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What was really going on in that awkward debate moment about putting a woman on the $10

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

During last night’s GOP presidential debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper lobbed what should have been a softball question at the candidates: "Earlier this year the Treasury Department announced that a woman will appear on the $10 bill. What woman would you like to see on the $10 bill?"

This should have been an easy one. All the candidates had to do was choose a prominent American woman. How hard could that be?

Apparently very, very, very hard. Three candidates named members of their own families, one refused to answer, and two more selected foreigners.

This wasn't just an awkward moment in a long and exhausting debate, although it was certainly that. It was a pretty revealing, and appropriately painful, illustration of the GOP's serious and persistent difficulty reaching women, and why that problem goes a lot deeper than having polices unfavorable to women's rights.

The candidates praised women as caregivers or supporters

Jeb Bush Donald Trump debate

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You can see the problem in not just who the candidates picked, but how they argued for them. Mike Huckabee chose his own wife, and Ben Carson his own mother, both arguing that the women should be honored for being such excellent caretakers. In their minds, apparently, the highest contribution an American woman can make to her country is to lovingly care for a male Republican.

Chris Christie made a similar argument on behalf of his choice, Abigail Adams: "Our country wouldn't be here without John Adams," he said, "and he wouldn't have been able to do it without Abigail Adams. So I would put Abigail Adams on the $10 bill." In other words, he was honoring her for service to her husband, not service to her country.

Even the candidates who chose women known for their own accomplishments gravitated towards caregivers. Scott Walker selected Clara Barton, a pioneering nurse who founded the American Red Cross, and John Kasich chose Mother Theresa, who isn’t even American.

As Megan Thielking tweeted after the debate, the candidates returned again and again to descriptions of women as beautiful, angelic caregivers:

Why it's so hard for Republicans to talk about accomplished women

It's no accident that these candidates so struggled to name prominent American women, and when they did, described them as caregivers.

A big part of this is that there's disconnect between the traditional gender norms that the GOP still tries to embrace, and the reality of women's lives in America today.

A lot of GOP voters are pretty big fans of traditional gender roles — recall the wild applause that Trump got in the first debate when he dismissed the criticism of his insulting comments about women as mere "political correctness." That means that there's risk for candidates who flout those norms, and incentive to maintain them.

You could see this, for instance, when Ted Cruz mentioned his wife. He did not refer to her as "the successful Goldman Sachs managing director" or "the accomplished Bush administration veteran," but rather as "my angel." Praising women for their accomplishments as wives, mothers, daughters, and caregivers is a way to embrace those traditional norms and argue that those accomplishments should be what women aspire to — which makes it difficult to talk about women who do the sorts of things that usually get you printed on the currency.

And there's a related, but subtler way this problem plays out: because feminism only started to bring about real change in the late 20th century, many of America's most groundbreaking women have made their accomplishments in recent decades. But that makes it likely that those women have also embraced, say, reproductive rights or marriage equality — ideas that don't play well on a Republican primary debate stage.

That makes it hard for Republicans to find an American woman who is famous for her groundbreaking accomplishments but who isn't also likely to offend conservative sensibilities, either because the woman herself was a liberal, or because she flouted tradition in ways that conservative voters would be uncomfortable with honoring.

First woman in space Sally Ride, for instance, was a groundbreaking astronaut, scientist, and educator — but also gay, making her an awkward choice for a party that rejects same-sex marriage. Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and a Republican to boot, but her judicial opinions made her unpopular with pro-life conservatives. Even Rosa Parks, whom three candidates (Rubio, Cruz, and Trump) picked for the $10 bill, turns out to have been on the board of Planned Parenthood. And so on.

That's not to say that there are no options. They could have named a conservative writer like Ayn Rand, a pioneer heroine like Laura Ingalls Wilder, or an apolitical scientist like Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock. But not as many political leaders: as Jeb Bush's quickly-withdrawn selection of Margaret Thatcher highlighted, the US has thus far failed to produce its own Thatcher. This country has never elected any woman, Democrat or Republican, as president or even vice-president. To find one, Bush had to look overseas.

Of course, that might not last. In last night's debate, Carly Fiorina pointedly refused to choose a candidate for the $10 bill. Although her stated reasoning was that doing so was nothing more than a "gesture" that wasn't worth her consideration, it was hard not to hear an unspoken suggestion hanging in the air during her answer: "How about the first woman president? I bet my face would look great on a $10 bill."

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