In last week’s New York Times Magazine article 16 Ways of Looking at a Female Voter, controversial author Linda Hirshman pointed to many studies and analyses that supposedly support the premise that, even though there have been many attempts to rally and organize women as a voting bloc, there has been little success.
Why? According to Hirshman and those she interviewed, women focus mainly on issues that impact the household, but pay little attention to political campaigns or world events.
Women, she has long contended, just aren’t as political as men.
I know so many women who are politically informed and active, it’s just hard for me to believe that the studies cited in the article are conclusive. I know they support Hirshman’s less formal survey that she wrote about for the Washington Post, in which she suggested that Washington, D.C.-area women don’t care about politics and rely on their husbands to tell them what’s worth knowing in the news.
Others wonder about that idea, as well. Catherine Price at Salon questions Hirshman’s premise that women pay less attention to the news, including political news, than men:
… [A]mong the people who do pay attention to news, women do so less intensely than men. Why is this? One reason suggested by Hirshman is that women are more likely to know about a candidate or politician if she’s female — and since there are far fewer female than male politicians, it makes sense that women might lose interest.
I don’t know if I buy this reasoning. (I would think it’d have more to do with the possibility that women’s tendency — on average — to be the primary caregivers in their families would make them more interested in local rather than national issues.) If it’s true, it immediately leads to a Catch-22: Having more female politicians requires having more women who are interested in politics to begin with (not just as voters but as candidates). But if people seem more interested in the political process when a person of their gender is involved, and if there are still far fewer women than men, then it’s difficult to get more women interested.
As with all surveys or studies or polls, the outcome depends on the slant of the questions asked.
One study Hirshman points to in her article from the University of Michigan asked men and women about their interest in “government and public affairs.” 42 percent of the men polled said they were “very interested,” while only 34 percent of women were. The topic of “government and public affairs” is pretty abstract. If the survey had asked things a bit differently — say with a specific question about the level of interest in the economy, the war in Iraq or specific political candidates — I’m guessing the outcome would have been different, too.
This is surely not all we know and don’t know about gender and politics. Hirshman’s reliance on disembodied data and minimal-to-no context—as well as her odd interpretation of some of the data—paints a pretty disparaging picture of women.
So, while giving a nod to women’s power by conceding that “when women do come forward they alter the political landscape,” the article’s less than one-dimensional picture of a “female voter” further marginalizes women’s participation in the political arena—particularly women of color and low income women—and undermines the crucial role women play in developing and implementing policy solutions on grassroots, state and national levels.
I really like the idea of electing a president whose very presence in office is likely to help women feel empowered and engaged in politics. Even before reading this article, I’ve been wavering. I love that if Hillary gets elected, then my little monkeys will grow up associating the presidency with a female.
At the same time, I really like Obama’s style and compelling leadership, which I think is something that our country needs right now, to pull people together and get us moving in a good direction. While I think Hillary would do a great job, I’m not sure she’d be an inspiring leader in the moment. But the very fact that she’s a woman could mean that she can inspire a whole generation of women — and help a generation of young men see women differently.
While Sarah Ruth at Piu Vino! found some of the article’s generalizations about women more disturbing:
What irks me … is that [the article] claims obviously women aren’t voting because of political issues, ideas, and plans like men are. They are voting because they have crushes on Obama or because they wish they could be as successful as Hillary or, as the commentators have seemed to agree upon, women are blindly voting for any candidate based on her vagina.
One thing is for sure. For better or worse, you can always depend on Hirshman to get women talking.
I also know from experience that Hirshman doesn’t like to be criticized on any level. So I fully expect to hear from her on this post when her name comes up in her Google reader! So hang on to your hats!
Cross-posted from BlogHer.