Election 2004

Ditching the Lipstick-and-Panties Pitch

If Democrats want to inspire single women to vote in November, they need to lose the cutesy marketing slogans and talk about the issues.
It's election season, and single women are all the rage these days. Pick up your local newspaper or turn on the TV, some reporter will be carrying on about the "Sex in the City" vote. What a difference four years and one close presidential election can make.

Rarely have so many matters of such profound significance been at stake in an electoral decision: the war in Iraq; a massive budget deficit; employment; abortion rights; the moral status of the United States in the world. So it is no wonder that a flock of energized political activists is wooing single women's votes.

And we can indeed make a difference in November. According to the Women's Voices Women Vote project, we could have delivered Al Gore the 2000 election if we just showed up at the voting booth. Sixty-eight percent of married women showed up to vote, compared to just 52 percent of the women who were divorced, widowed, or had always been single.

The combination of startling statistics and the usual need to anoint a new election year demographic has proved irresistible. The media instantly came up with catchy monikers: Sex and the City demographic, lipstick liberals etc. Pollsters like Kellyanne Conway offered advice on how to get us to the polls: "Pretend it's a hair appointment we would not miss." A rash of new organizations with names like Axis of Eve and Running in Heels sprang up across the nation, offering colorful thongs emblazoned with slogans like "Lick Bush" and "Bush Free Zone." Using clever marketing in the service of the deadly serious goal of changing the course of the country, these groups have indeed been successful at attracting attention of both the media and single women.

Yet as a progressive single woman, I am troubled by this kind of hype. The lipstick and panty pitch trivializes and caricatures the very people liberal-leaning activists are out to recruit. To begin with, single women are not all nightclub-hopping twenty-somethings; two-thirds of them are 30 or older. And even those who are young have more pressing concerns than their panties. These women skew toward the lower end of the economic spectrum and are often single moms. They are more worried about making a decent living, having affordable health care and providing for their retirement than missing their manicure.

Yet our politicians continue to view single women as immature pleasure-seeking sybarites or, worse, don't see them at all. Here's Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohioan who chairs the House Republican Conference, on why we overwhelmingly vote Democrat:
The political difference between single woman and married women is simple. Married women begin families and look toward their future in terms of physical security, homeland security, and financial security ... and I think President Bush is much more attractive in terms of keeping our children safe and our homeland free from terrorist attack. The Democrats will probably hang their hats on the abortion issue when it comes to single women – that's the group to which that issue is most important.
It's that "simple": Married women care about the good of the nation and the family; single women are only interested in getting rid of their unwanted pregnancies.

While we are staggeringly diverse in terms of race and class, single women – along with single men – are united in the status as outsiders in a society that glorifies marriage and married people. The cultural script tells Americans to marry, have kids and settle down for life while our political system rewards those who do so. From tax breaks and healthcare benefits to welfare policies, the system is loaded against single women. And yet a Bush campaign ad attacks Kerry for opposing "tax relief for married couples 22 times."

The Bush administration has been especially keen to push the everybody-get-married agenda, plowing billions of dollars into its marriage initiative that encourages welfare recipients to get married. It's the Republican model of trickle-down-dignity: Take a single woman and her children, and add a man to make them respectable.

It's hardly surprising then that single women vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. The real question is why so many of them vote at all despite being repeatedly excluded and ignored.

During the fourth presidential debate in 2000, Lisa Key asked the candidates, "How will your tax proposals affect me as a middle-class, 24-year old single person with no dependents?" Both Al Gore and George Bush responded with a detailed explanation as to why their plan was better than the other guy's – for all voters. Neither acknowledged her as a single woman, or promised to fight for her interests.

This year, if Democrats want to inspire more single women to vote in November, they need to speak directly to real single women who are living real vibrant lives and forget about the cool new shade of lipstick.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Bella M. DePaulo is writing a book about the place of singles in contemporary American society.