Since August 2015, we have watched 21 primary debates. They’ve aired nationally during network primetime, on cable news, on public television, in partnership with radio, print journalism, and social networks; in Spanish as well as English.

In over 700 questions asked of 16 presidential candidates from both parties, only 6 questions were about issues that disproportionately affect women and did not mention abortion or Planned Parenthood.

Why that qualifier? While abortion rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood remain a vital topic no matter where you stand, there are so many more issues, and they have been largely ignored in this election cycle.

What if we talked about gun violence, and discussed only bullet size?

To me, that seems akin to the presidential campaign discussion of women’s health. Somehow in nine Democratic debates, not a single question was asked about women’s health, and when the issue came up elsewhere it was often in the narrowest form, about abortion…

Women’s health goes far beyond that.

Nick Kristof

New York Times

The Women’s Debate was founded because of that void. We are collecting voters’ questions for a presidential debate or town hall in order to hear the nominees’ policies on women’s economic opportunities, health care concerns, and personal safety. By introducing these issues in a national debate, we can help raise awareness, evaluate our leader’s policies and demonstrate women’s voting power.

The Six

While some are not particularly substantive, these are the questions we could find in debate transcripts on issues that affect women. Tell us in the comments if you think we missed any.

1. August 6, 2015: First Republican Debate
MEGYN KELLY: Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women…how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?

2. October 13, 2015: First Democratic Debate
DANA BASH: Secretary Clinton, you now support mandated paid family leave. Carly Fiorina, the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company, argues, if the government requires paid leave, it will force small businesses to, quote, “hire fewer people and create fewer jobs.” What do you say not only to Carly Fiorina, but also a small-business owner out there who says, you know, I like this idea, but I just can’t afford it?

3. October 28, 2015: Third Republican Debate
BECKY QUICK: Senator Cruz, working women in this country still earn just 77 percent of what men earn. And I know that you’ve said you’ve been very sympathetic to our cause. But you’ve also you said that the Democrats’ moves to try and change this are the political show votes. I just wonder what you would do as President to try and help in this cause?

4. November 14, 2015: Second Democratic Debate
NANCY CORDES: So Secretary Clinton, first to you. You want to cap individuals’ prescription drug costs at $250 a month. You want to make public college debt-free. You want community college to be free altogether. And you want mandatory paid family leave. So who pays for all that? Is it employers? Is it the taxpayers, and which taxpayers?
(An immediate follow-up to Martin O’Malley repeated this question, also mentioning a family leave plan).

5. February 6, 2016: Eighth Republican Debate
MARTHA RADDATZ: Senator Rubio, all restrictions on women in combat as long as they qualify. Positions including special operations forces, like Navy Seals. Just this week military leaders of the Army and Marine Corps said that they believed young women, just as young men are required to do, should sign up for Selective Service in case the Draft is reinstated. Many of you have young daughters. Senator Rubio, should young women be required to sign up for Selective Service in case of a national emergency?

6. February 11, 2016: Sixth Democratic Debate
JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Clinton, your campaign — you and your campaign have made a clear appeal to women voters. You have talked repeatedly about the fact, we know you would be, if elected, the first woman president. But in New Hampshire 55 percent of the women voters supported and voted for Senator Sanders. What are women missing about you?

How We Got to Six

We reviewed the transcripts of every debate using two sources: The American Presidency Project and The Washington Post. We manually counted the questions asked only by the moderators (excluding those candidates posed to each other, particularly when decorum failed) and excluded questions repeated to multiple candidates, or follow-ups that were pushed by moderators when the candidates seemed to evade the original phrasing. Even among the six we selected, some of the questions still lack substantive focus, particularly the first one.

In four instances, we eliminated questions that mentioned issues that affect or are significantly prioritized by women voters because said issue was only mentioned in passing for context on another subject. It did not ask for the candidate’s policies or views on that women’s issue. They are:

September 16, 2015 - Second Republican Debate

JAKE TAPPER: Governor Bush, you recently said while discussing Planned Parenthood, quote, you’re “not sure we need a half billion for women’s health issues.” Now you’ve since said that you misspoke, you didn’t mean to say “women’s health issues.” But Donald Trump said that quote, that comment, which Hillary Clinton did seize upon immediately, will haunt you the same way Mitt Romney’s 47 percent video haunted him. Tell Donald Trump why he’s wrong.

Why We Didn’t Count It: Aside from it directly mentioning Planned Parenthood,”the inclusion of “women’s health issues” is only a direct quote of an earlier Bush statement, and seems to speak more about a campaign mistake than actual health issues. Watch the question and response here.

October 28, 2015 - Third Republican Debate

BECKY QUICK: Mr. Trump, I want to go back to an issue that we were talking about before, the H-1B visas. I found where I read that before. It was from the website and it says — it says that again, “Mark Zuckerburg’s personal senator, Marco Rubio has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities.” Are you in favor of H-1Bs or are you opposed to them?

Why We Didn’t Count It: This is actually a follow up to Quick’s original question about immigration policies in tech. In his first response, Trump denied saying “Rubio is Zuckerberg’s personal senator.” Quick later found the full quote from Trump’s website, which mentions “women and minorities.” Neither the original question, nor Trump’s response, specifically addresses how H-1Bs affect women. Watch the first exchange here, and the later follow up in which this question is asked here.

January 17, 2016: Fourth Democratic Debate
ANDREA MITCHELL: [To Sanders] On Meet the Press on December 20th, you said that you would only raise taxes on the middle class to pay for family leave. And, having said that, now you say you’re going to raise middle class taxes to pay for healthcare as well. Is that breaking your word?
 Why We Didn’t Count It: While it mentions paying for paid leave via taxes, it’s really a follow up about whether increased taxes would pay for health care as well, suggesting a contradiction to Sanders’ earlier statements. Watch the exchange here.
March 9, 2016: Eighth Democratic Debate

KAREN TUMULTY: Secretary Clinton, my question was about his character. And that is one of the primary things that Americans think about when they choose their next president. How would you describe the character of a person who has said the sorts of things he has about Mexican immigrants, about women, and who would ban people from entering this country based on their religion?

Why We Didn’t Count It: It’s a follow up to an earlier question as to whether Trump is a racist. Unlike Megyn Kelly’s question in the first Republican debate asking specifically about the “war on women” and the language that reflects policies a candidate may espouse, this question was about another candidate’s general character. Watch the exchange here.

What Should We Be Asking?

If there’s time in the debates to ask about fantasy sports or what a candidate’s Secret Service codename would be, certainly there’s time for questions about women’s issues. Women represent half of the U.S. population, make up 47% of the labor force and are predicted to account for 51% of the growth in labor force between 2008-2018. And yet 70% of our nation’s poor are women and children, and women are 35% more likely than men to face poverty. There’s both room and need for women’s issues in this election.

Here are some of our questions:

  • Nearly 666,000 single women with children who worked full time, year round in 2014 lived in poverty. Which policies can eliminate the barrier to equitable participation–and earnings–in the economy?
  • How can we better combat workplace age discrimination, which statistically is worse for women?
  • How can the federal government better support local law enforcement in the testing of rape kits so, for example, that the victims don’t need to pay for testing themselves?

What do you want ask? Watch and read questions from voters like you, or submit your own here.

1. not including the seven “undercard” Republican debates that aired before the main stage debate

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