In July of 1964, President Johnson signed the sixth of our eight federal Civil Rights Acts into law. Not only did the Act statutorily forbid discrimination in the workplace based on “race, color, religion, or national origin,” but, added at the last minute, on sex. The year marked a sea change; since 1964, women voters have comprised the majority of voters in presidential elections.
Before Mitt Romney became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, polls closely tracked the waxing and waning gender gap between his and President Obama’s successes with women voters. The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed Obama besting Romney with a 51 versus 40 percent favorability rating among women. Though the figure represents a drop in Obama’s favorability with women, it also shows that Romney still lags behind even after his sweeping gains among Republican women as his competitors withdrew from the nomination race.
The manic focus on women voters acknowledges that they comprise the majority of eligible and active voters. More pointedly, it also demonstrates that women, and issues affecting them, are a critical part of this election in way that they have not been before.
Since the population of female Americans began to outnumber males in 1950, and after 1964’s electoral shift, it is neither useful nor correct to consider women a special interest group. If Obama wants to widen the gender gap, or Romney wishes to close it, their rhetoric must be direct and cognizant on two fronts. A strong message on, and plan of action for, our nation’s most important issues are critical. In every electoral year since 1980, the issues that have mattered most to the electorate — men and women both — are “gender neutral.” By sweeping margins, the top issues have been the economy, unemployment, crime, education, the federal budget, healthcare, national defense, terrorism, poverty, and taxes.
But in order to reach women voters, Obama and Romney must also acknowledge the persistent and new challenges facing women. Though the realities of reproductive choice, equal pay, family and medical leave, workplace discrimination, domestic violence, and Title XI most directly affect females, these issues are significant for both sexes, as well as children, families, and communities. What is more, Obama and Romney must offer solutions to these challenges.
In order to predict how women will vote, understanding how they have voted provides insight.
After losing the 1988 presidential election, several members of the Democratic Party reorganized around centric ideologies, calling themselves “New Democrats.” These Democrats took on more progressive social and cultural ideologies and neoliberal economic values. The move has come to characterize critical Democratic Party ideologies and the Party today. In 1992, President Clinton won running on a New Democrat platform. In that and in every presidential election since, a majority of women have voted in favor of Democratic candidates.
This is not to say that Democrats have a guaranteed hold on women voters or that Democrats will tip the presidential race. (Keep past hopefuls Al Gore and John Kerry in mind.) But, rooting out and applying the appeal of Democrat positions that have been successful with women voters will be necessary for both Obama and Romney.
In the past year, women have become political footballs, instead of the personal realities that they represent. Though it is easy to intake politicians’ and media’s suppositions on what matters to women, it is far more instructive to look at the realities of the women in our lives to understand what is necessary and needed.
Women want to be treated as persons who are of equal importance. Though our society has made compositional and perspective shifts, we have not seen the same shifts in our elected government. Men have long represented society in matters of politics, and so, we have been both limited and expanded by their ambitions. Now, it has become necessary for government to respond to women’s realities, instead of merely acknowledging them. Women want elected officials to recognize their ideological diversities as well as their physical differences — without treating either as an inconvenience, limitation, liability, or disability.
Today’s political climate is unlike any other. Never before has any been framed as a “war on women” – not during the tumult of Roe v. Wade, or with several Supreme Court sex discrimination cases in the 1970s; not with key legislation in the early 1990s; nor during 2009’s passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Though the term has been in use since the early 1990’s, voters have become fully cognizant of its meaning through actions in the House of Representatives and in State legislatures. The most enduring image of the gender gap remains the all-male panel of House Republican Darrell Issa's committee hearings on contraception. The most lasting echo remains the responsive characterization of law student, Sandra Fluke, as a “slut” and “prostitute” after she testified in support of contraception at panel convened by House Democrats.
Whether the “war” is real or imagined, it is a fact that women, across all political parties, are in a perilous place — in matters of right and representation.
Though the presidential election will be a litmus test for the attitudes of women voters, the 2014 mid-term elections are of particular importance for women. With the recent effects that Congress and state legislatures have had on certain issues, it is vital that women make their voices heard in both 2012 and 2014. In addition to women’s existent and continuing efforts, Americans must demand effort — by Obama, Romney, and those in leadership positions — recognizing the strength of women’s samenesses and their differences. This effort is not a matter of “special treatment,” or “extra work” — women are equals, not “others.” Not only is recognition what women want, but it is what Americans need.