Saturday, July 31, 2010

Electing More Women: Just how much of a difference will it make?

Since I’ve spent the past few decades working on ending the under-representation of women in politics, I welcomed the opportunity to attend the Blogher pre-conference workshop led by Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project . I was once an enthusiastic supporter of the White House Project. I’m still a supporter, but recent events have made me less convinced that electing women per se is going to make the enormous difference I once expected.

I’m no longer so certain that women will be more likely to advance pro-women and family-friendly issues. In the past there was considerable evidence supporting that hypothesis. In 2000, in Madam President: shattering the last glass ceiling, Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis wrote:

There is evidence at every level where women have played a role in governing that their politics overall tend toward the progressive side. Research by the Rutgers center for the American Women and politics shows that a conservative woman is more likely to favor somewhat more progressive policies than her conservative male counterpart. If only women’s votes counted in congress, the Family leaves Act and other family friendly legislation would have passed years earlier.

In 2000, when I read Madam President: shattering the last glass ceiling, I thought it was self–evident: if we want family friendly polices, we must elect more women. I have been making this argument for years at political meetings/Women’ Studies conferences/my Women’s Studies classes, and didn’t expect I might have to rethink what I so firmly believed to be the case.

What a difference a decade has made! A new breed of Republican women is upending my expectations about women in politics. There have always been women on the right, but not so many, not so visible. It’s much harder to think of them as outliers. And as Katha Politt in her must-read Nation article, “Grisly Mamas” reminds us:
There are lots of conservative white women voters in America. In 2000, white women went for Bush by one point; in 2004, 55 percent chose Bush over Kerry; and in 2008, after all we'd been through, 53 percent chose McCain over Obama. In a way, when we feminists and progressives talk about "women voters" in that rah-rah EMILY's List way, we are buying our own propaganda, because really it's women of color, especially black women, who push "women" solidly into the Democratic camp...

This mindset explains why so many are surprised that the Tea Party is full of women...A widely cited Quinnipiac University poll reported that the majority of Tea Partyers—55 percent—were women... According to Gallup, women are 45 percent of the Tea Party, but whatever the exact figure, it's safe to say there are a whole lot of Mama Grizzlies out there.

Given these numbers, it should have been no surprise that right wing women such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Sharron Angle should emerge. And not only are they challenging my old belief that women have different political values, but also challenging the idea that women bring a different style. Women were supposed to bring a kinder, gentler, more conciliatory style to the political arena—not act like a pit-bull with lipstick, in Palin's memorable phrase.

This is one consequence of the success of the feminist movement that I didn’t foresee(although I certainly should have): women of all political stripes are entering public life and in some cases building successful political careers based on opposing a women’s fundamental right to control her own body. As Katha Politt puts it:

These days conservative women work, and fundamentalist stay-home moms want to be in public life. They have the same desire for power and respect and a place in the sun that liberal women do.

So if it longer holds that electing more women is a win for feminist values, then does it matter?

Well, yes. Right wing women like Palin, Bachman, Angle do their part to normalize the idea of women in public life. It matters that young girls see women in all walks of life and political persuasions aspiring to and winning high political office

As long as women are under-represented in American political life, I’ll continue to work to increase their representation, but the rise of right wing women has caused me to rethink the probable consequences of gender parity in politics.

True, those societies where women are strongest in political representation have some of the most family friendly policies, but it’s not clear what’s cause and what's effect. Do the Scandinavian counties have generous social welfare policies such as high quality, affordable childcare because relatively high numbers of women are involved in public life? Or do both the policies and the high proportion of women politicians stem from deeper cultural values?

Many feminists have focused on the gender gap in voting patterns–-and it does persist and even widened somewhat in the last election. According to the Center for American Women in Politics :

Obama won the support of a clear majority of women voters (56 percent) compared with Kerry’s very slim majority among women’s voters (51 percent). In contrast, McCain did worse with women voters, attracting only 43 percent of their votes, compared with the 48 percent of women’s votes that George W. Bush won in 2004.

With Obama winning the votes of 46 percent of white women but only 41 percent of white men, a gender gap among white voters was clearly apparent. Obama’s share of white women voters in 2008 also exceeded Kerry’s in 2004 (44 percent).

A gender gap was also evident among Latinos, where 68 percent more of women versus 64percent of men cast votes for Obama. An overwhelming majority of both black women (96percent) and black men (95 percent) supported Obama.

But the gender gap is insignificant compared to the generation gap. According to Pew Research Report, Young Voters in the 2008 Election :

While Obama captured 66% of the youth vote, compared with McCain's 31%, voters age 30 and older divided roughly evenly between the two candidates. Among those ages 18-29, Obama took a majority among whites (54%-44%), and captured more than three-fourths of young Hispanic voters (76%-19%) and a margin of 95%-4% among young black voters.

Maybe the focus of feminists should be on getting more young women into the political pipelines.

Bottom line: I’m still committed to equal representation, but no longer so convinced it will lead to a kinder, more egalitarian nation.


  1. Jessica Grose has a brief piece in today's XX Factor at noting a few recent instances of right wing women impugning the manhood of their opponents. Though not frequent enough to constitute a trend, it's a repellant turning on its head of old fears about feminism and emasculation: now we have fake feminists sneering at their verbally castrated targets. They're presented in many media as women to be reckoned with...and I guess they are.

  2. Reni,
    Thanks so much for alerting me to Jessica Grose's piece.
    I just checked it out at
    And you are making a very good point about "turning on its head old fears about feminism and emasculation."

  3. My mother was an ardent feminist and an ardent Republican. She was anti-abortion, anti-men, all business, and thoroughly confusing. She didn't question herself much and she was certain that, if she did it, it was right.

    I have the same reaction to Palin; head-spinning confusion and disbelief. I don't get the feeling she's pro-woman; I get the feeling she's utterly pro-Palin and believes that, if it occurs to her or happens to her, it's got to be right. I imagine she has as much self-doubt as a gnat. And I seriously doubt that she considers herself to be in the same league as the majority of her female followers; I think she's always believed she's head and shoulders above ordinary women--an elitist who somehow fools the commoners. Call me harsh for saying so, but I've heard it said that one of the key features of evil is its power to confuse.

  4. Nance, I agree completely that Palin "is utterly pro-Palin and believes that, if it occurs to her or happens to her, it's got to be right."

    Did you see Jacob Weisberg’s “A Grand Unified Theory of Palinisms: Why Sarah Palin says all those stupid and ridiculous things. at
    Definitely worth a read!

  5. Hi Karen and Nancy, Here's another piece on Palin's self-promotion and the extent of media complicity in her advertisements for herself (okay, Mailer isn't the most apt feminist reference point):

  6. This reinforces my decision not to do twitter!