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Win Over Women

Republicans have waged a 20-year war against women, mothers and families, and ensured that it’s harder to be a mother here than in any other industrialized country—unless you’re rich, of course

BY Susan J. Douglas

I have one word for John Kerry: women.

When you go to Kerry’s home page, women’s issues are not featured up front. You have to click on “more issues” to get there. This is not surprising for several reasons.

Democratic pollsters like Celinda Lake have found that, at least by early June, the war had become one of the most important issues for voters, trumping even the economy. Lake and others also have noted that 16 million single women are not even registered to vote and that more than 15 million young women between the ages of 18 and 34 did not vote in the last presidential election. Nor do women constitute the large bloc of swing voters they did in the 1992 election. Then, according to the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of women were swing voters but today only 23 percent are. And, stupefyingly, there does not appear to be a gender gap—more men than women support Bush, but not by much, and women overall are evenly divided between Bush and Kerry.

Nonetheless, Kerry is missing a sure bet if he underplays issues of importance to women. Because other information—some of it statistical, some of it more anecdotal—suggests a great, untapped frustration among millions of women who feel their lives are too hard, too financially precarious, and too slighted, ignored and dismissed by politicians. And these are not just poor or working-class women, they are middle- and even upper-middle-class women.

Kerry’s Web page acknowledges that, 35 years after the height of the women’s move-ment, women still make 73 cents to a man’s dollar. Kerry is pro-choice. He supports expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, providing more money for states to support daycare and reforming our healthcare system. He also has begun talking about the importance of raising the minimum wage, a move that would especially affect women’s financial well-being. But Kerry has yet to wrap this all up, passionately, into a package with a name (i.e., a progressive version of “family values”) that women and their families can become inspired by.

Certainly Team Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, the lies they told to justify the invasion and their conduct of the war since all merit voter scrutiny and condemnation. The war alone should be enough to get Bush out of office. So should the other big issues: his tax cuts to the rich, war on the environment, assault on our civil liberties and the economy, which is not rebounding nearly as nicely as the increase in jobs, mostly in the low-end service sector, might suggest.

But women’s issues may be the sleeping giant of American politics these days. One Pew Research Center poll found that while 46 percent of men were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States, only 36 percent of women are. Lake reports that the Democrats may do quite well with rural women this election, as 44 percent of the young people killed in the Iraq war are from towns of 10,000 or fewer people. Inadequate healthcare is another huge issue for women. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 90 percent of our nation’s 9 million uninsured kids live in working families. In Florida, nearly 47,000 low-income kids are on a waiting list for childcare. And while the New York Times did—in January of 2003—feature a lead editorial on Bush’s “War Against Women,” the status of women and their dissatisfaction with the way things are, remain seriously underreported and underappreciated.

This year I went on a multicity tour to promote my recent book, The Mommy Myth. While (of course) I hoped women would respond to the book, I was taken aback by the outpouring of exasperation and, yes, anger, coming from mothers, many of them middle- and even upper-middle-class, about all of the multiple ways that the workplace and the government have betrayed and exploited mothers, children and families. When I was a guest on a national NPR show, the phone rang off the hook for an hour and the station got more than 100 e-mails about motherhood and family issues. I did one of those online “chats” at the Washington Post when the book was reviewed. It was the same day as the 9/11 hearings, Richard Clarke’s book had just come out and accusations were flying about the misrepresentations surrounding weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, this chat about motherhood and the family got the fourth-largest number of hits that day, after the stories about the 9/11 hearings, Bush and WMDs.

I see the emergence of a nascent mother’s movement everywhere. Millions of mothers know that as the world’s superpower, we are nonetheless the only industrialized country, besides Australia, not to provide paid parental leave. (And even Australia provides 52 weeks of unpaid leave while we offer 12.) Mothers want a nationally funded, high-quality, affordable daycare system that makes preschool education available to all kids. They want decent, safe after-school programs. They want a genuine, money-backed effort to improve our public schools. They want a Family and Medical Leave Act for which more than two of five workers are eligible. They want the crucially important caregiving that they provide for children and for infirm parents to be valued monetarily through Social Security benefits and other means. They want health insurance. They want to stop the hypocrisy of being revered by politicians’ rhetoric about “mother-hood” while being reviled by their public policies, or lack thereof.

Kerry has begun to tiptoe around these issues. He should turn up the volume, and the passion, and connect with women about them. He should reiterate that under the deceptive banner of “family values,” the Republicans have in fact waged a 20-year war against women, mothers and families, and ensured that it is harder to be a mother here than in any other industrialized country—unless you’re rich, of course.

Women’s issues aren’t on the media radar screen right now, and I agree that it remains critically important that Bush be hammered about the war and his abysmal conduct regarding foreign affairs and domestic security. But women are out there. We are a force. We are waiting for a vision of the future that speaks directly to our needs and the needs of the nation’s children. We can make or break this election. Talk to us.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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