“Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men,” Theodore Roosevelt ...

“Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his college senior essay, in the spring of 1880.

John McCain, who last week named Roosevelt as the model for his particular maverick brand of reformist, environmentalist, Big Stick conservatism, has a very similar take on the question of women’s equality. He, too, is all for it – in the abstract.

“I am committed to making sure that there is equal pay for equal work, that there is equal opportunity in every aspect of our society and in our economy,” he said last Friday, capping off the presidential campaign’s Week of the Woman with a “women only” town hall meeting in Hudson, Wisc. “Women in America not only take care of their children, manage the household budgets and balance the pressures of work and family, they also run many of the enterprises that keep our economy running.”

He is committed, he added on his campaign bus, “to encourage the participation of women in all walks of life and make sure that any barriers to their advancement are eliminated.”

That’s all good, in the abstract. In real life, it’s another story.

McCain has opposed legislation aimed at helping women sue in cases of pay discrimination on the grounds that it could make businesses vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits. He criticized Barack Obama’s latest woman-friendly proposals guaranteed sick days and more family leave – as “big-government” extravagances. He has voted to restrict women’s access not just to abortion but to birth control and affordable prenatal health care, and though his own memory failed him in recalling this last week he voted against legislation that would have required insurance companies to include contraceptives as part of their prescription drug coverage.

In other words, he has time after time put up roadblocks to any legislative measures that could help make women’s abstract equality a reality. While that’s standard Republican politics, it’s not really the stuff of a maverick – particularly not one who’s now trying his darndest, via the surrogacy work of former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, to woo Hillary Clinton’s most die-hard female supporters.

Teddy Roosevelt had some issues with the ladies, too. Though he advocated legal equality, equal standing in marriage, educating women and paying them a minimum wage, and on at least one occasion spoke out for equal pay, his proto-egalitarianism ran aground upon his – much stronger, one might say, hysterical – pro-natalism.

His belief, in particular, that white, Protestant women had to pop out as many babies as they physically could to fend off the threat of “race suicide,” pretty well delimited the range of human possibility that he afforded the female gender.

“I believe that man and woman should stand on an equality of right, but I do not believe that equality of right means identity of functions; and I am more and more convinced that the great field, the indispensable field, for the usefulness of woman is as the mother of the family,” he once wrote.

The fact that a life of nonstop child-bearing was not necessarily one in which all the other rights he defended could be exercised did not appear to unduly trouble him.

But Roosevelt was practicing politics 100 years ago. What excuse is there, in 2008, for a politician who pretends to be a great friend to women while continuing to block any possible legislative changes that might actually improve women’s lives?

The wink-wink excuse for McCain’s hypocrisy, for the contradictions between his good-guy persona and not-so-good-guy politics, is that he has to hold his nose and keep his bread buttered with the religious right.

Another explanation is that, like our current good-guy president, McCain is a man blinded by ideology in this case, by that rough-rider rugged individualism thing that he so admires and that is so inimical to real, functional gender equality.

Or it could be something else, something much more basic at work, something that, I think, showed very clearly in McCain’s expression last week, as he fought, more or less successfully, to suppress a joke and the naughtiest bit of a giggle after reporters demanded a response to remarks by Fiorina in which the clearly unscripted surrogate had complained about the unfairness of health insurers reimbursing Viagra but not birth control.

You could see it in his mouth, in his eyes as, for a full five seconds, McCain worked to remake a face that said, “Give me a break, will you? Don’t you know that I just don’t care?”

Teddy Roosevelt, remembered today as a big proponent of women’s suffrage, admitted in a letter once that, when it came to the woman’s vote, he too didn’t really care.

“Personally I believe in woman’s suffrage, but I am not an enthusiastic advocate of it, because I do not regard it as a very important matter,” he wrote from the White House in 1908. A big part of the reason: Women themselves, he said, appeared to be mostly “lukewarm” on the issue.

“I am very certain,” he said, “that when women as a whole take any special interest in the matter they will have suffrage if they desire it.” McCain, as he casts for votes among Hillary’s last angry hold-outs, seems to be banking upon finding women who are similarly lukewarm to their interests. Let’s hope that he’s wrong.

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July 17
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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