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News & Politics

Hey Pollsters, Leave My Ring Finger Alone

Unmarried women may be the next big group of swing voters.
As a political reporter I am used to the many ways lobbyists try to find the next big group of swing voters at election time. But I was taken by surprise -- then by a strange sensation of indignation -- when a study came across my desk that announced unmarried women as the biggest swing votes in the next election.

Unmarried women make up a bigger electorate than African Americans and Latinos combined, according to a new report by Celina Lake of Lake Research Partners, a key pollster and strategist for the Democratic Party. About 47 percent of American women live without a spouse; more than 18 million of them are not registered to vote. Tapping their potential could save the Democrats in 2008, the study suggests.

But what do unmarried women really have in common? Many unmarried women simply haven't found the right kind of men. Thousands of single mothers are unmarried because the men in their lives refuse to commit. Unmarried women may be divorcees or widows. And let's not forget lesbians who are unmarried because the law forbids their union.

Political strategists have always tried to lump groups together by race, ethnicity, or even by the fact that you're a soccer mom. But unlike those groupings, being unmarried is a category that hardly creates a united political response. Unmarried women are unmarried in so many different ways. Looking around me, I realized that by Lake's definition, I would have the same political response as the college intern in my office, my next-door neighbor who is widowed and retired, and maybe the meter maid who just gave me a parking ticket.

Lake's charts and graphs show that unmarried women increased their support for Democrats in the last three presidential elections. In the 2006 House races, they were most likely to vote Democrat. Lake says unmarried women are "change-oriented" and "cynical about the government," with all the right priorities to put Dems in the White House.

I struggled to imagine political ads and platforms targeted at unmarried women. Perhaps political consultants would think we need better retirement plans since we don't have our husbands' pensions to live on. Or perhaps they will be handing out buttons and stickers at speed dating functions or advertise on Match.com.

Lake offers little clarification to why so many unmarried women do not register to vote. And what about unmarried men? According to her study, the number of unregistered single women (18.5 million) is almost equal to that of unregistered single men (18.2 million). But perhaps because unmarried women are more likely to vote Democrat than unmarried men, the research dives head on into the possible behaviors of unmarried women.

Frustratingly, this study suggests that marriage is still considered an accomplishment for women and merely a side note for men. A man's status and identity are not defined by marriage. Even in an election that might result in the first woman president, female voters are still identified by their marital status.

To me, still single at 30, my unmarried status is a tired label that I have tried to shrug despite my nagging relatives. Being the eldest granddaughter in my marriage-obsessed extended family means constant anxiety from my relatives about my spinsterhood. At every family function, my relatives whisper questions about my love life, not-so-casually mention statistics about fertility rates dropping with age, and give me unwanted advice on how to keep a man.

The popular consensus so far among my relatives is that I have not learned to use my feminine wiles to seduce a husband. So many men have come and go, they lamented (it's not really that many), why doesn't it ever work out?

For me, I just haven't found someone with whom to share my life, someone with the same convictions and values -- who also doesn't mind sharing his Sunday New York Times with me over a lazy brunch. But why should that define me?

In my generation, educated, financially independent women can control most parts of our lives. We choose our professions, invest our own income and buy our own properties. We have the freedom to travel wherever we want. We can participate in most sports. We make our own decisions about our health care. And let's not forget, we can vote. The only thing that we have no control over is who we love. For pollsters to take advantage of the one factor in my life that I have no control over seems incredibly careless.

My relatives already pay too much attention to the fact that I am not married. As if that is not enough, now a pollster is making that the only focus in the swing voter category. It reduces my whole life to one painful label. Coming across this study at my desk puts me right back at dreaded family reunions: I might have graduated from college, climbed up the corporate ladder, or finished my first 10K race, but all I am ever asked is, "Why aren't you married?"

Political consultants would do better with a harder look at what women really care about. Reducing my existence to the bareness of my ring finger certainly would do nothing to gain my vote.
Eugenia Chien is an editor at New America Media.
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