You've Come a Long Way, Maybe
Will Women Sweep Hillary Into the White House?

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.

There are some constants. Most of the women read People and Real Simple magazines. They all listen to news on the car radio, mostly National Public Radio. And almost all their full-time working husbands consume immeasurably more political information than they do ("He reads 10 times what I do," one told me), reading news magazines and political Web sites and bringing home political information from their jobs. The women gather little information from their almost exclusively female society of other stay-at-home moms.

They all said that after Clinton announced, they were "really excited." "She's been in politics a long time," a woman coincidentally named Hillary said. "She's tough as nails," added another gleefully. Jennifer, meanwhile, was won by Clinton's "combination of soft edges, as a mother and a nurturer and a strong person."

No one focused on any political agenda, policy or program. What seemed to matter to them all was character. Jennifer contrasted herself with her husband, who, while a Democrat, was not so sure he would support Clinton. "He doesn't look at character or personality," she said. "He's very much of an issue/policy person. I look at the whole picture."

Explaining why she did not vote for George W. Bush in 2000 even though she expressed concern over taxes, Hillary said: "I just could not get past the fact that I didn't like the man."

As inattentive as they were to Clinton's policy record, they were knowledgeable about her biography. They saw her as "smart" and determined not to be just another first lady. They were sorry that she had failed in her first foray into national policymaking with her health-care proposal. They understood her withdrawal into the East Wing and party-throwing as a necessary concession to her husband's career needs.

But they were clearly defensive about her decision to stay the course after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "She set herself up in her life," one explained, "to get wherever she wanted to go. That's what men do all the time. . . . When a woman does it, what's wrong with that?"

I had such mixed feelings listening to these women describe their political selves. They're clearly idealistic, want to be good citizens, make an effort to get the information they need. It was hard not to like them. Their delight in seeing a woman so close to real power was palpable. Yet I couldn't escape the fact that they took in little of politics, especially compared with their husbands, that their decision-making seemed impulsive and that their response to Clinton's candidacy was driven to an amazing extent by personality.

They unwittingly confirmed my theory about why women don't decide elections. But that theory is supported by a wealth of statistical information, too.

Women have voted more Democratic than men recently, but since the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, only once has the women's vote arguably been different enough from the men's vote to determine the outcome of a presidential election. In 1980, 1984 and 1988, more women, like men, favored the winning Republican candidate over the losing Democrat. Geraldine Ferraro's presence on the Democratic ticket in 1984 apparently made little difference. In 1992, more women, like men, favored the winning Democrat over the losing Republican. The men's vote was so divided in 1996 that exit polls show Clinton one percentage point behind among men (a statistical tie), while winning the female vote. In 2004, more women, unlike men, favored the losing Democrat, but by such a small majority (51 percent) that they had no effect on the outcome of the male-driven election. Since the '96 elections was so close among men, it's fair to say that only in 2000 did women clearly part company with men, voting for Democrat Al Gore in large enough numbers to offset the male votes for Bush -- but the female majorities were not distributed among enough states to carry the electoral college.

Any campaign that needs women to win would have to break the 88-year record of women failing to produce election results that men oppose.

To this day -- as even my D.C. area correspondents seemed to confirm -- women just aren't as interested in politics as men are. The Center for Civic Education recently reported that American women are less likely than men to discuss politics, contribute to campaigns, contact public officials or join a political organization. About 42 percent of men told University of Michigan researchers last year that "they are 'very interested' in government and public affairs, compared with 34 percent of women."

Worse, women consistently score 10 to 20 percentage points lower than men on studies of political knowledge, regardless of their education or income level. Studies dating to 1997 have shown that fewer women than men can name their senator, or know one First Amendment right. They even know less about the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade than men do.

As a 2006 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press put it, American adults live in "A World of His and Hers." Two million more men than women read either Time or Newsweek; more men listen to radio news and talk radio, read the paper and get news online. Only broadcast television news plays to more women than men, and a lot of that is TV news magazines and morning shows. Not only do fewer women read the newspaper, but almost half the women surveyed said they "sometimes do not follow international news because of excessive coverage of wars and violence."

So-called liberal women are the majority of swing voters -- those tantalizing independent late deciders -- in every election. While men remained committed to Republicans Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush throughout the campaigns, women polled heavily for Democrats Walter F. Mondale, Michael S. Dukakis and John F. Kerry as late as September before settling in to vote Republican or anemically Democratic in November.

So what does all this mean for Hillary Clinton, or any woman who would be president?

First, when it comes to women who vote, the political is the personal. The Wednesday Morning women spoke passionately about Clinton's public and private travails but seemed oddly indifferent to her position on the Iraq war. If the polls continue to reflect male aversion to her beyond the baseline male Republican tilt, Clinton may have to go personal to bring the women home. Maybe she could get a couch on casters.

Unlike the married suburban women she must attract in large numbers, Clinton didn't stay home from work. Remember the "baking cookies" remark? On the other hand, she has had the soap opera story of the century with that charismatic, faithless husband. This has made her suffer, something one of the Wednesday women specifically singled out as a reason to support a candidate. Will she be willing to open that old wound to convince potential female supporters that her policies, such as universal child health care, arise out of her concern for women like them, rather than being just the usual liberal agenda? Worse, if she does play the wronged wife again, does she risk alienating the women who think she should have left her husband long ago?

The second lesson is that elections that turn on the female electorate bear an unfortunate resemblance to a popularity contest. The Republicans have succeeded with women at the polls when they've made Democrats look not just mistaken, but clownish or geeky. Reagan in blue jeans beat Jimmy Carter in a cardigan. George H.W. Bush looked like John Wayne next to Dukakis peering over the edge of a tank in a helmet. And who knows what would have happened if Kerry hadn't donned a wetsuit to go wind-surfing? Even the devil wears Prada. And women know it.

If Clinton is going to stand a chance in 2008, her campaign may have to discredit the Republican nominee. As political scientist Dianne Bystrom has found, it doesn't hurt female candidates when they go negative, and if women are going to make their political decisions based on impulse, then anyone needing their votes is going to have to make sure no one wants to sit with the other guy in the cafeteria. It was illuminating how often the Wednesday women spoke of Clinton's toughness.

A suffering wife and mother whose campaign mysteriously unleashes attacks on her opponents? It's not the current game plan, no doubt. But I'm drawing on the lessons of history. I'd rather promote cheery stories of the gender gap -- but those stories are just a diversion from the hard work of bringing women into the world of governance. Mark my words: Those who do not study women's history are doomed to repeat its failures.

Linda Hirshman, author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World" (Viking), is a retired professor of women's studies.

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