What Women Want

September 23, 2008

This was the message handwritten in bright red lipstick across the cover of last week’s Newsweek magazine. I had just treated myself to a new book to read during my commute when the cover stopped me dead in my tracks. The lipstick should have been a red flag to me that a Sarah Palin-related article was to follow, but still my mind raced through a myriad of options — quality schools, economic security, good health and quality health care, to win the lottery, for someone else to cook dinner …

The cover article “From Seneca Falls to … Sarah Palin?” looks at the politics of identity, what influences women voters, and how women have voted in past elections. The article begins with the 1984 election, when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferrraro as his running mate. At first she was quite the sensation:

Much of the media response was predictable — she was described as “feisty” and “pushy but not threatening,” and was asked if she knew how to bake blueberry muffins. She was also questioned, in a debate with Vice President George H. W. Bush, about whether the “Soviets might be tempted to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman.” When she stood before the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, anchor Tom Brokaw announced: “Geraldine Ferraro … The first woman to be nominated for vice president … Size 6!”

But women did not turn out in large numbers to vote Democratic that year. Fifty-six percent of women voted for Ronald Reagan, and many Americans, including stay-at-home moms, were opposed to and even threatened by the candidacy of a working mother.

Now fast-forward a few decades, and a different sentiment — the Palin Effect — seems to be taking shape. Republicans who traditionally do not support mothers of young children working outside the home have embraced this mother of five, whose children include an infant son with Down’s syndrome and a pregnant teenage daughter:

In a 2007 Pew survey, 53 percent of Republicans said it was bad for society for mothers of young kids to work outside the home. Only 38 percent of Democrats agreed. This is the extraordinary thing about Palin — Republicans have not necessarily changed their views about working women generally. They just like her. And she can help them win. Instead of being threatened by her candidacy, as happened with Ferraro, more traditional mothers appear to be empowered by Palin.

Even some Democratic women are considering voting for the Republican ticket because Palin is a woman. Polls since the announcement of his running mate have seen an 11 point shift by white women in support of John McCain. Some critics have called it pandering, that women would vote for any woman candidate on general principle. But research published earlier this year showed no consistent gender affinity for supporting female candidates. A candidate’s position on key issues and information about the candidate seemed to be more important to the voters’ choice. (Just in case you missed it, AAUW has released our Congressional Voting Record for the 110th Congress and voter guides that provide critical information about how members of Congress and those up for election voted on AAUW priority issues.)

In the 2004 election, nearly 9 million more women than men voted. For sheer numbers alone, the importance of female voters cannot be underestimated this election, and both tickets have seen the writing on the wall (or magazine cover, as it may be). Still, there is no way to know if the Palin Effect will translate into votes this November. Media coverage of the government bailout on Wall Street and the effect on families has seemingly placed the issue of gender on the back burner … for now. So what’s most important to you as a voter: identity, issues, or both? I know who is cooking dinner tonight still tops my list of priority issues.

By:   |   September 23, 2008

1 Comment

  1. Flora Gray says:

    We are coming to the end of the election season (hallelujah) and I just discovered This is What Women Want, a site for women to speak out about they want. All of the tour events have passed, but there will be a post-election panel in Cambridge, MA on Nov. 5. AAUW’s Public Policy department is also sponsoring a post-election conference call for members on Nov. 6. To learn more, visit http://www.aauw.org/member_center/rsvp.cfm.

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