By Linda Hirshman
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Maria Shriver sure has great hair. Stepping up to the microphone at a girl-power rally in Los Angeles on Feb. 3, California's first lady tossed her tawny tresses with authority and instructed Golden State women to vote for Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary on Super Tuesday. So urgent was the matter, she said, that she had come to the rally "straight from my daughter's riding lesson."
Two days later, working-class California women, many of whom can't even afford to give their daughters health care, much less riding lessons, ignored Shriver's mane-shaking advice and voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by a margin of 2 to 1, even as many of their better-off sisters fell into lockstep with the Kennedy heiress.
And there we have one of the most puzzling conundrums of the 2008 Democratic contests. Black voters of all socioeconomic classes are voting for the black candidate. Men are voting for the male candidate regardless of race or class. But even though this is also a year with the first major female presidential candidate, women are split every way they can be. They're the only voting bloc not voting their bloc.
For the Clinton campaign, this is devastating. A year ago, chief strategist Mark Penn proclaimed that the double-X factor was going to catapult his candidate all the way to the White House. Instead, the women's vote has fragmented. The only conclusion: American women still aren't strategic enough to form a meaningful political movement directed at taking power. Will they ever be?
Penn was right about the importance of the women's vote. About 57 percent of the voters in the Democratic primaries so far have been women. As of Feb. 12, Clinton had a lead of about seven percentage points over Obama among them (24 points among white women). But the Obama campaign reached out to the fair sex, following Clinton's announcement of women-oriented programs with similar ones within a matter of weeks. I can imagine the strategists for the senator from Illinois thinking, "What's that song in Verdi's 'Rigoletto'?" Women are fickle.
Turns out it's true.
From the moment the primary season began, the group "women" divided along racial lines. Black women have backed Obama by more than 78 percent. But even after subtracting that group, white women (including Hispanics) are still the single largest demographic in the party, at 44 percent. If they voted as a bloc, it would take only a little help from any other bloc to elect the female candidate. White women favor Clinton. So why is she trailing as the contest heads to Ohio and Texas?
The answer is class. As of Feb. 19, the day of the Wisconsin primary, ABC pollster Gary Langer found that white women with a college degree had favored Clinton in the primaries by 13 percent up to that point. Among less educated women, meanwhile, she commanded a robust 38-point lead. But each passing week since Super Tuesday has seen a further erosion in support for the senator from New York among the educated classes. In Wisconsin, she won a minority of college-educated women. And unless there's some sort of miracle turnaround in Ohio and Texas, this is what may cost her the Democratic nomination.
This isn't the class divide I would have predicted a year ago. Among women, the obvious thing would be for lower-income, non-college-educated white and black women to line up behind the candidate with the more generous social platform. Both Clinton and Obama have generous platforms, but Clinton's health-care plan is more ambitious, and she was the first to propose mandatory paid family leave (which mostly women take). But women, black and white, stubbornly refuse to behave according to a strict model of economic self-interest. Black women of all income levels have gone for Obama.
Even before Wisconsin, a plurality of elite white women split off from their poorer counterparts to vote for Obama. So did many of their opinion leaders -- Shriver and her Kennedy cousin Caroline, and powerful female governors including Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.
Ominously for Clinton, the feminist movement split, generating a large number of "scribbling women" all over the blogosphere describing the gender-trumping call of the Obama candidacy. Before Super Tuesday, the group New York Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama! published a letter endorsing the senator from Illinois. Most of the signatories were educated elites -- including Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, women's rights historians Alice Kessler-Harris and Linda Gordon and actress Susan Sarandon.
Belatedly, an equally prestigious group of feminist leaders -- icon Gloria Steinem, historian Christine Stansell, former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt -- posted a counter-manifesto on behalf of Clinton on the Huffington Post Web site. But man bites dog, right? The mainstream media narrative became how feminists have failed to endorse the first major female presidential candidate.
So many feminists' turn to solidarity with their own class is a surprise. For decades, they've been loudly proclaiming their loyalty to working-class women and criticizing reporters for writing chiefly about elite women who resemble themselves. Before the election got hot, Ellen Bravo, longtime director of 9 to 5, a national association of working women, asserted that working mothers "with more opportunities" must "take a stand with those who have fewer." I've been the target of some of the more pointed criticism myself, for writing a book about educated women quitting their jobs for motherhood. Nation writer Liza Featherstone "guessed" that my life did not look "very much like that of a Starbucks barista."
Now, though, many of the same women trumpeting the barista reality disagree with most working-class white women about which candidate would be better for the working class. Just look at Internet millionaire Joan Blades, co-founder of the political Web site MoveOn.org and the women's Internet group MomsRising.org, whose signature issue is paid family leave. Clinton was the first candidate to propose such leave, but MoveOn endorsed Obama. The working-class members of the Service Employees International Union are 56 percent female. But even after working-class women in California ignored the local SEIU recommendation to back Obama, the national executive board endorsed him, again splitting the leadership from the workers.
Female governors, lifelong feminists, union leaders, moms rising -- all rushing into the Obama camp. What's going on?
Maybe Obama is the best candidate, and these highly educated women, with their greater political savvy, have recognized his value. A less charitable explanation is that college-educated women don't need the social safety net as much as their less fortunate sisters do, so Clinton's early stand on family leave or her slightly more generous health-care plan aren't as important to them.
Or maybe it has to do with what Pollitt expressed in a recent blog posting: "On foreign policy Obama seems more enlightened, as in less bellicose." Educated women focusing more on foreign policy fits with what we know about women and politics. Although at every class level, women know less than men do about politics in general, they know more as their education level goes up. So it may be that foreign policy issues are more salient to women with a college degree.
Or it could just be that women with more education (and more money) relate on a subconscious level to the young and handsome Barack and Michelle Obama, with their white-porticoed mansion in one of the cooler Chicago neighborhoods and her Jimmy Choo shoes.
Or it's something less analyzable.
When faced with a "movement," resistance is costly. And for weeks now, online and on cable news channels, almost anyone who expresses criticism of Obama or support for Clinton has elicited a firestorm of disapproval. Obama's scores of defenders -- "Obamabots," they're called -- immediately recite the anti-Clinton litany: Billary, Monica Lewinsky, Hillary's Iraq war vote, identity politics. Well-regarded activists such as Planned Parenthood's Feldt or successful writers such as Tina Fey who support Clinton are excoriated as worthless pieces of nonsense. After Steinem wrote an op-ed on Clinton's behalf in the New York Times, the New Republic published an article titled "Gloria Steinem's Awful Op Ed." Not wrong. Not misguided. But "awful."
Has this rhetorical firestorm had an effect on the political decisions of college-educated white women? I don't know. But I do know that many of these women have succeeded by meeting or exceeding society's expectations. And the movement quality of the Obama campaign has certainly raised expectations of commitment to its candidate well beyond those of a normal political campaign. This has to be generating powerful peer pressure.
The commentary can feel like something close to intimidation, a gantlet of verbal punishment meted out to anyone who dares to disagree. It's well established social science that women on the whole are much more averse to political conflict than men are, so it's fair to speculate that avoiding that gantlet may be one more reason women are tilting toward Obama.
Whatever the explanation, the Clinton campaign could now be stuttering to its close, and Mark Penn has been criticized for everything from short-sightedness about the primary schedule to overspending on sandwich platters. But those failures pale beside the biggest one of all: not recognizing the fickleness of the female voter.