Pretty amazing things are afoot for women this election year. Will we seize the opportunity?
Women have been much in the news lately. From the contraception debate to caterpillar analogies to country clubs, it’s obvious the political parties are waging a war for women; that is, for their votes. Why the change in focus now? Perhaps because leveraging works?
Back in 2008, Dr. Violet Socks published an article called Archimedes Lever, about women leveraging political power. In it, she laid out the problem, the spark, and the opportunity that 2008 represented for women in the political realm. It represented an opportunity to leverage their power as a voting block by denying what had until that point been commonly accepted as “the party of women,” Democrats, by withholding their votes. That article was pretty popular at the time, representing a kind of watershed “click moment” among the group of mostly women bloggers who comprised the PUMA movement (full disclosure: I was involved in PUMA, authoring The Declaration of Objections).
This was important because the political realm is both evidence of women’s continued unequal treatment and one of the few avenues to seek redress for that unequal treatment. It stands as evidence because women are not even close to realizing parity. Less than 25% of state-associated political officeholders are women. Less than 17% of either federal congressional chamber are women politicians. There has never been a woman president. And yet the gains that women have made, and the gains that they can make are tied inevitably to this political structure. Understanding how to, and having a good reason for breaking the status quo quickly because a top priority of PUMA and its proponents.
I don’t know how Violet Socks feels about the results of what she accurately predicted would be an opportunity to successfully leverage women’s political power. She banned me a few years ago after what I will politely refer to as an interpersonal meltdown, the details of which it would be rude to discuss here. Reading her blog today, one would imagine she might be inclined toward horror, considering her apparent opposition to conservatism and her propensity to use left-wing short-hand, the foggy memes that are so often perpetuated throughout the leftist blogosphere. Because women did leverage their power, but they did not choose a third party to do so, nor did they abstain from voting. They went to the polls and voted for Republicans in record numbers in 2010. The numbers were so high, they erased a 10 point gender gap that Democrats had enjoyed for decades.
Something drove this phenomenon, and it wasn’t the policies that Republicans were offering. They didn’t offer any pro-woman legislation or policy ideas in the wake of the 2008 election. Neither was it an influx of new voters and the dropping out of regular voters. Some of it absolutely belongs to the power of Sarah Palin and the risk that John McCain took in selecting her. That may have been the first time many PUMAs, most of whom had been loyal Democrats, gave the GOP an honest look. Very soon thereafter some PUMA bloggers and other disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters, including yours truly, began to blog about the idea of voting Republican. This was an incredible risk for us to take, because it so often led to the alienation of family and friends who couldn’t understand why we were upset, or didn’t believe us when we told them. We did not let these rhetorical manipulations sway us from our primary purpose: to register our disapproval of Democratic sexism and the manipulations of the system that led to Hillary Clinton’s loss, and to attempt to persuade the Republican Party and women of all political stripes that we needed to focus on closing specific gaps in equality for women. This was a fight we could not win in 2008, not with the generic ballot what it was, not with the economic meltdown in progress.
But we tried anyway, because 2008 served as a wakeup call that women had only come so far and had stalled in our progress, and that stalling had direct consequences in the defeat of Hillary Clinton. We began to question long-held assumptions and listening to people on the other side. We tried to figure out how some conservative ideas came to be, and in the process learned that some of these ideas were misrepresented by a party we had once trusted as the final arbiter of feminine truth: Democrats. It was like a second pair of blinders being ripped off. In the bright glare of new light it became obvious how we’d been duped, sold a bill of goods about reproductive issues while continuing to have opportunity and power-sharing denied to us. We were forced to ask: What have Democrats done for us, and the answers we came up with were woefully inadequate.
Some suggested maybe it was a bad idea to want equality for Democratic women only, and that women might be able to help reform the GOP just by being willing to engage it, changing it from the inside out. Most of us were fans of Sarah Palin, too, and we continued to fight back against the sexist onslaught against her that never quite subsided after Obama cinched the election. For the next two years we continued to discuss all of this, a whole group of us were talking about it, which was making the feminist establishment very nervous, indeed. Throughout 2009 the media talked about Sarah Palin changing the face of feminism, whispering our rhetoric in buried stories that few paid much attention to. Then, in 2010, Sarah Palin used the word “feminist” and all hell broke loose.
The feminist-on-feminist backlash left the traditional feminist establishment, comprised of old standard-bearers like Gloria Stienem, as well younger feminists like Amanda Marcotte, in tatters. I imagine that they’re still smug and self-satisfied to this day that they put down the likes of Sarah Palin and protected their term from the stink of her cooties, but in winning the battle they lost the war. To the larger, uninvested American audience it played like a one-sided cat fight, which wasn’t nearly as sexy or persuasive as they’d hoped. It made them look like they were deliberately, cattily exclusive, which belied their claim of the universality of their rhetoric. It translated to regular Americans as some women are more equal than others, an idea that most thinking women and men who are not invested in the intricacies of traditional feminism would and did reject.
After all of this, in 2010 we all went to the polls and a remarkable thing happened. Women voted for the parties in equal numbers, and a 10 point gender gap was erased. The gender gap has been a feature of politics since it was first registered by exit polls in 1983. The gap is indicative of the voting margin Democrats have enjoyed among women for the last 30 years. It has hovered around 10%, fluctuating a point or two in either direction, but basically giving Democrats quite an advantage at the ballot box. When you consider that women also cast more votes than any other constituency, outvoting men by 4% or more (and growing by the year) for the last decade, the advantage is even more pronounced. As these data points get strung together, it becomes clearer and clearer how we got where we are, and how we get out.
All that changed in 2010. And now suddenly we’re having vicious, nasty debates about contraception, GOP leadership is making caterpillar analogies, and Obama is saying that Augusta Country Club should permit women, a point he made four days after playing there. As Michael Falcone and Amy Waters suggest in their latest ABC article, “the battle for women is on.” And that’s exactly what we want. We don’t want one party that is stilted and so dependent on women’s votes that they cease to act on behalf of them. We want both sides fighting for our attentions, which they can get by addressing our needs. The GOP has made inroads among women by addressing one of their primary concerns: the lack of women in political office. The party has put up more women in the wake of Sarah Palin, and funded them and the numbers of conservative women in office rose in the wake of 2010. The embrace of diversity alone guarantees structural changes to both the policy and rhetoric of the GOP.
In the wake of this minor reform, which could and should lead to more ideological reform within the party as women continue to run on the Republican ticket, Republicans have yet to make any specific policy suggestions that could be understood as pro-woman. However, they have done some work addressing those women who shun feminism, yet enjoy the benefits of changes wrought by waves of feminists, by suggesting (quite rightly) that women care about more than reproductive issues, and that some issues are genderless, national security for example, or the debt. They are appealing to women by appealing to women’s pragmatic side. They are succeeding because traditional feminism has been a disappointment, losing market share steadily since it went all-in for reproductive issues in the early 1970s. Most women today can avoid pregnancy quite successfully, for pretty cheap, too, so they don’t understand why feminists keep bitching about it.
Democrats, in contrast, are up to their usual tricks, trying to scare us, which I documented in a series about the use of Roe v. Wade as a specter. This has been SOP for months now. Republicans want to take your contraception away. They want to force you to have vaginal ultrasounds with the abortion you’re unlikely to ever have, which lobbyists for ultrasound companies lobbied for inclusion in legislation. Democrats, they’re offering FREE BIRTH CONTROL! Get your FREE birth control right here! But they are beginning to understand that SOP is FUBAR. It’s not working. And that’s why Obama has the temerity to exploit Augusta Country Club and the Masters four days after playing on the green there. It’s also why he came out today and said that Congress would be more effective and get more done if more women were among the officeholders. Someone in his circle finally accepted the fact that the GOP made the gains they did by offering women something they wanted: more women. Now he’s thinking maybe he needs to pay attention to that. That’s indicative of a real and promising shift in the rhetorical ground in Washington.
None of this would have been possible without Violet’s article, and the thunderbolt it shot across the PUMAsphere, or Sarah Palin, and the thunderbolt she shot across our national history, blazing a fiery path of reform straight into the heart of both parties. But it also couldn’t have happened without the hard work and risk-taking of everyday women who took the chance to articulate a new vision, spreading a bold idea, and who for whatever reason cast that vote for the GOP in 2010.
This election year is it. We’ve leveraged our way to a point of power. We are the most sought-after constituency in America. It remains to be seen what happens from here. Women can go back to voting for Democrats in the numbers we used to, thus reinforcing the narrative that 2010 was an anomaly and that the politics of fear work on us, and risking the return of that dreaded status quo, where our votes are taken for granted and our progress stalled. Or we can reinforce the message that we reject the status quo, that Democrats have to do more than invoke our uteruses and scare us, and that our priorities involve a range of issues. The women out here who have switched sides can always go back to voting for Democrats if the Republican Party fails to make more overt gestures towards women’s equality after this election cycle. But for this year, it may be important to reward Republicans for what they’ve done (increased the number of women in politics), and continue to reject the Democrats’ status quo, holding them accountable for what they’ve done and failed to do. This is especially true if the GOP candidate picks a woman VP candidate, which would be the only way we could get a woman on the top ballot this year.
Leverage worked. We’ve got their attentions. Now let’s bring it home.