Women have borne the brunt of some very harsh statements lately, from Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s “Legitimate rape rarely causes pregnancy” to Wisconsin state Rep. Roger Rivard’s, “Some girls, they rape so easy,” to Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s poorly stated belief that pregnancy resulting from rape can be “something that God intends to happen.”

Note to male politicians: It’s possible, and certainly preferable, to take a pro-life stance without denigrating rape victims.

This spring, a 30-year-old law student advocating for insurance coverage for contraception was called a “slut” — a derisive term rarely applied to men — by a popular national talk-radio personality.

Second note: Ad hominem attacks aren’t the most civil way to argue an opposing position.

Reproductive rights which women thought were assured decades ago are back in play, both through religiously motivated legislation and through decisions ostensibly related to economics.

Perhaps most troubling, though, is Mitt Romney’s refusal to state, unequivocally, that he supports equal pay for equal work.

How, in 2012, could such a statement pose a political risk to a man running for president?

At least three possibilities exist:

Romney simply didn’t think quickly enough to be able to affirm his belief in equal pay and so appeared to be equivocating.

Romney believes in equal pay but didn’t have the political courage to profess that belief because he believes a majority of voters disagree.

Romney does not believe gender discrimination is wrong.

None of those options speak well for the candidate, but they don’t speak well for the nation, either, because they boil down to this: A man who appears to have an even chance of becoming president of the United States either doesn’t support women’s rights, supports them only when convenient, or doesn’t think much about them at all.

And that even chance boils down further to another truth: voters are willing to tolerate that.

Much as we wish it were otherwise, the future of a great many American children depends mostly on their mothers, and children who grow up in poverty — in Romney’s “47 percent” — tend to stay there. Fair opportunities for women can help lift them out of it.

Opportunity involves more than mandated equal pay, however. It requires a belief in women’s abilities to contribute just as much as men do, and a commitment to policies that enable them rather than standing in their way. It also requires an understanding that sometimes women legitimately are victims — of rape, of prejudice, of inequitable policies, of other forms of injustice.

Actively seeking qualified women for open positions is a good start (although misstating how active one actually was in the search is not). As the current most prominent voice of the Republican party, though, Romney could make a strong statement to every Republican candidate: Treat women as equals or suffer the consequences.

We have to believe he would, if voters demanded that.

Why on earth don’t we?

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