The following article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms. Read more of our election coverage by getting a digital subscription to the magazine.
Hardly a week goes by in Washington, D.C. that doesn’t include an announcement, panel discussion or report on women voters—how we think, how to win us, where we live and what we had for breakfast. OK, I made that last part up.
But consider this: The Republican Party is spending $10 million on a marketing campaign aimed at people of color and women voters in order to shed its image, as described by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, as a “narrow-minded, out-of-touch” party of “stuffy old men.”
Meanwhile, the Democrats have unveiled a computer turnout model called Rosie—Re-engaging Our Sisters in Elections, inspired by Rosie the Riveter.
All this attention comes as no surprise, considering how often women have provided the winning margin in the most important elections. The gender gap, as first identified by Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, is very real.
For example, women provided the margin of victory for Barack Obama in 2008, and in 2012 voted 55 percent for Obama compared to men’s Obama vote of 45 percent—a historic gender gap of 10 percent. That same year, large gender gaps determined the outcome of many Senate races, leading to a Democratic Senate majority. If only men had voted, the Senate would be primarily Republican. Even in 2010, a year of House gains for Republicans, the gender gap was widespread—but too small to offset men’s higher percentage of votes for Republican candidates.
The gender gap has also been decisive in passing marriage-equality ballot measures in Maine, Maryland and Washington and defeating an anti-equal-marriage amendment in Minnesota. If only men had voted, marriage equality would have been defeated in those states.
Gender differences at the polls are driven by social, economic and environmental issues—thus if candidates want women’s votes, they should speak to what’s relevant in women’s lives. So why aren’t they? Maybe it’s because the (mostly male) candidates still haven’t learned how to listen to women. They listen to their pollsters, they listen to their friends on the golf course, they listen to other politicians—but when it comes to communicating with women, many still don’t get it.
Connecting with women voters is pretty simple, really. Candidates who want the women’s vote need to engage with them about what matters most to them. And candidates need to make a specific commitment to things like women’s access to health care, paycheck fairness and protection from violence, whether we live in an immigrant community, on an Indian reservation or in a mansionized home in the suburbs.
I’m often asked why the National Organization for Women (NOW) endorses men as well as women. The answer is that we endorse those who will champion our issues, male or female. But I also know that we need to elect more women—feminist women. Women make up less than a quarter of Congress and hold five governorships, ranking us behind Afghanistan, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. At the current rate, women won’t reach political parity until 2121!
The evidence is clear that in progressive, moderate and even conservative circles, women leaders are more likely than their male counterparts to prioritize issues affecting women and families. The nonpartisan group Political Parity states that women political leaders are ranked higher in public polling than men in five of seven key policymaking areas, including working out compromises, keeping government honest, standing up for what they believe in and representing constituents’ interests.
Pollsters and political pundits love to slice and dice the electorate into demographic wedges with cute names— soccer moms, Walmart moms, NASCAR dads. Fine. Whatever. I’m less interested in politicians’ marketing strategies than I am in voters’—particularly women voters’—power to make elections really matter. Here’s how we can do that in 2014:
Step One: Vote.
Step Two: Vote.
Step Three: Vote.
Repeat until politicians get the message.
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