Angering a Key Constituency: Women Leaders Ask the
President to Fire Alan Simpson
By Richard (RJ) Eskow
August 27, 2010 - 3:22pm ET
Four prominent leaders of women's organizations held a
conference call today, accompanied by Rep. Raul
Grijalva, to demand the resignation of retired Sen.
Alan Simpson as co-chair of the Deficit Commission.
Their comments, together with a number of private
conversations with women's leaders, indicate that
Simpson and his Commission could be an even greater
political liability among women voters than most
observers initially suspected.
Women represent a key constituency in every election.
In 2008 53% of all voters were women, 56% of whom voted
for Barack Obama (as opposed to 49% of males). So any
issue that alienates women - and the organizations that
mobilize and lead them - can be an enormous political
liability. Simpson, and the Commission itself, are
looking more and more like just such a liability.
The problem runs far deeper than Simpson's "milk cow
with 310 million tits" comment in an email to Ashley B.
Carson. As Ms. Carson said during the conference call:
"An attack on Social Security is an attack on women."
Even without the gratuitous insults, Simpson's
disparaging remarks about recipients who "milk the
system" indicate contempt for those who rely on Social
Security, the majority of whom are women. If you
combine Simpson's dismissal of women's groups as "Pink
Panthers," his description of "ageism and sexism" as
"all that crap" in his email, and his expressed
contempt toward Ms. Carson's job working on behalf of
older women ("write when you find real work"), these
leaders say it paints the clear picture of a man who
dismisses women and their issues as trivial.
At what point does Simpson become enough of a liability
to draw a stronger response from the White House? In
calling for his removal, Terry O'Neill, President of
the National Organization of Women, said this on the
conference call (I believe the quote's verbatim,
although I'll check against a final transcript when
it's available): "President Obama should have said 'I
know women elected me to office. Simpson went beyond
the pale.'" Ms. O'Neill's official biography indicates
that she worked on Barack Obama's campaign, which adds
resonance to her remarks.
Susan Scanlan, Chair of the National Council of Women's
Organizations (a coalition of 240 organizations
representing 12 million women), said: "An honest
difference of opinion on whether Social Security is in
crisis should spark a lively national debate ... Why
can't this conversation be civil?"
The depth of anger among women over Simpson's stems
from three things: the content of his email to Ms.
Carson, his perceived hostility to women and their
needs, and fears about his intentions toward Social
About that email: I underestimated the level of offense
it generated. While the "tit" reference was not sexual
in nature, I've come to see that it triggered a real
sense of violation and revulsion in a number of women -
tough professionals who are not overly sensitive. As
one leader pointed out, "If he'd said that at any
workplace in the country he'd be in legal trouble."
It's deliberate crudity, bullying language designed to
inflict discomfort in a woman. And Simpson can't play
the "folksy" card in his own defense. Contrary to his
public image, Simpson wasn't raised in a rural setting
(where, in real life, people are typically far more
courteous to women - and everybody else - than
Simpson). He's the son of a former Governor and
Senator, a child of privilege whose vulgar speech is
his and his alone.
Women were equally angered by Simpson's comments to Ms.
Carson that she's "babbling into the vapors" and his
implication that she can't read a graph. Would he have
said that to a man? People can disagree on that point,
but many of the women I've spoken with don't think so.
In that sense, this is not unlike the controversy over
Dr. Laura's use of the "N" word (for which she
ultimately lost her job).
A number of prominent women leaders have also mentioned
Simpson's notorious bullying of Anita Hill during the
Clarence Thomas hearings, as well as his verbal and
physical aggression toward journalist Nina Totenberg at
that time (he reportedly forced her car door open and
wouldn't let her leave as he continued screaming at
her. Reports indicate, however, that eventually Ms.
Totenberg "gave as good as she got" in their verbal
exchange.) Many women felt that Simpson's hectoring of
Ms. Hill during her testimony, especially about the
fact that she didn't report Thomas' behavior and
continued to be in contact with him, indicated a lack
of empathy or understanding about the stress responses
of sexual harrassment victims. It's hard to read his
remarks any other way.
Simpson also said this at the time: "It's a harsh
thing, a very sad and harsh thing, and Anita Hill will
be sucked right into the -- the very thing she wanted
to avoid most. She will be injured and destroyed and
belittled and hounded and harassed, real harassment,
different from the sexual kind, just plain old
Washington variety harassment which is pretty unique in
itself." Women read that "real harrassment" phrase as a
dismissal of sexual harrassment, and many took the
overall comment as a threat - which he then proceeded
to carry out with vigor.
Wanda Baucus, then-wife of Sen. Max Baucus said at the
time that she called members of the Judiciary Committee
because she couldn't stand to see Ms. Hill "suffering
at the hands of a bunch of thugs ..." Ms. Baucus
singled out Simpson who, according to Ms. Baucus,
admitted to her that he knew that sexual harrassment
was a problem in Washington. Ms. Baucus said that
Simpson's behavior "on television was totally false ...
He was being certainly less than honest with the
American people in trying to degrade Anita Hill for
The pain and anger caused by these experiences, which
were deeply felt by a number of influential women,
appears to have been revived by this latest incident.
As for Simpson's policy preferences, the record there
is clear. Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo has done
an excellent job in uncovering his decades-long
determination to cut Social Security (although I think
Beutler underestimates the impact of Simpson's email
itself, as many of us initially did). These women's
organizations are understandably troubled by his
longstanding hostility to the program, given the number
of women who rely on Social Security for their
Simpson's"greedy geezers" comment angered seniors. Now
he's insulted women. How many more key constituencies
does he have to offend before it becomes clear what
must be done? The President said he would bring a new
tone to Washington, who insisted that "we can disagree
without being disagreeable," is now backing an
appointee who has repeatedly failed to meet that
standard. As for Social Security, numerous polls have
shown that Americans strongly oppose cutting its
benefits. Republicans would like nothing more than to
have Democrats take the heat for something they've
wanted to do for a long time. And Democrats would pay
dearly for a "bait and switch" campaign that promises
to defend Social Security from cuts, if they then turn
around and cut them anyway.
The Deficit Commission should not be cutting Social
Security, since Social Security doesn't contribute to
the deficit. And Alan Simpson has no place on that
commission, whatever its mandate. That's why this
online petition has been established, asking the White
House and Congress to remove Sen. Simpson and remove
Social Security from the Deficit Commission's scope of
It usually takes a day or two to get a sense of how a
political controversy will play out. After two days,
and a public apology, this one's not looking good for
Simpson. It's becoming increasingly clear that this
controversy will linger on, creating long-term problems
for everyone involved. The only way to end it, it now
seems clear, is with decisive action - and the sooner,
(UPDATE: If you're concerned about Social Security,
this could become your new favorite site -
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