The Elusive Women's Vote

Ever since American women won the right to vote in 1920, politicians and pollsters have been trying to predict how women will vote and whether, as a group, they will transform American political culture.

For most of the 20th century, women voted according to their ethnic, class or racial interests. In 1980, however, the first real gender gap appeared. Men cast 54 percent of their votes for Reagan, compared with 46 percent of women, creating an 8-point gender gap. This partisan disparity continued and reached its zenith in the 1996 election, when Bill Clinton won the women's vote by 11 points. It nearly vanished when John Kerry won the female vote over George W. Bush by a mere 3 points.

Had more single women voted, many analysts have suggested, Kerry would have won the race. Instead, so-called "security moms" reelected a man who they thought would secure the lives of their families.

The day after the 2004 election, two unlikely collaborators -- Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake -- decided to track the trends and opinions of American women.

Their survey data, translated into accessible prose by writer Catherine Whitney, resulted in a book, What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live (Free Press), whose subtitle is maddeningly misleading. Nothing in their research (which included interviews, focus groups and polls) proves that women are erasing the political, racial, class and religious lines that divide them. Nor does their research reveal whether or how women will vote in the next elections.

Much of what they learned, in fact, is probably more useful to marketers than to politicians. Nor is this book filled with heart-stopping revelations. It's hardly news that women are leaving the corporate ladder to start small businesses, redefining their roles at home and in the workplace and seeking flexibility to ease their stressful lives.

Yet the authors' research does reflect opinions and behaviors that have the potential to transform American political culture. For example, single women are the fastest growing demographic group in this nation's population; one-third of American women, in fact, are single, which includes those never married, divorced and widowed. Many of the never-married women, moreover, appear to be satisfied with their situation and are unwilling to wait until the right man appears. Instead, they are increasingly choosing to bear and raise children alone.

Studies have shown that single, divorced and widowed women tend to vote for Democratic candidates. This is a constituency that crosses many traditional divisions and could, in theory, wield tremendous political clout. But many of these single women, especially the young, don't bother to vote.

Unfortunately, this book does little to explain their apathy or disinterest. (The authors didn't study male voters.) Nor does it suggest how politicians should address them to awaken their political passions. "What Women Really Want" gives us a glimpse of women's desires for greater support at home and improved conditions at work, but it says nothing about what women are willing to do, inside or outside of the voting booth, to achieve those dreams.

This article originally appeared in the LA Times Book Review.


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