Does the Republican Party richly deserve to have their conference on messaging to women be represented by the more perfect than perfect quote urging male GOPers to "bring it down to a woman's level?" Maybe, but that remark by Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) actually is being taken out of context to suggest that she thinks Republicans need to dumb down their messaging to women.
All over the internet and cable news dial, Ellmers' remarks at a closed-door meeting called the "Taking Back the Future" women's summit have been translated into variations on the theme that "Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers says that men need to dumb down their conversations because women aren't able to understand pie charts."
Making the story even more damaging was the fact that the remarks were reported on by a columnist from the conservative Washington Examiner, who was critical of the conference. Although Ashley Schow provided sufficient contextual quotes to make Ellmers' true meaning clear, the irresistible money quote was reported like this (emphasis Schow's):
“We need our male colleagues to understand that if you can bring it down to a woman’s level and what everything that she is balancing in her life — that’s the way to go,” Ellmers said. (Emphasis added.)
The key quote for context appeared a few paragraphs above, as Ellmers explained, "Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level,” and added “Many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they’ve got some pie chart or graph behind them, and they’re talking about trillions of dollars and how, you know, the debt is awful and, you know, we all agree with that."
Schow interpreted this to mean that Ellmers was saying "people are too stupid to understand pie charts."
As the ridicule built, Ellmers objected, and said she was being taken out of context, so Schow released her audio of the event. Liberals dutifully smirked and played the fuller context, but by and large maintained their previous interpretation of Ellmers' comments. Here's the audio of the key portion:
Aside from some skipping around, Schow's original reporting of the quotes was rather faithful to Ellmers' meaning, even if Schow's interpretation wasn't. Although clumsily stated, Ellmers was clearly saying that Republicans needed to present their policies in a more granular form, and describe their practical implications for the individual voter. It's not great advice, and seems no more true of women than men, but it's not the same as saying they need to dumb things down. She's not saying women are too stupid to understand charts and huge numbers, but that these things don't resonate the way a more on-the-ground explanation would.
The silver lining is that Ellmers' dissatisfaction with how her remarks were reported has resulted in more of them being reported, which is a blessing for anyone who wants to know how transparently bad Republicans' strategy for women's outreach really is. Joan Walsh at Saloncapably calls out Ellmers' advice for male colleagues to use their female family members as War on Women human shields, and notes that this strategy is as much about reaching out to men:
Why are Republicans so enthralled by the narrative that if there’s a war on women, men are losing?
For one thing, they’re trying to woo successful women with flattery, to say, “Unlike the Democrats, we know you don’t need the government’s help!” Again, they’re only courting white college-educated women; they’re not trying to win over African American women or Latinas, who experience even more poverty and pay inequity than white women.
But they’re also trying to reassure less successful men – particularly the white guys without a college degree who’ve become a pillar of the GOP base – that they understand that women have the upper hand.
If Democrats have erred in describing the War on Women, it's been in not calling it the "War on Those Women," the ones who don't benefit from white male privilege almost as much as men do. Women who haven't already gotten theirs, and need to have their rights and choices protected by their government, and not by their privilege.
Later in her remarks, Ellmers seems to recognize that limiting women's choices is not such a palatable idea, describing the mere act of asking about the issue as a "trap," and essentially advising Republicans to just snatch the cheese off of it before it can snap shut:
"The media will try to trap one of our colleagues into a position, talking about what their belief is, especially if they know they’re pro-life, right? Basically what we’ve said to my friends, you know, I say: ‘You know what? State your position. Where you are on this issue, when it comes to whether you’re pro-life, pro-choice – wherever you are. And then you come out of that situation.’"
On second thought, that sounds a lot more like the "rhythm method" than anything else, a fitting prescription for a party that doesn't believe in actual contraception. At least they're consistent.