacerbates the "war" itself. Ultimately, this underrepresentation empowers many male party members whose views and policies are inimical to women.

Consider Texas, a citadel of conservatism. In June, the Texas Republican Party nominated only one woman, Representative Kay Granger, among 50 candidates for top statewide, congressional, and judicial positions. Although the Lone Star State is composed of 50.3 percent women, only one individual, two percent of leading Republican candidates, is female. The result? Even for a Southern state, the Texas GOP stands out for rhetoric and policies especially insensitive to women's needs. Greg Abbott, the Texas Republican nominee for Governor, has compared Planned Parenthood to a terrorist organization. In June, Texas Republican delegates approved a platform that advocates abstinence-only sexual education and a permanent ban of the morning after pill. The platform even favors fetal personhood after "fertilization" and "total constitutional rights for the unborn child," a move that would outlaw abortion in cases of rape and numerous forms of contraception.

The underrepresentation of Republican women is not just a Texas problem. Today, four out of every five female U.S. Senators are Democrats. So are three out of every four female U.S. Representatives. In 2012, Democrats nominated 118 women as candidates for the House of Representatives. Republicans nominated a meager 48 female House candidates. In other words, 71 percent of women who ran for Congress in 2012 were Democrats. Women are even underrepresented in the employment rosters of powerful Republicans; they compose just 36.6 percent of the staff in the House Republican leadership.

The partisan gender disparity was once nonexistent. Thirty years ago, women were equally represented in both parties. Since then, Democratic female representation soared while Republican female representation stagnated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women voters have gravitated away from the Republican Party during the same period. The "gender gap" in 1992 presidential race was only four percentage points; in 2012, it was 10.

Some Republicans acknowledge the problem. The Growth and Opportunity Project, a Republican National Committee (RNC)-endorsed study that explored Republican defeats in the 2012 election, recognized "the Party's negative image among women." Notably, the analysis urged the RNC to "understand that women need to be asked to run." It implored the party to provide "training programs" for female candidates in light of the "unique challenges" they face when running for office. In this regard, the GOP should start by examining the Democrats' successful female recruitment and support operations, including Women Lead, Emily's List, Annie's List, and Off the Sidelines.

Yet to solve a problem, you have to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a problem. Many Republicans are unwilling to take this basic step. Rep. Paul Ryan and RNC Chairman Reince Preibus dismissed the "war on women" as tantamount to a "war on left-handed Irishmen" and "war on caterpillars," respectively. A 2013 ABC News poll revealed that 60 percent of Democrats agreed, "it would be a good thing to elect more women to Congress." Only 23 percent of Republicans concurred.

The problem will only worsen as the Republican Party continues on its inexorable slide to the right. Political scientists link the gradual, conservative domination of the GOP to fewer female candidates. Ideologically, women are more likely to be liberal. Women candidates are more likely to be perceived as liberal. As more and more Republicans demand rigid ideological conformity, correspondingly high numbers of women are disqualified from party participation.

If Republicans are serious about ending the "war on women," they should tack to the center. This move would certainly be beneficial for our country's democracy and government. The American people are weary of the Tea Party, its stranglehold on the Republican Party, and the obstruction and gridlock that defines Washington. As an added benefit, centrism would enable the party to attract and elect more female candidates. Unlike many women in anti-abortion states today, Republicans have a choice: continue down a path that alienates women, or try something else.