Where Have All the Women’s Issues Gone?

Contributed by MOTHERS guest blogger Robin A. Harper, Ph.D.
I held my tongue in August. I held it in September. And, I held it in October. But it’s November now and I have only one big question for the two parties, vying for my vote. Here it is: when are we going to talk about women’s issues? I don’t just mean the hair, the clothes and the glasses. I don’t mean the stylists, the impersonations and the manolos that I would love to know the size of when she’s ready to donate them. I mean real women’s issues.


Despite the fact that there are women candidates, up until now, much to the chagrin of many women voters, this election has not been about women’s issues but about striving for Joe the plumber’s vote. I don’t begrudge Joe anything. I am sure he’s a great guy, but his problems are not mine. Considering that 28 percent of female headed households are under the poverty level, how many women could afford to buy a business that made $250,000 per year? This election by and large has been presented in terms of the generic citizen, as if female citizens didn’t have issues beyond or different from the universal “male” citizen. Have we heard much about the effect of Obama’s tax plan or McCain’s bailout plan for Josephine the teacher? Joanne the nurse? Joanie the IHOP waitress? Joan the home care attendant? Or even, the darling of conservatives and the bane of liberals: Josie the fulltime mom and homemaker? All I can ask in the last few days of this election is ‘in this historic election: where are the women’s issues?’

What are women interested in anyway?
Traditionally, campaigns have assumed that women gravitate toward the “SHE” issues – SocialSecurity, health care, and education – while men vote based on “WE” issues – war and the economy. But in the last three elections, research shows that the women’s vote has been dependent on a pastiche of issues, and not just one issue. So, by women’s issues I mean issues like comparable pay, child care, abortion on demand, contraception on demand, parity for insurance coverage for contraception (so if an insurance company offers coverage for Viagra, it should offer coverage for the pill), rights for breast feeding women in public, at work, even in prison, universal pre-k and Headstart, education, elder care, human trafficking, domestic violence (who isn’t opposed to domestic violence?), even safe issues like breast cancer research. No one likes breast cancer and everyone can agree that it would be good to cure it and yet, nothing… I’m not saying that health care parity and access to care isn’t a contentious or expensive issue, but no one is opposed to breast cancer reduction. Normally, in a presidential election, we would hear the candidates lamenting the horrors of breast cancer or some other issues that no one disagrees with but score points with voters. But until now, I haven’t even heard a peep about breast cancer. Why isn’t breast cancer reduction making it on to the national agenda?

Do women’s issues matter to voters?
Let’s be fair, there are two major issues that are overshadowing everything we do the economy and the war. And, the polls show overwhelmingly the war is a very distant second. Gallup reports that 55 percent rate the economy as an important issue affecting their vote and the next most important issues – Iraq and energy – are tied at 41 percent. So have we just crowded out women’s issues? Can we afford to talk about child care if we are worried about $1 billion a day in Iraq? Can we talk about paying for breast cancer research when the stock market is on a roller coaster?

If we think that women’s issues are what we have time for after we have discussed the important issues or those things that concern the universal “male” citizen – the economy and the war and the environment – or issues, then, indeed, women’s issues are just the extra add- ons and don’t belong in such an important election.

But is it true? Since there wasn’t a national survey that asked that exact question, I decided to bring it to a special student forum. This semester, my American government class at York College, CUNY, is participating in an online teaching experience with two other colleges in the US – The University of the Redlands in suburban southern California and Adirondack Community College in rural upstate NY. Every week, the students go to an online social networking site, kind of like Facebook or Myspace and they discuss parties and the election.

One week, I posted this question for students: “I am curious, since women have now come to the forefront of their parties, what explains the lack of discussion of “women’s issues,” in this election?” Of the almost 120 students participating, the responses were universal that this election was historic. Whether they liked or disliked the candidates (and believe me after a few discussions, we knew who liked whom and who despised whom), they could see and respect that this was a real first. Interestingly, the students noted that there was a crowding out effect of the economy and the war and that women’s issues were essentially a luxury that we simply couldn’t afford right now.

One student’s response reflected many others:
‘The lack of the discussion of “women’s issues” in the election is probably due to the issues on Wall Street. The candidates have been bringing the economy and the war to the forefront of the discussions, and women’s issues are not a priority right now; we have to worry about the country as a whole.’

As I read the comment, I couldn’t help but think about Horace Greeley, editor of the once highly influential New York Tribune, and his now somehow ironic invocation to women to wait their turn for suffrage saying “This is a critical period for the Republican party and the Nation. It would be wise and magnanimous in you to hold your claims, though just and imperative I grant, in abeyance until the Negro is safe beyond peradventure, and your turn will come next.” Even now, 150 years later, for Democrats and Republicans alike, it is still not the women’s hour.

What attention to women’s issues has been paid by political parties?
Well, not very much. The party platforms are usually the place we look to see whom the party owes for the election and what the intent of the party is after inauguration. Let me say that the platforms could not be more different. The Republican platform is almost silent on women’s rights. Given that there is a woman on the ticket, one would assume that women’s issues would get central attention; but that’s not so. It may be that the fact that there isn’t a woman on Democratic ticket and there might have been, helps to explain why women’s rights and women’s issues have such a prominent place in the Democratic platform.

The Republican platform mentions of women 19 times of which five times are part of the phrase “men and women,” meaning people. Given the frequency of this phraseology, I think not by chance, right before a section that talks about keeping women out of combat troops and the importance of preserving the military’s esprit de corps, the platform says that the US military is and I quote, “the best manned.” There is no listing of expansion of rights for women, except to provide access for support for minority and women businesses, protection for women as crime victims and to provide federally funded gun training for programs for seniors and women. There are three mentions of women with respect to denying abortion. All other mentions are to say how good the “men and women” of something are or that they will look for good men and women judges for the federal bench.The Democratic platform mentions women directly 51 times only four of which uses women in the sense of “men and women,” meaning people. Except for the specific references for protection of crime victims and domestic violence prevention, almost all of the other references are in terms of securing comparable treatment or expanding rights for women.

So the democratic platform talks about women’s issues, even if its candidates do not. The republican platform does not even pick up on many of the traditional family values of women’s issues. This compels us to ask why are these prominent female politicians paying so little public attention to women’s issues?

Well, there are three main reasons.
First, we used to elect candidates based on party affiliation, but as we move from party-centered campaigns to candidate-centered campaigns, the party’s platform doesnt matter half as much as the candidate’s personal story. The candidate is not courting the party bosses but the individual voter and that voter needs to see the presidential candidate as a real person, preferably one with whom he would like to drink a beer.

I will spend less time with Hillary’s campaign because she’s out of the running. But, essentially, she was overwhelmingly able to convince voters that she was competent to serve as president. What she couldn’t explain to voters is how her eight years as a first lady would help her as president. I mean really, what guy wants to hang out with someone who insists the wife could be a welder because he’s a welder. That’s how her message came off, every time. Once Hillary dropped the ‘first lady as preparation’ and focused on the disaffected worker and the middle class, her numbers soared. Unfortunately for her, it was too late in the campaign.

Palin’s candidacy is even more complicated, especially for women. She represents both female empowerment and traditional femininity. She is attractive and accomplished. Down to earth and polished. (This may be the image we had before we heard about the $150,00 in clothing, hair, and handlers, but okay, she still looks great and can shoot a moose, for goodness sakes!) She is a mother of 5 and a career woman with support from her husband at home. How many women don’t dream of that combination? Over time, it became clear that she was more image than substance. That said, if John McCain wins, it will be because of her, not in spite of her. All in all, she is everything that liberal feminists have fought for. She is simultaneously the symbol of the perfect home-work balance and the symbol of everything they despise: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-beauty-queen as accomplishment. She is a woman who made her own way, on male terms, and won. To use her parlance, she’s a pit bull with lipstick.

She’s complicated.

But why wouldn’t she talk about women’s issues? Well, like Clinton, Palin wanted to increase her male vote. Campaigns expect that women vote for women, so, women candidates need to reach out to the center and court male voters, which, brings them away from female voters. This belief may be kind of silly because we know that when Senators Elizabeth Dole and Carol Moseley-Braun ran for president or when Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president, none of them got the women’s vote. Still that assumption was probably enough for John McCain to select Palin. And that is what moved both Clinton and Palin to more generic public issues, toward WE issues.

Back to candidate centered politics: Palin swung from traditionally female issues, because her story of being a woman is compelling enough. She doesn’t have to prove that she has something to say about women’s issues. She has to tell her story. Raising five children while working full time is gravitas enough in the women’s department. But, she had to prove that she had something to say about universal citizen or men’s issues. Election day will tell us if she was able to convince enough voters.

Second, women running and serving in positions of power have traditionally had to appear harder and tougher to prove themselves. This is not an American phenomenon. We can see around the world that the women’ who break the glass political ceiling are perceived as tough, not women’s supporters. Just to name a few, think about Golda Meir – Israeli prime minister, known as ‘the only man in the cabinet,’ or Margaret Thatcher, English prime minister, known as the ‘iron lady,’ or newer on the scene, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson – Liberian president, first democratically elected woman president in Africa, named by Forbes magazine as the 51st most powerful woman in the world, known as ‘Africa’s iron lady.’ She may be progressive but she no shrinking violet.

Moving women’s issues to center stage won’t likely come from the left. Much as it took a Nixon to open China to the west or a Clinton to change welfare as we knew it, it will probably take a conservative republican male to make real change for state supported childcare or for other critical women’s issues. But that’s another issue.

Palin’s swing has worked with men. Men like her; women, surprisingly don’t. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey in the last week of the campaign showed that 62 percent of men questioned had a favorable opinion of Palin in comparison to 55 percent of women.

Third and related, women’s issues often present women as victims, needing either assistance like rape victims or domestic violence victims or underpaid, exploited workers. How can a candidate present herself as a capable, commander in chief when she’s talking about earning 76 cents for every dollar, or being a battered spouse, or being left behind in divorce proceedings? When women talk about those issues they sound like victims, not agents of their own and by extension, our destinies? Women’s issues don’t make women sound strong. We want a strong commander in chief, not someone who needs protection.

If we’re not talking about traditional women’s issues what are we talking about with respect to women voters?
Clothes! Seriously, we as a nation are really having some discussions, even if the candidates aren’t leading and even if the public is entirely pushing the issues to the forefront. We are having a national discussion about issues that may start with women’s issues but really are human issues and values issues. We are talking about if we really can have it all – family, job and meaningful relationship. We are talking about if parents are responsible when their children don’t turn out the way they expected. We are talking about the disparate treatment of women vying for public office or even for any job of consequence. We are talking about the fact that women have to spend so much extra time and money on appearance which takes away from time they could have spent on something productive.

This discussion, like all of these discussions, is not limited to the presidential race, but to all of our lives. We are having a national discussion if we are ready to be led by a woman many don’t like but respect or by a woman many like but don’t respect. These values discussions go far deeper than any presidential election in the last few decades and really question American values in the 21st century. These discussions may be the real sign of women’s entrance into the highest rungs of the political arena.

What issues that concern women should we be thinking about as a result of this election?
Well, if the candidates are not going to discuss the spectrum of traditionally women’s issues, then, perhaps we should think about some alternative women’s issues that also haven’t gotten much play:

There are currently eight female governors (three republicans and five democrats.) Even if all four that are in contention win their races, there will be still one less woman governor because of term limits on RuthAnn Miner in Delaware. If Palin takes the vice presidency, make that two less. Whoever wins the White House will be looking for women of profile (probably from both parties to prove his bipartisanship and attention to women) for their cabinets and various executive branch posts. I would speculate that they will be looking at the pool of governors and that some governors will leave their gubernatorial posts for swankier Washington posts. That would reduce the number of women in executive positions nationwide.

Second, there are some very tight congressional races that could sharply reduce the number of female republicans in office. All 435 seats are up for grabs. There are fewer female democrats in tight races, but there could be as many as five new women in the House. There are also three women senatorial seats up for grabs, two republicans and one democrat (Dole, Collins, and Landrieu, respectively.) Collins and Landrieu are expected to keep their seats. Three women are major party contenders for senatorial seats, including Dole’s. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in New Hampshire stands a real chance against incumbent John Sununu.

Third, if Palin doesn’t win, what will she do in 2012? What about Hillary next time around? I don’t see any other female viable democrat, but 2012 is a long way off. Finally, the issue that usually takes center stage as we wrestle with Roe v Wade for now the fourth decade, the Supreme Court could have as many as three vacancies this term. McCain has promised conservative justices. If Ginsburg stays and either Powell or Souter leaves, there is little hope for any progressive political decisions from the bench. If Ginsburg leaves, there would be no women on the court.

So, I think we’ve been talking about women’s issues, just not the ones we usually think about when we think of women’s issues. Maybe we’ve been having an indirect discussion. Maybe this is what it looks like when women are really in positions of power. Or maybe this election is a dress rehearsal and someday we’ll be ready for the real thing.

About Valerie Young

Valerie Young is a public policy analyst who focuses on the economic status of mothers and other family caregivers. She promotes social justice by arming mothers with information and a healthy dose of outrage. She is the Advocacy Coordinator at the National Association of Mothers' Centers, and is a reporter for The Shriver Report and contributor to Brain/Child Magazine. Follow her blog, Your (Wo)Man in Washington, on Twitter @WomanInDC and on Facebook as Valerie Young and Your (Wo)Man in Washington.

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