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August 1, 2014

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GOP running in reverse

When it comes to women’s issues, Republicans now happy just to talk the talk

Let’s hear it for women in high places.

This week in Detroit, Mary Barra took over General Motors. In Washington, Sen. Patty Murray made headlines when she worked out a deal with Rep. Paul Ryan to keep the government funded for the next two years.

There was a time when passing a budget was regarded as the legislative equivalent of getting up and making your bed in the morning. But now it’s more like climbing the Matterhorn in flip-flops, so kudos, Patty Murray! Next step is to see if Nancy Pelosi can figure out how to get long-term unemployment benefits extended.

The glass ceiling is definitely cracking. And no whimpering about how they put us in control only when the government is falling apart or your company underwent one of the biggest bankruptcies in American history. We are looking on the bright side.

Meanwhile, Republican congressmen are getting special tutoring on how to talk with women, particularly on the campaign trail.

“Some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be,” the House speaker, John Boehner, told reporters last week.

OK, that one is not necessarily all that heartening.

“Remedial classes on how not to say things is not progress,” said former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine in a phone interview.

“They need better ideas, not ‘Mad Men’-style sensitivity training,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York. Lowey, who serves as the top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, thinks that Republicans’ problem is anti-women policies, not their inability to talk with the opposite sex.

“Believe it or not, Paul Ryan is a good friend,” she said. “He calls me Mom. I call him Naughty Boy.”

I always enjoy talking to Nita Lowey, but this conversation was a particular high point.

Republicans are well aware they’ve got a gender-gap problem. There are consultants in Washington who do nothing but work on closing it. Given their current level of success, this looks like a rich field for future employment — if you have children in college, perhaps you should suggest they look into a career in GOP women-whispering.

Obviously, this goes way, way deeper than social awkwardness or inept phraseology. It can’t be an accident that out of 98 women in the House and Senate, only 23 are members of the Republican Party. Or that only one of those Republican women has a committee chairmanship, of a group that was assembled to take charge of housekeeping.

“They talk about recruiting more women to run, but those efforts tend to disintegrate,” Snowe said. “I’ve seen it so often. They all sort of fizzle out. I don’t think there’s a genuine will.”

Snowe recalled that when she was recruited in 1978, party leaders were so eager to get her on the team that they promised that if she’d run, they’d back her in a primary if one occurred. “And they didn’t ask me my position on abortion.”

Maine has a long tradition of electing progressive Republican women to the Senate. Before Snowe, there was Margaret Chase Smith, who spent much of the 1950s and 1960s as the only woman in her chamber. She was the first senator from either party who dared to stand up to Joseph McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communist crusade. But she had to stand in line with the tourists when she wanted to use a restroom in the Capitol. Smith started out in the House, where she served on the Naval Affairs Committee. After long evenings of subcommittee work, she’d occasionally be taken out for a walk by a staff member — her male colleagues, she said, were exhausted from having “a woman around all the time.”

When Murray got the first real budget deal since 2010, she did it, in part, by patiently letting her opponents blather away until they toppled over with exhaustion. In a truly just world, volunteers would have offered to invite Ted Cruz for a stroll.

If Smith could see the powerful women in Congress now, she’d probably be tickled. But you wonder what she would think of her party.

While American women have been winning rights and opportunities that were unimaginable only a few decades ago, the one thing that’s gone in the opposite direction is the Republican Party, which is willing to train its members in how to talk to the ladies but not open its doors to candidates who believe in reproductive rights. This is the party that used to be well ahead of the competition when it came to support for women’s issues — from the Equal Rights Amendment to family planning.

“Oh my, gosh! She’d be appalled,” Snowe said of Smith. “She’d be appalled. I don’t think she could conceive of how it’s all evolved today. Even in my own experience, it’s hard to comprehend.”

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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