Women Voters and the Issues That Matter

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Melinda Henneberger

In her new book, Melinda Henneberger tries to identify the political issues that are most important to American women. Dana Gluckstein/Simon & Schuster hide caption

itoggle caption Dana Gluckstein/Simon & Schuster

Journalist Melinda Henneberger set out across the United States to find out what issues really matter to women. She spoke with hundreds of women from all walks of life. In her new book, If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, she discusses what she learned about why women vote the way they do.

Melinda Henneberger, author, If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear; contributing editor, Newsweek

Excerpt: 'If They Only Listened to Us'

Cover of 'If They Only Listened to Us'

Soon after the '04 election, I set out just to listen — respectfully, I hoped — to women all over the country, on the major questions of our time. I wanted to hear what draws women to the Democratic Party and what sends them off screaming into the night. What were those who voted for Gore in 2000 but Bush in '04 focusing on? Were they gone for good? And if not, what would it take to get them back in '08? I didn't want to limit the discussion to "women's issues," or for that matter, to limit it at all.

I am neither a pollster nor a political strategist. I am not a polemicist with a tidy theory to prove, and did not imagine that at the finish line, I would be able to hand either party an easy six-step plan for How to Get the Girl in '08; if it were that easy, there wouldn't be so many such books. I am a big fan of women and their stories, though, and in listening to a couple hundred of them — 234 in all, in twenty states, from Massachusetts to Arizona and Oregon to Florida — I did learn some things that both parties might like to know.

When I began, I knew only that I would start in the Midwest, where national elections are so often decided. I knew only that I would start with the women I know best, so there were a fair number of surprises along the way. But given how busy people are, one of the first and most basic was how eager women were to share their thoughts; total strangers called and cooked and then sent thank-you notes, saying they hadn't talked that much in years or felt so politically exhilarated ever. Pretty early on, I realized how starved we all are to be listened to, and how alienated from the wave upon nauseating wave of insider chitchat that is not in any real sense a national conversation. The shout culture exists in part to discourage precisely the kind of give-and-take and I-see-what-you-mean discussion that would help us work through what we think about and want from our government, in lieu of watching people who smile at inappropriate moments pretend to debate nonissues on cable. And wealthy or homeless, in college or retired, women said they felt disregarded by both parties. "Why would you want to talk to me?" they often wanted to know. Or they assumed I was hoping they would refer me to some designated "expert" or the most officially important person they knew, because that was surely who I really wanted to hear from.

While polling takes snapshots, listening takes time, and many of the interviews for this book went on for hours. They needed to, because the first thing we might blurt out about our political lives — a fragment of a campaign ad, maybe, or something our grandmother used to say — is rarely any more than a starting point. Unlike sex or religion, politics remains surprisingly private and unexamined terrain for many of us. When I began my travels, I often asked women whether their friends felt the same way they did, and frequently, the answer I got back was, "Oh, I wouldn't know; I never talk to anyone about this stuff." When they did begin to talk about it, they had blessedly few prepared answers to fall back on, but needed a minute to sort through the complicated and sometimes paradoxical motivations underneath their political choices, the lifetime of impressions behind even their most "last-minute" decisions in the ballot box.

These conversations were not exactly like the journalistic interviews I'd been doing for twenty years, either, in that I tried hard not to push, prod, provoke, or even seek answers to specific questions. I have never been a big believer in the magic of clever questioning, and have long agreed with what Janet Malcolm wrote years ago in The Journalist and the Murderer about her discovery that people will, for their own reasons, tell their stories pretty much the same way whether in response to a brilliant question or a half-formed one. Now, I began to see that I sometimes learned the most by asking no questions at all.

I came away convinced, for one thing, that if there ever were any security moms, they must have gone into hiding in a well-stocked bunker somewhere within moments of the '04 election. All but one of the women I met who switched parties over the war on terror went the other way, abandoning Bush for Kerry. The women who found Bush a more reliable general in that war were already Republicans and would have voted for him in any case.

Another surprise was how little loved Bush was even among women who had voted for him, only weeks after the election. In fact, so many women said they voted for the president despite minivanloads of misgivings, solely because they found Kerry's personality so off-putting, that I began to feel protective of the senator after a while. Was it his fault if his party didn't know better than to nominate someone who windsurfs?

Which is not to say that with no Kerry on the ticket, there will be no problem for the Democrats; on the contrary, what women could not abide in Kerry was the same thing they dislike about his party. Many said they felt he in particular and Democrats in general tend to look down on middle-class Middle Americans — yes, the very people their policies are intended to lift up. How can that be? Partly, it's that "God talk" does make a lot of Democrats squirm, and that discomfort comes across to believers as condescension. As does their wholly self-destructive habit of mocking Bush and other conservatives as none too bright.

Even now, as I'm writing this in 2006, nearly two years into Kerry's purgatorio of coulda-shoulda-woulda, he's just suggested five ways to "get the war on terror right." Before he even got to number one, he remarked that, "Five years after 9/11, the administration still hasn't figured out how to count to five." Mild stuff, right? Harmless enough, if maybe a tad insecure? Not at all. I hope the senator is cracking himself up, because such comments alienate people who assume he and his party probably think the same of them — and how smart is that?

I expected to hear a lot from the women I interviewed about abortion, and I did, but I'm not sure the Democrats realize how many otherwise quite liberal pro-life women, Catholics in particular, have switched parties over this issue but continue to look for a way back to the Democrats, with whom they agree with on almost every other matter. These women are not just gettable, they are all but desperate to find a way home — to the point that if the party does not send a car for them, with a really respectful driver, it will have only itself to blame.

Yes, it was abortion that women who were first-time defectors from the Democrats mentioned most often. Why would that be, when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973? Those who oppose abortion rights saw 2004 as the chance of a lifetime to overturn that decision, with a movement favorite already in the Oval Office and several spots on the Supreme Court likely to open up during the next term. A handful of Catholic bishops spoke out more plainly than in any previous election season and moved the crucial Catholic swing voters that Gore won in '00 to Bush in '04. Yet anyone who assumes such voters have found a comfy permanent home in the GOP ought to meet Kelly Dore, a former social worker and stay-at-home mom in Denver: "I'm with the Democrats on ninety percent of the issues," she says. "But if you're pro-life, they don't even want you."

I was even more taken aback, though, by the strength of opposition to gay marriage among black women; to say that the fairness argument often falls flat in the African-American community is an understatement. As Teresa Thomas-Boyd, a longtime civil rights activist in Milwaukee, puts it, "I may be discriminated against as a homosexual if I choose to say that about myself. But in a situation of color, I'm discriminated against every day... When people want to make it the same, it's not, and it makes people angry."

And in discussions of the presidential race coming up in '08, I never would have expected so many women who are furious at Bush to say they see no reason to hold his party accountable for anything that has gone on during his two terms. The one question I do ask, always, of those enraged at the current administration is: "So, does that mean you're any more likely to vote Democratic in '08?" Most often, the response is not just no but "Of course not." Yes, women did come home for the '06 midterm elections, but the bags are still in the front hall, unpacked. In '06, 51 percent of all those who cast ballots were women, and 55 percent of all women voters favored a Democrat for Congress. This time, they really were voting over the war on terror — and against how it's being waged in Iraq. But congressional Republicans were determined in their self-destruction this year, too.

The presidential election is different — not least because so many more women on the right than on the left seem to see it as a rolling referendum on abortion rights.

Even now, despite deep unhappiness over the war, there is still so much Democrat-on-Democrat rage out there that it's not at all unusual to hear women who have never voted for a Republican in their lives declare themselves so fed up with the home team that they are thinking seriously about Chuck Hagel — or, until he became one of the president's closest allies on Iraq, John McCain. Why? Because they've seen these men as the most effective critics Bush had, and given them extra credit for bucking their own party.

One longtime Democratic donor told me she was shocked by her own reaction to a couple of fund-raising calls she'd received. First, she heard from some poor guy from the Friends of John Kerry, to whom she responded that if he had any real friends, they would sit him down and tell him to forget about running again. Next, the Democratic National Committee rang and asked her to contribute to "help get our message out." "What message would that be?" she wanted to know. Alas, the poor kid on the phone had no idea. "But you've always given before," he begged. "And you've always wasted it!" she answered, enjoying herself a little by this point. "When you find out what the message is, you can call me back, and we'll see if I like it." Until she let loose on those two unfortunates, "I hadn't even realized how angry I was" over her party's inability to provide a straightforward alternative to the disaster of the Bush years.

So many of us feel politically antagonized, for a variety of reasons, that we sometimes seem to be the new "angry white males," throwing ourselves into the scream first, ask questions later political culture with an enthusiasm I have a hard time construing as a victory for our power base. But I also wonder if much of that frustration doesn't come from feeling we need to yell to be heard at all. Increasingly, it seems, we behave as though the proper resolution of all matters facing the nation were not only obvious but OBVIOUS, so why should we ever open an ear to anything or anyone who might contradict us? We are so sure we have nothing to learn from anyone who might feel differently that we keep to our own politically — and find that the more we vent, the more we are polarized and seething.

Not long ago, a friend of mine who is an architect in L.A. told me about a trip she'd taken to Italy, where she had spent some time as a student. She had not been back to Rome in many years and was astonished when at last she did return. It was not the Eternal City that had changed. But "there was so much I didn't see before, and that I couldn't see, because I had such strong opinions about everything." We are all like that, maybe more so all the time. And I am convinced that we will never get where we need to go as a country until we can put down our shoulders for a minute and allow ourselves to be — not won over, even, but just able to hear one another again. Whatever your own politics, you will meet some women in this book with whom you agree on nothing. Yet my hope is that you will listen to them, too, and try to see why they might feel as they do.

When I first called my old pals to tell them about this completely nonlinear plan I had to get out and listen to what women were thinking about, Kim called back almost right away to say that she already had lined up more women in Fairfield, Illinois, where she lives, than I'd ever have time to talk to. "What you've got to understand," she said, "is that nobody ever asks us what we think." Upscale professional women wondering how to stay on partnership track without missing soccer practice, yes, have been heard from rather extensively. But most women in most of America, no. And that is part of the problem.

Copyright © 2007 by Melinda Henneberger

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What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear

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