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Romney feels the scorn of women's fury

Date

Emma Brockes

The Republican paid dearly for his handling of female issues.

IN THE long list of people who, in what might come to be seen as the most impressive achievement of his campaign, Mitt Romney managed to alienate, the biggest and most damaging group by far was women.

As the results came in, it was clear relatively early that while the Latino vote came out solidly for Barack Obama, it was women, particularly single women, who made themselves heard most decisively.

This should not have been surprising. The Obama campaign had hammered away at Romney's record on women in pointed campaign ads from way back, targeting the customary staples - Romney's opposition to Roe v Wade, abortion under any circumstance and insurance coverage for contraception - so comprehensively that the danger became one of reduced impact through overexposure.

The surprise was that after such a long, repetitive and exhausting campaign, Republicans managed to refresh these arguments in such enduringly wacky ways as to provoke a kind of awe. You could only laugh as the coverage revisited them; in Missouri, let's hear it one more time for Todd Akin and his ''legitimate rape'' discourse; for Richard Mourdock in Indiana (babies born of rape are a ''gift from God''); in the Pennsylvania Senate race, for Tom Smith comparing rape to unwed motherhood, and so on. It was almost as if Republicans had forgotten women could vote.

By contrast, Romney's modest gaffe about ''binders full of women'' looked rather sweet and paternal and mercifully removed from the crowded junction in his party where gynaecology and theology meet.

It was against this backdrop that people walked out to vote. In 2008, the atmosphere in New York on election day was like nothing I have experienced. For sheer community spirit, the only thing New Yorkers could compare it to was the city's 1977 blackout and the days after 9/11. Men in suits made eye contact with homeless people as if they shared a common reality; subway commuters, for whom smiling is usually defensive, grinned warmly, conspiratorially.

There was none of that this time and no one expected it. People rose early, anticipating huge queues after television coverage of early voting chaos.

There was no romance; it was a question not of hope but of duty, giving voting queues in the city a muted, slightly martyred air. Those waiting, wanted to get the job done, a sober ethos they hoped Obama would take with him into his second term.

In Harlem, where four years ago you could hardly turn a street corner without tripping over an Obama campaigner, where everyone seemed to be wearing campaign badges and T-shirts, there were few outward signs of an election taking place.

This was partly down to hurricane Sandy, still zapping the city's emotional and physical resources. It was partly down to customary second-term campaign fatigue. Mainly, however, the muted air came from a sense this time of No Messing About. Once the jokes about dogs on car roofs and Mormon underpants fell away, the stakes for this election became abnormally high. Obama didn't need to inspire; he just needed to be the guy not threatening to turn back women's reproductive rights to 1973.

As usual, the most moving sight of the election was those who had the most to overcome, making the most effort to vote; the old and infirm, coming up the street on walkers and the arms of carers, mixing, at the Brooklyn polling station I visited, with the predictable assortment of young men in skinny jeans and asymmetrical hair.

Some were inclined to give Obama a break. ''He's only got two hands and a brain,'' said 47-year-old Ronald. ''He spent all that time straightening out what Bush did.''

In the end, the assumption made by decent, liberal Republicans - that this wasn't the real Romney; that once in office he would simmer down and remember himself - became too much of a gamble to take. If any further evidence of that were needed, there it was in his concession speech. Looking weary, he spoke as if from his father's era, thanking his sons for their help, ''and their wives'' for holding the fort at home. He sounded, as he always has, like a nice guy from the 1950s who, when he hears a woman speak about anything beyond dinner, sees in the corner of his eye a dog on its hind legs.

In the post-game analysis there will be speculation that Romney's defeat will mark the end of the Tea Party, given the damage it did to his mainstream appeal. And there will be a temptation to write off the whole thing as idiotic.

The sobering fact is that if Romney had won, with three places on the Supreme Court potentially up for grabs during his tenure, he could have changed the country's social landscape. According to exit polls, 68 per cent of single women voted to stop him - women who, I think it is safe to assume, voted partly out of a desire to retain governance of their own ovaries, rather than outsource them, say, to a Republican senator from Missouri.

This is as decisive a moment in feminism as there has been. Debates about where we are in a post-post-feminist world, how squeamish women are about calling themselves feminists, whether to wax or not to wax - all the tap-dancing that supposedly must be done these days to engage women in their own political interests - all of that fell away. Red or blue, left or right, ''career woman'' or ''homemaker'', they voted as one.

Emma Brockes is an author and journalist for The Guardian.

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