06/06/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Steps Forward, Steps Backward

It turns out that Republicans are closed-minded bigots.

This isn't my opinion. It's the conclusion of a recently released and much-discussed report by the College Republican National Committee as part of its dissection of the 2012 election. I don't think many people outside the GOP bubble were much surprised by the conclusions: a party of angry, old white guys somehow didn't appeal to an increasingly diverse demographic of young people. Go figure.

Still, I was struck by the context of that bit about being "closed-minded." The College Republicans concluded that it was their party's "crusade" against gay marriage that led to this perception. For a significant percentage of young people surveyed by the College Republicans, opposition to gay marriage is a "deal breaker."

At first glance this would seem to be another story about the astonishing turn-around in American attitudes about marriage equality, and yet more piling on about how the Republican Party is out of step and touch with those changes.

Put that together with the GOP's "rethinking" of its immigrant-bashing, and the times really do seem to be a-changing. Somewhere deep inside the RNC headquarters Reince Preibus dreams of finding a gay Latino Republican to run for some office.

And yet when the College Republicans issued their report, what was most obvious was that even while a growing number of American politicians are rushing to attend a gay wedding and RSVP-ing that they'll bring an immigrant with them, the GOP continues its war on reproductive freedom without pause.

40 years after Roe v. Wade, new draconian abortion restrictions have passed in several states while several other states consider so-called "heartbeat" laws and "fetal personhood" laws. Most of those laws will never take effect, of course. Their purpose is to initiate lawsuits which, their sponsors and supporters hope, will wind up in front of the Supreme Court. There the chances that a 5-member majority will overturn Roe are real indeed.

Many of those states have launched crusades against Planned Parenthood. Though abortions are only a small part of what Planned Parenthood clinics do -- in some areas of the country they are currently the only source of a wide-range of women's health services -- the organization finds itself under siege in state after state, its funding threatened or curtailed, its facilities sometimes literally attacked.

And when they aren't passing bills, Republican candidates are talking about "legitimate" rape, and Rush Limbaugh, the GOP's Noise-maker-in-Chief, is calling women who want prescription coverage for birth control "sluts."

The modern movement for reproductive freedom and for gay rights emerged at roughly the same moment in the 1960s. While birth control campaigners had been pushing for the legalization of contraceptives since the turn of the 20th century, a series of Supreme Court cases beginning with Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and culminating in Roe finally gave Americans the right to plan their families. Likewise, while gay activists had been working for greater civil rights in a variety of ways for decades, the movement was galvanized by the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Now, we have come to a point in American life where it is no longer acceptable to be homophobic in polite company, but beating up on pregnant women is still good sport. And, apparently, one that carries few political consequences, to judge by the enthusiasm with which so many state legislatures have been going after women.

During the 2012 campaign, some activists called all this the "GOP War on Women." But that isn't really right, is it? If I remember my 7th grade health class correctly, any woman's pregnancy usually involves a second person, often a man. So this attack on reproductive choice is really a restriction on virtually all of us (except, ironically, gay Americans, who report very low rates of unplanned pregnancies). And yet... where is the anger and the political mobilization in response?

I don't know quite how to explain this divergence. Perhaps it is a question of class: the movement for marriage equality has enlisted educated, middle-class Americans who know how to fight for their rights. Those who suffer most from the effects of misogynist laws tend to be poorer and more disempowered.

Perhaps the movement for reproductive freedom has become the victim of its own success. The women who actually remember the age of back alleys and coat hangers are older now; maybe younger women who have grown up with access to birth control pills and abortions simply can't imagine that these basic aspects of their lives could be taken away. Maybe men can't imagine that casual sexual encounters might have life-altering consequences.

Maybe it's something even more vague in our cultural ethos. Many Americans -- women and men -- remain so afraid of "feminism" that they don't want to speak about these things out loud. I can report that none of my students would identify themselves as homophobes, at least in public, but few of them call themselves feminists either, though many of them (secretly) are.

Whatever the reason, we find ourselves at a curious political crossroads. Even while gay rights surge ahead, Planned Parenthood finds itself fighting an endless series of rear-guard actions.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is 'To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government' (Oxford University Press).