POLLITT: Thinking Pink

Since Election Day the gender gap numbers have been spun so hard I feel like I've spent the past week in a laundromat. See? Women's votes elected Clinton! That shows they value activist government and legal abortion. Noooo, they re-elected lots of Newtie Congresspeople! That shows they want smaller government and don't care much about abortion either way.Oh yeah?Those Gingrichites spent months running from their records. And don't forget that women's votes elected Paul Wellstone, John Kerry and Mary Landrieu too, plus a passel of pro-choice, moderately liberal new House members, including five women who defeated incumbents. Sure, sure -- but Congress still has only one more woman than before, is still in Republican hands and is even more solidly anti-choice. Yes, but actually Democrats got 51 percent of the Congressional vote nationally, while Republicans got only 47 percent. So there!What do women want? According to the latest conventional wisdom they want something called M2E2-Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. ("Don't look like that," said the extremely connected person who passed me this tidbit. "They don't make this stuff up. It's all been focus-grouped.") What don't women care about? The character issue -- it turns out the only people who care about the purity of the President's marital vows are angry white middle-aged Republican men.What do women punish at the polls? Nasty, negative campaigns full of conflict and shady dealings. Play nicely now!There's probably some truth in all the above. It's a big country, and we must remember that women are just as dumb as men. But the political handling of the women's vote is a study in how difficult it is to work for social change through the ballot box. Panicked by the radical right even as Candidate Dole was stalking the elusive soccer mom, Democratic women demanded just about nothing except abortion rights from Clinton, and nothing -- V-chips and school uniforms, an emergency phone number for battered women, an afternoon off for a parent-teacher conference -- is what he offered them in return for their vote.Nothing about affordable child care (about to be even scarcer, thanks to the welfare bill, which pits working and welfare mothers against each other in a struggle for subsidized slots). Or expanding health care-although there are now 41 million uninsured Americans, 4 million more than when the uninsured were poster children for the Clinton health plan. Or discrimination in the workplace. Or affirmative action-which went down in California (yes, with 55 percent of white women's votes) without a single ill-gotten Indonesian dollar expended in its behalf. Not to mention contraceptive research and fairness in the courts and gay rights. Au contraire.But then, why should Clinton have bothered to talk about anything real? With Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich hovering over Dole's shoulder like a pair of bad consciences in an old cartoon, all Clinton had to do was come out in favor of the twentieth century.Now that Republicans have been forced to acknowledge their woman problem, you'll see them cuddling up to female voters too, with their own peculiar brand of fluffy pink nonsense. Newt Gingrich wants to fight domestic violence by making it easier to carry concealed weapons and has a plan, applauded by anti-feminist pundits Linda Chavez and Kate O'Beirne, to ease the work-family crunch by cutting federal taxes so severely that husbands once more earn enough money to keep their wives at home. To help you keep that husband, assorted state legislators want to make divorces harder to get. All that's missing is a plan to replace the N.E.A. with a national dating service to help you find him in the first place.With ideas like these floating about, Amazon Nation is hardly at hand. But to read the Op-Ed pages you'd think the idea that women's votes actually counted was coming as a bit of a shock. Writers from Irving Kristol to Maureen Dowd bemoaned the "feminization" of American politics -- where was the grandeur, the nobility, the red meat? Did our forefathers freeze at Valley Forge for breast cancer research and the Family and Medical Leave Act? Forbid it, almighty God! Some commentators are still getting used to the Nineteenth Amendment. "If women still lacked the vote, [Clinton] would have lost," wrote Garry Wills." Yes, and without the internal combustion engine we'd still be riding horses.Then there were the conservatives who took the postmodern approach, interrogating the very category of "women." Thus The Wall Street Journal argued that the gender gap is really a marriage gap: It's only the divorced, widowed and single, unable to flee declining big cities for leafy suburbia, who really love the Dems.Even if true -- and I've used this point myself to suggest that "women" are not a nice-by-nature automatic constituency for warm and fuzzy "maternal" politics -- the divorced, widowed and single are a lot of people, and they are disproportionately female. It hardly seems worth arguing that more women need the safety net than men; that Christian fanatics, gun nuts and black-helicopter spotters give millions of women the willies; and that a party that labels as murderers the half of the adult female population that has had at least one abortion is setting itself up for major headaches. The wonder is that the gender gap isn't bigger than it is. Now my fax machine hums with press releases and directives from women's organizations urging women to demand their due from President Clinton."Women are in the best position yet to demand that Clinton pay closer attention to their concerns," wrote Jennifer Gonnerman in Newsday, mentioning the lack of affordable child care, women's 71 cent wage on the male dollar, the fact that 84 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider and the need for more women in top-level Administration posts.Ah, but which women? Surely not ones like Donna Shalala and Janet Reno? Isn't this where we came in? My own fluffy pink idea is a ban on the ever finer slicing and dicing of the ever dwindling electorate in order to spin the ever more jaded media. M2 me no E2s, please, as poor women and children -- poor men too -- are thrown off welfare into the streets.


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