Behind the hype and fluff, women's votes—not our rights—are key on the campaign trail
Feminists have been talking about the electoral gender gap since the early 1980s, but DC’s power-brokers have finally caught on: in contemporary American politics, a candidate who does not appeal to women voters has about as much chance of winning elective office as Dr. Laura has of receiving “Radio Host of the Year” honors from GLAAD.
When female voters handed Bill Clinton his second term in 1996 –54 percent of women cast their votes for him compared with only 38 percent supporting Bob Dole (WomensEnews.com, 5/24/00) — politicians and the news outlets that cover them took note. Pollsters, pundits and PR hacks are now falling over each other in the race to position their guy as the real “woman’s candidate” in print and broadcast news outlets from the New York Times to CNN to National Public Radio. In public town meetings, online forums, campaign stump speeches and — of course — routine media briefings, Democrats and Republicans promise that theirs is the presidential nominee who will listen to women, care about our needs and work to improve our lives. Politicians offer sound-bite solutions to complicated issues such as child care, health care, education and gun violence, now mainstays on the campaign trail.
Politicians zeroing in on women’s issues? Don’t get too excited.
First and foremost, the definition of “Woman” that informs most discussions of “the women’s vote” is profoundly limited. When candidates or reporters speak of the gender gap, they’re speaking of white women — and especially young, white, middle-class mothers, the “soccer moms” who’ve garnered so much ink in recent years. But soccer moms aren’t the voters primarily responsible for the gender gap–women of color, often invisible in these discussions, are.
As Harvard professor Anna Greenberg told a New York conference on gender and politics, “For reasons that have to do with race rather than gender, 92 percent of black women supported Democratic candidates in [the 1998] congressional elections, and that was enough for the overall women’s vote to lean Democratic.” Likewise, a strong majority of Latinas (63 percent) supported Democratic congressional candidates — compared with only 46 percent of white women (WomensEnews.com, 4/26/00). Yet despite the fact that minority women gave Democrats 53 percent of the overall women’s vote, women of color are still marginalized both on the campaign trail and in media coverage of the gender gap. (It goes without saying that this marginalization is also experienced by women who are working-class, lesbian, bisexual, disabled, or childless.)
Some would say the fact that politicians are targeting women at all is a sign of progress. And they’d be right. But it’s not likely that the GOP and the New Democrats have simultaneously developed a newfound dedication to women’s health, reproductive rights, economic equity, or physical safety. More likely they’re being pragmatic: women make or break elections, and they need us in their corner. Horse-race stories tracking the two-party candidates’ dips and peaks among women voters are a news media staple (sadly, few news outlets have shown much interest in women’s opinions about Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, Reform hopeful Patrick Buchanan, or other third party alternatives). Immediately following the release of new (often-competing) polling data, news outlets rush out stories like “Gender gap now a chasm” (Business Week, 6/5/00), claiming Vice President Al Gore is tops with women, and “Women voters like Bush” (Los Angeles Times, 5/1/00), claiming the opposite.
But amid all the number-crunching and poll-monitoring, nuanced analyses of candidates’ records on topics of importance to women (issues ranging beyond domestic violence and family leave policies to social security and defense spending) often take a back seat to warm and fuzzy discussions of which candidate “cares” more genuinely about women or “listens” to us more intently.
This generally unsceptical framework has enabled Texas Governor George W. Bush — a candidate with an anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-affirmative action record and stalwart right-wing advisors like former Christian Coalition head honcho Ralph Reed–to keep a straight face (and maintain good press) while running as a “compassionate conservative.”
In February, Bush’s hard-line capital punishment stance led him to deny a stay-of-execution to Betty Lou Beets, a brain-damaged, hearing-impaired great-grandmother on death row for killing her batterer husband. (Not that this is unusual for Bush – according to the August 7 issue of In These Times, he has presided over more executions than any other governor in the country. As of mid-July, the Nation tallied the number at “131 down and counting.”) Remind me again about that compassionate side, W.?
That same month, Bush gave a speech at the notoriously racist Bob Jones University, a Southern college known for its ban on interracial dating, its slur that Catholicism is a “Satanic cult” and its homophobia (a BJU dean once told a gay alumnus he’d be arrested for trespassing if he returned to campus as long as he was “living as a homosexual.”). Bush originally stood by his decision to speak at BJU, saying, “I don’t make any apologies for what I do in the campaign,” only distancing himself from the school’s biased philosophies after media outlets labeled him a bigot-by-association (The Times of London, 3/30/00; Txdemocrats.org).
There is one group to whom Bush regularly extends compassion: gun owners. When the Texas gun lobby wanted the right to carry concealed weapons in 1995, Bush, the big softie, signed the bill. And though he opposes hate crimes legislation (would that be compassion for the rights of violent bigots?), the governor commiserates with women who fear for their safety. His answer: more guns might provide protection for women who work late at night (Glamour, 2/00). This is a predictable response from a governor who modeled Texas gun laws after the NRA–but it’s not a likely selling point to female voters in a year when gun control has become a defining issue.
In April, when Bush participated in a Republican women’s convention round table titled “For Our Daughters,” the self-styled “reformer with results” gushed, “I want the American dream to touch every willing heart so that people coming up in our society know that somebody loves them, that somebody cares” (Women.com, 4/27/00). What the governor didn’t mention was how daughters fare in his state–according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, in 1996 (the latest year for which statistics are available), Texas had the second-highest number of adolescent pregnancies in the nation. Not surprising since, as an astute Glamour editorial last February indicated, Bush ratified parental notification restrictions making it difficult for girls under the age of eighteen to receive abortions in Texas, but has “offered no initiatives to reduce unintended pregnancies, no expansion of family-planning funding of services, no comprehensive sex-education program and no insurance coverage for contraceptives.” So much “for our daughters.”
These sorts of contradictions are infrequently explored in commercial media campaign coverage. When we’re not getting “who’s first this week?” poll pieces, we’re getting idea stories like a Christian Science Monitor article headlined, “Ladies Man: Bush gaining among women,” which attributed the candidate’s growing favor among GOP women in large part to his “personal qualities,” such as his “skills as a listener” and the fact that he respects his mother, wife and women in general (5/1/00). And how much political insight can be gleaned from a Baltimore Sun editorial writer’s comparison of Bush to JFK (“He is the charmer in this race,” 5/16/00)?
At first glance, Gore might seem to live up better to his “women’s candidate” packaging: a highly vocal proponent of reproductive rights, he opposes anti-gay discrimination, and has spent eight years as second-in-command in an administration that supposedly feels our pain. But on closer inspection (not initially apparent in most mainstream media accounts), Gore’s pro-feminist clothing looks a little like a grade-schooler’s home-made Halloween costume — awkward, ill-fitting and mildly frightening.
While Gore’s current pro-choice credentials earned him an early endorsement from NARAL, his record on abortion during his eight years in the House was far from stellar. In 1984, Gore cast a vote for a failed bill that would have defined the term “person” to include “unborn children from the moment of conception.” A chilling thought in today’s spate of so-called “fetal protection” bills that are thinly-veiled attempts to criminalize abortion. Gore’s early votes also seem to indicate he did not believe poor women deserved reproductive options: according to the New York Times (2/25/00), in the late 1970s and early ’80s he consistently voted to deny federal funding for abortions except to save a woman’s life, and voted against abortion funding under federal employees’ health insurance.
Though Gore’s position on funding softened in the Senate and in the White House to the point where reproductive rights advocates now count him as a strong ally, it is telling that his “pro-choice” stance did not originally extend to poor women. In the name of empowering impoverished women and their families, the Clinton/Gore administration has steadily worked to dismantle the socioeconomic safety net available to the poor.
Low-income and feminist advocates with groups such as the Welfare Organizing Media Project (a joint project of Sojourner Feminist Institute and Survivors, Inc.) have worked to introduce into public debate the harmful effects of Clinton/Gore punitive welfare “deform” legislation on women and children. Following implementation, they write, many poor women and children still suffer from alarming rates of poverty, malnutrition and homelessness (http://www.sojourner.org/welfaremediaproject/). Yet on the soundbite-friendly campaign trail, Gore touts welfare reform as one of the major successes for which women should reward him with the country’s top gig–and the commercial media rarely investigate whether his boasts jibe with the economic realities of poor women and their families.
Even on gay and lesbian rights, where Gore portrays himself as a landmark leader, advocates charge that he has been ineffective. A 1999 study by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network shows that the number of lesbians, gays or bisexuals thrown out of the military has increased by 86 percent in the five years following implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” the Clinton/Gore codification of closeted life for members of the armed forces. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has disproportionately affected women: though female officers represent 14 percent of the active duty force, they comprised 28 percent of gay discharges.
Heavy on image, light on substance
Like glossy women’s magazines that promise radical content and instead offer up ubiquitous “Thinner Thighs in Ten Days” ads, the Republicrats resemble street-corner hucksters playing a high-stakes shell game. In a two-party system where fundamental differences between candidates can, at times, seem negligible, the marketing of politicians as “women’s candidates” is less about giving something powerful to women (for example, legislative reforms to combat workplace discrimination, hate crimes, or racial profiling) than it is about getting something useful from women (our votes).
Candidates’ quests to appear caring tend to be heavy on image, light on substance — and every once in a while someone close to the big boys admits it. Skimming through Advertising Age after Bush’s 1998 gubernatorial reelection, readers might have noticed a photo of the smiling Texan opposite a caption that read, “If you have high ambitions, hire us. He did.” Placed by the firm that helped Bush secure his second term, the ad boasted, “If we can create advertising that persuades Hispanic Democrats to vote Republican, we can get them to buy your product.”
It is not uncommon for disingenuous politicians to use image advertising to manipulate voters. The only thing surprising about this ad is its candor. But since our news media allow candidates to coast through campaigns on meaningless platitudes often unrelated to their voting records, it is crass — but not particularly shocking — that Bush’s niche marketers would arrogantly acknowledge their calculated manipulation of people of color on behalf of an ambitious politician.
Bush isn’t the only candidate who’s undergone a political makeover. Late last year, a bit of a hullabaloo broke out when reporters learned that neo-feminist Naomi Wolf had been hired to advise Gore on how best to attract the women’s vote. At issue was whether Wolf (who annoyingly suggested Bill Clinton could woo female voters in 1996 by remaking himself in the image of “The Good Father”) was being paid scads of cash to give similarly shallow and stereotypical advice to Gore, and whether this would help or hurt the veep. In response to the rumor that Wolf advised Gore to package himself as an “Alpha male” and wear “reassuring” clothing, a New York Post headline blared, “Feminist Wears the Pants on Team Gore” (11/1/99) and on the same day CNN wondered, “Will Gore’s poorly calculated attempt to reach out to women do him more harm than good?”
The implication, of course, was that feminist involvement in Gore’s campaign would make the vice president appear too radical for public favor. What a red herring! Gore emerged from the Wolf flak appearing more committed to women’s issues than ever — even though he hadn’t taken (or been asked to adopt) any actions that could cause substantive change. Whether or not Wolf suggested the vice president choose one tie over another, or position himself as Alpha to Clinton’s Beta (she denied giving such advice), image consulting is in no way equivalent to feminist political advocacy. When asked what Gore could do to make himself a strong candidate in American women’s eyes, a savvy advisor in touch with the feminist community might have encouraged him to promise legislation to ensure pay equity, reestablish a functional safety net for our country’s most vulnerable, lobby staunchly for affirmative action, or speak out against the Religious Right’s long-term efforts to abolish abortion via “fetal protection” bills. But Gore got what he wanted from Wolf — a surface-level, quick-fix image enhancer — because that’s what the denizens of DC believe women respond to.
Speaking of sexist assumptions about what matters to female voters, here’s a news flash: more women would rather paint the town red with Al G. than George W.
Worried about the edge Bush’s charm is supposedly giving him among female voters, Gore’s campaign team assembled a focus group to find out which candidate the potential voters thought would make a better date. As the Wall Street Journal reported (5/26/00), “The answer, according to congressional Democrats briefed on the results: the vice president. Though not a dream date, he was deemed to be thoughtful, reflective and interested in what women have to say.” On the other hand, women “thought Bush was the type who would drive up in a flashy convertible, honk the horn instead of coming to the door, lean up against his car chewing gum and spend all night talking about himself.”
Talk about your lesser of two evils.
First, we’re saddled with two-party suits who ply us with empty promises about their commitment to our political priorities in attempt to get us into the voting booth. Then we find out these candidates believe they’ll go all the way to White House if we want to, as columnist Barbara Fischkin summed up, “in effect, get to first base with them in the back seat of a Chevy” (Foxnews.com, 6/1/00). Where Wolf suggested Clinton present himself as “The Good Father” (Newsweek, 2/12/96), Gore’s team now wants to know how far the vice president will get as “The Good Boyfriend.” And Bush is smiling pretty of late, believing women are warming to his “compassionate” rhetoric, love-talk and Texan charm.
We deserve better
How did we progress from virtual political invisibility to a point where candidates wishing to close the gender gap try to — literally — court us? Many cultural factors have led us here, but little has been as instrumental in the dumbing-down of political debate as our increasingly corporate, decreasingly quizzical media. The scarcity of hard-hitting Fourth Estate campaign coverage almost guarantees that women’s diverse (and often divergent) social, economic and political interests will be sidelined in discussions of “the women’s vote.”
If our media favored complexity over frivolity in campaign coverage, we might see stories exploring debates within the feminist community as to whether a pro-choice, anti-welfare candidate is truly worthy of our support. (Can you even imagine such a story in USA Today?) If media reported on campaigns as if women’s concerns really matter, we might see fewer articles and televised debates about whether Bush’s stance on abortion is helping or hindering him in the polls, and more investigations of the economic and public health impact of restrictions to safe, affordable, comprehensive reproductive services in Bush’s home state of Texas.
And if media understood that the categories of gender, race and class in this country are inextricably interconnected, we’d be more accustomed to hearing, as we did on National Public Radio (5/5/00), that “the battle over the women’s vote is really a battle over a very particular slice of the female electorate. African-American women and single working women, for example, are among the Democrats’ most loyal voters; but white, suburban married mothers — the famous soccer moms — are not.” While this perspective is rare in the mainstream media, a new feminist wire service launched by NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund carried three stories on various aspects of this issue within a one-month period (WomensEnews.com, 4/21, 4/26 and 5/24/00). Just another reason why alternative, non-commercial news sources are so crucial for an informed citizenry.
We are often told that as citizens and as voters we have the right to demand better from our political leaders. Far less often are we encouraged to demand better from the corporate media. Next time you hear the ground-breaking news that Bush’s two-stepping or Gore’s sensitive side drive women wild, write a letter to the editor, call in to the live talk show, send an email to the networks. Let them know that contemplative, in-depth coverage of women’s issues on the campaign trail would be far more satisfying than any date with a presidential hopeful.
A version of this appeared in the Women’s Review of Books (7/00).