Outlook: Hillary and Women Voters -- Don't Count on It

Linda Hirshman
Author and Feminist
Monday, January 29, 2007; 2:00 PM

Linda Hirshman, author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World" was online Monday, Jan. 29, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her Sunday Outlook article on why Hillary Clinton won't be able to rely on women's votes in 2008.

You've Come a Long Way, Maybe, ( Post, Jan. 28)

The transcript follows.


Alexandria, Va.: Your essay was so full of biases that I found myself gasping in outrage over and over again. If women vote impulsively and are influenced by personality, that is not any different from male voters in general. The small sample of your research was probably at least as well informed as the average American voter (NPR, the Economist, the New York Times?) -- across the country, that is, not the erudite circles you apparently inhabit. Did you actually interview the husbands of these women or just took their word for it that their husbands were better-informed than they were? In my experience women often defer to their husband's superior knowledge but in fact know at least as much as they do. They also tend to downplay themselves and their abilities. Men generally are perceived to be more knowledgeable and smarter than women but that bias should not appear in an article such as yours. Also your contempt toward stay-at-home moms was very much in evidence. Why were those women hard not to like? Were you trying not to like them?

Does the fact that women are less interested in foreign wars mean that women's actual concerns are less important in the political arena? I look forward to reading your comments. Thanks.

Linda Hirshman: I think it would be useful for any discussion to include the professional statistical data that I used and reported.

It is, as the article clearly says: 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 let us let go of the "small sample of my research."

After the gasping and the outrage, there is a good question here: Does the fact that women are less interested in foreign wars mean that women's actual concerns are less important in the political arena?

The only political action that any of the women I interviewed talked about was her effort to be sure the boys were fairly treated at her son's school. Let that stand for women who are responsible for the family and men for the foreign policy. Sometimes domestic concerns like school policy are more important, certainly. But in a time of a bloody, symbolically and historically significant foreign policy position like an actual war -- which is, by all accounts, not only war, but a war that is going pretty badly for the nation state -- I would say that an interest in foreign war would be, at this time, substantially and indisputably more important than most other concerns.


Arlington, VA: I've seen some female candidates struggle with the voting block that seems most likely to support them -- other women. I don't know if it's because women are more critical of other women, if they see women who aspire to political office as too career-focused ... I'd like to hear Ms. Hirshman's thoughts on this dilemma some female candidates face.

Linda Hirshman: I think female candidates struggle with women voters because they think they need extra support from the women voters, because they think the man will be marginally predisposed against them. So it makes the female voters more important.


Cleveland: Is it really fair to say that women are "not rational political actors?" A rational agent is one who makes decisions for what is best based on reasonable motives. The criteria of "personality," however "elusive," still is a reasonable criterion, I think. Why? Because a president is something more than a bundle of "policy commitments" but instead a person who will face challenges as yet unspecified (think of the unforeseen event of 9/11 for Bush). Personality may be a better factor in assessing the competence of a president than "policy commitments," however important.

Linda Hirshman: This is a very good question. I do not think that the individuals vary all that much on personality. They are politicians, similarly educated (Yale Law School, Harvard Law School), relatively people-oriented and without obvious mental illnesses. So I would say, especially since the parties are philosophically quite different, that a rational actor would choose based on the philosophical and policy differences between the candidates.


Alexandria, Va.: Couldn't it be possible that women ARE interested in these big foreign-policy issues, but don't like the way they are framed and talked about? The male perspective still is in control, with the result that politics is a horse race, foreign policy is a shout-fest, and everything comes down to winning or losing, not shades of gray.

Linda Hirshman: So the response would be not to participate? Why not participate -- educate yourself, donate or raise money, work in campaigns, ask questions? We have a clear divide on foreign policy now, for example, with the Iraq study group proposing a diplomacy-heavy foreign policy rather than a shout-fest, and the Bush administration ridiculing them as naive and out-of-touch. This is a golden opportunity for a political person to weigh in on the side of not-the-shout-fest. I'm not saying which position is right on Iraq, just that there is plenty of room for action. The opt-out revolution is not a revolution at all. It's a cop-out.


Chicago: Ms. Hirshman, thank you for your time. Do you think that Senator Clinton's remarks in the last couple of years on abortion -- in particular her stated view that anti-abortion rights activists and politicians deserve civility and respect in policy debates on the topic -- will hurt her among women, or will have no net effect? Do you think that women treat abortion as a make-or-break issue in general?

Linda Hirshman: I do not see data indicating that women treat abortion as a make-or-break issue. I am not saying that they are right to be so cavalier about it, but that's what the data show. Civility and respect in policy debates hardly seems like a controversial platform, even if campaigns that honor it often lose!


Ballston, Va.: The idea that Hillary may need to go negative on her opponent to help seal the deal with needed women voters is very risky. If she's the nominee, I have no doubt that campaign attacks on her will be seen through a gender lens by many. But what everyone is going to miss is that the reverse is true too. Assuming the Republican nominee is male -- there are a great many men of all political stripes who are very sensitive about perceived man-bashing (there are reasons why men avoid "chick flicks" and much of the TV programming that tends to appeal to women). If Hillary herself goes negative in a way that can be perceived as personal attacks, there are a lot of male voters who won't vote for her that might otherwise have considered it because the gender issue cuts both ways. Predictably, nobody has given this dynamic much thought. But I'm tellin' ya, it's there -- big time.

Linda Hirshman: So you are saying that men would vote for Clinton except that they can't stand the idea of a woman engaging in negative campaigning? I wonder how many men there are in that category.


Los Alamos, N.M.: Seems like the WP runs an article almost every day on how doubtful it is that Hillary Clinton can win the Presidency. All of this with Hillary having the highest poll ratings of any candidate. I don't vote like a girl and never did -- I vote like a woman. Why is the WP so down on the first woman to have a really good crack at the Presidency? Hillary has my vote.

Linda Hirshman: I don't think this is a doubting article. It's more a reality check based on the ample amount of data out there. I have a posting on the New Republic Open University blog, FYI, about how I think she read my article Saturday -- because she's doing exactly what I recommended!


Washington: Of Course Hillary can't rely on just women voting for her. She's not dumb. But will women, who might not necessarily agree with her, vote for her because she represents something much larger?

Linda Hirshman: Great question. I think they may, from my little conversation "survey." The women seemed to be focused on the political symbolism of a female candidate. That is a political act, even though it's not a policy decision.


New York: What people do not understand is that strong powerful woman can be admired -- like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Margaret Thatcher. Hillary Clinton's problem is not being a woman, rather being Hillary Clinton!

Linda Hirshman: Of course Kirkpatrick never ran for anything and Thatcher comes from a different culture. You should see the vituperative, loony, "killedVinceFoster" garbage that came out from under rocks and to my Web address since I mentioned the word "Hillary" in print Saturday. It is so far beyond what normally appears in political discourse about others, even on the vulgar and uncensored Web sites. I do not envy her.


Washington: Unlike the uninformed, politically unaware women you cited in your interesting article, I (29, female, lawyer) have problems with HRC precisely because of policy issues. I can't trust her to support the policies that I support. She voted in favor of the war, got into all that anti-flag-burning nonsense and really lost me when she spoke of "the tragedy of abortion" (I firmly support reproductive rights, and they're so under attack that the last thing I need is to vote for a "Democrat" willing to undermine them). It's obvious to me that she just adopts whatever position her pollsters tell her will advance whatever personal agenda she has from day to day. Why do some people seem to assume that we female voters should just vote for any woman? I want a candidate who will support the policies I want them to support, be they male, female, black, white, whatever.

Linda Hirshman: Well, here's a good question. Would you rather have a candidate win after compromising on some issues you care about, or would you rather have her be pure and not in office? There was a good article about Rahm Emanuel in the Chicago Tribune after the election in November in which he decried the kind of purity you articulate and bemoaned that too many Democrats would rather be right (meaning left) than President.


Washington: As a young female professional who is well educated, liberal, and works for Democratic causes, I should be among those in Hillary's "shoo-in" category. Yet I am not excited about her bid and general election chances. As a Hillary fan in the '90s, she has since alienated me with her transparent and deliberate shift to appeal to the center, seemingly trying to appeal to the moderates she may never get while losing the liberals she already had. How can she try to re-appeal to the Party's base and others like me?

Linda Hirshman: See answer to similar question.


Philadelphia: If there is a gender difference in terms of attention paid to politics and world affairs, why do you think that is? Is there something about the way women are socialized that would lead them to be less interested or vice versa? Is it because the major players in these issues mostly are men?

Linda Hirshman: From time out of mind, western culture and doubtless other cultures that I know less about have assumed that women are from nature and men are from culture -- in other words, that men are responsible for the built environment and women for making babies. Although we have indeed come a long way, it is hard to see the data and not think that women continue to be socialized, and to choose to be socialized, to occupy themselves with the private, the individual, the family, the children. Just looking at the "baking cookies" submissions to this live chat makes me think about how hard it is to get out of the kitchen. But whatever is is not necessarily right. Women are human, and politics is part of the realm of the human. My work is aimed at breaking the iron bands of men are from culture and so forth. If Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- mother of, god knows, eight or something -- could see that women belonged in the world of politics, surely we literate, liberated, birth control-empowered, law school-educated women can see it too.


New York: Linda, I actually enjoy reading you precisely because of the rational nuggets one finds in your writing amid very polemic language. I can't help but feel, though, that the very women you wish would be enlightened are exactly the ones most likely to be turned off by that language, as evidenced by some of the questions so far -- they get tripped up by the language and can't see through to the important stuff. So it seems we're back to square one? Or is it through incensing talk that your rational nuggets get more exposure and potentially enlighten a wider audience?

Linda Hirshman: To paraphrase Rebecca West, I don't know what it means to use polemical language, except that's what people tell me I am doing every time I say something that distinguishes me from a doormat. What I look at is the stifling and self-satisfied consensus that women aren't doing what all the data says they are doing or that it's okay for them to be more concerned about their son's school than about the thousands of people dying in Iraq. I don't know how to break through the stifling and self-satisfied consensus except through strong assertions of the rational.


Washington: From having participated in the planning for the anti-war march yesterday, I know that at least half of the primary leadership and a lot of the grass-roots workers were women -- do activist women differ from non-activist?

Linda Hirshman: By definition, no?


University Park, Md.: As an older, male, partisan Democrat, I have been waiting for the "gender gap" to prove decisive, no matter the sex of the candidate. But with Hillary the issue, unfortunately, is Bill. Much as I respected his intelligence and most of his decisions, I really resented the fact that he missed the chance to be a great President because he couldn't control his sordid behavior, his life long habit of adultery. And while I agree that Hillary will have to be very tough if she is to win, there will always be that nagging question. If she put up with his duplicitous behavior over and over again, isn't that a poor reflection on her judgment? It's not fair, but it is real.

Linda Hirshman: People make this argument a lot, and I have a lot of trouble understanding it. If every person who did not divorce an adulterous spouse were barred from running for public office, it would reduce the candidate population substantially, and, coincidentally, given the reported male dominance of adultery statistics, the reduction would come heavily from females. So there must be a strong connection between tolerance of adultery and bad public policy, right? What is that connection? Do you think that a President who did not divorce an adulterous spouse would be more likely to make disastrous foreign policy decisions or unjust and irresponsible domestic policy?

If the connection is, as you say, "judgment," let's consider judgment. If you have a certain life you want to lead and one path (married to Bill Clinton) is going to get you there while another path (divorced from Bill Clinton) is not, then isn't the judgment actually pretty sound? The price was high, no question, but so was the prize. The more I think about this argument the more I think I'd actually prefer a President who is tough-minded enough to see the long-term consequences of his/her acts. Would that we had had such tough-mindedness in recent years, or even had a tougher-minded Bill Clinton, who apparently analyzed the situation and decided a young girl would never confide about her lost love to an office mate.


Princeton, N.J.: Why do I have to type this comment while looking at a woman's bikini bottom in an online ad from a WaPo snake oil advertiser? It's distracting, annoying, humiliating, belittling (with the scroll-overs implying that "cottage cheese thighs" are not sexy!) I forgot what I was going to say. Oh, right. Sorry. Until a shapely brain is considered as attractive as a shapely rear end, women like the ones Hirshman interviewed for the Outlook piece will continue to play dumb and let their husbands do the "thinking." That doesn't mean they don't secretly resent this arrangement. But will they resent Hillary for finding her own way out of this box, or cheer her on with their votes? I'd bet the latter.

Linda Hirshman: I don't see the graphics, but you may be right. That's why there are curtains on polling booths. But why have women not mounted a pro-woman politics long ago? Consider just the tax code and how it discriminates against working married women. No one even proposed changing that.


Washington: Hello Linda -- I can't help but notice your exclusive focus on stay-at-home moms in your efforts to survey women on political views. The last time that I read an article by you in The Post, you were very critical of educated mothers' choice to leave the workforce and stay home with their children. Given that you have been outspoken in the past about stay-at-home moms' choices, why did you focus on their political views and not those of working women?

Linda Hirshman: The wealth of statistics I used polled all sorts of women. It is the case that married women are the swing demographic and that more married women with children are staying home every year, as the Census Bureau just reported.

In my little survey, I was just trying to get some conversations into the mix. Several of the women had part-time jobs, but I could not describe them for fear of violating their privacy, and I did not know when I put up my notice that I would hear only from women who did not work full-time.


Clinton, Md.: What do you think are the most significant weaknesses/challenges that Senator Clinton faces in her bid for the democratic Presidential nomination? Are their any statistics that women are more likely to vote than men in primary elections?

Linda Hirshman: Perhaps we should make this good question the last, as I have cookies in the oven : )

I think she's having too good a time and may get careless. Yesterday's wisecrack was definitely the sign of someone feeling her oats on the platform. As a woman who also loves being in the spotlight and having a microphone, I know its seductive power, and I wonder if she will slip; it only takes once in this superheated "macaca" environment. It's a delicate balance between the wonderful humanizing quality of her sense of humor and being vulnerable to the smarmy, false innocence of those who ask her "what she meant" in an effort to make her say something that humor leaves unsaid.


Cambridge, Mass.: Some newspapers have reported recently that Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, among others, have emphasized their "mother" credentials, surrounded themselves with children, etc. What do you think of this strategy/framing, especially in light of recent Democratic Party efforts to run more "alpha-male" candidates such as Jim Webb?

Linda Hirshman: I think those newspapers read my article in The Washington Post!


Linda Hirshman: Great questions, thank you everyone. Now read your papers and vote like a ... citizen. Linda.


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