Linda Hirshman

You've Come a Long Way, Maybe

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By Linda Hirshman
Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hillary Rodham Clinton sure got it right when she announced her candidacy for president while sitting on her living room couch. Her success may very well turn on the decisions of millions of women sitting on their living room couches.

Clinton advisers James Carville and Mark Penn have said they're counting on a women's vote (the "X factor") to catapult their client into the White House. They're obviously hoping that a female candidate will get much more support from women and are banking on the "gender gap," the idea, trumpeted by the media and women's organizations, that women believe in liberal policies and will therefore, as rational political actors, support the Democratic Party.

But I have news for Messrs. Carville and Penn: All the gender gap talk notwithstanding, there's no guarantee that Clinton would receive enough votes from women to be elected. I've studied women and women's politics for 20 years, and if there's one thing I know, it's that, except for possibly once in 1996, female voters have not by themselves put anyone in the White House.

If Clinton is going to attract the women she needs, she's probably going to have to do something more than simply have a pair of X chromosomes herself. And much as it pains a feminist like me to say it, a lot of her campaign will have to involve putting her on the couch and analyzing her character and motivation. Again.

In every election, there's a chance that women will be the decisive force that will elect someone who embraces their views. Yet they seem never to have done so, and I've never seen a satisfactory answer as to why. My own theory is that women don't decide elections because they're not rational political actors -- they don't make firm policy commitments and back the candidates who will move society in the direction they want it to go. Instead, they vote on impulse, and on elusive factors such as personality.

With Clinton's candidacy on the horizon, I decided to test my theory by asking a few white, married women -- the key demographic -- what they are up to this time.

If any women were going to be politically aware, I figured, it would be those in the Washington area. So I contacted half a dozen members of the Wednesday Morning Group, a D.C. area organization that provides speakers and programs mostly for stay-at-home moms. (One even told me I had caught her sitting on her living room couch.)

All the women voted in the midterm elections last year and intend to vote in 2008. But how do they decide which lever to pull? My small sampling is admittedly unscientific, but what they told me reveals a lot about why campaigning to women is so tricky.

A 49-year-old former public relations executive in suburban Maryland told me she votes the political agenda she learned from her lefty father. She reads The Washington Post, but there are no books on her bedside table. She counts on her husband to tell her what's in the Nation magazine and on the Web.

A 36-year-old former financial sales executive considers herself an independent, reads only the Style and Weekend sections of The Post and the Marketplace and Personal Journal sections of the Wall Street Journal, and also counts on her husband, a Republican, to tell her what's interesting in the rest of the paper.

A former human rights activist told me that she still reads the New York Times, skims the Economist, and gathers political information from PBS's "News Hour," a local broadcast from the BBC and from her church.

Neither the former teacher nor the retired television reporter read any newspapers at all.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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