Sigmund Freud, who claimed women “oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own,” famously asked, “What does a woman want?” Freud’s overt bias isn’t voiced very often today, but variants of his question continue to be posed. Just last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus offered his hypothesis about what influences women’s political perspectives.
Now, not all women agree, no more than all men do. Still, women as a group do have different views than men as a group.
After being asked why women so strongly favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, Priebus offered that women were swayed by what they had been told. Said Preibus, “If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars, and mainstream media outlets talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we have problems with caterpillars.”
The presumption that the media and the Democratic Party have hoodwinked susceptible women is patronizing. In fact, women have been more Democratic than men for decades.
Women’s political inclination is so strong that it led conservative Ann Coulter to say a few years ago, “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president,” and her ideological compatriot John Derbyshire more recently to argue there’s a “case against female suffrage.”
Yet women’s attachment to the Democratic Party took awhile to emerge. After the Nineteenth Amendment passed, women tended to vote an awful lot like the men in their lives. Women mattered politically because they promoted clean politics. The League of Women Voters, which grew from a national women’s suffrage organization, sponsored debates and distributed information about policy positions. As scholar Kristi Andersen wrote, in the 1920s, women voters “encouraged the view of elections as a wholesome community event in which all good citizens could participate.”
Then in 1980, the Republican Party disavowed its previous support of an Equal Rights Amendment, a proposal they first championed in the 1920s, before the Democrats. With the emergence of the religious right, the Republican Party took up the banner of social conservatism. Reagan also stood for limiting government support for programs helping low-income individuals and expanding military spending.
From that presidential election on, sometimes majorities of women and men supported the same candidate, as more women than men voted for the Democrat.
What do women want? Women still spend more time than men taking care of children and care a lot about education and health care. These are not abstractions, but grow out of experiences like getting up in the night to care for a sick child and gauging whether medical help, for which they may not have insurance, is needed right away.
Women work and they want to treated and paid fairly. Nor is this an abstraction, but is linked to day-to-day experiences with bosses and co-workers. And women’s earnings are still lower.
Women use contraception and know that controlling their reproduction is critical to steering their future. Women tend to support a strong safety net and think about the collective good. These are concerns in themselves but also economic issues, ultimately about the ability of them and their families to prosper.
To appeal to women, Mitt Romney’s campaign released a video featuring his wife, Ann Romney, who talks about when her five sons were home and Mitt arrived from work, he was so mischievous it was like having a sixth son. While this sort of thing humanizes Mr. Romney, it does not change the fact that women have responded to the parties’ positions on issues that matter to them.
As President Obama recently said, women are “driven by their view of what’s most likely to make sure they can help support their families, make their mortgage payments, who has got a plan to ensure middle class families are secure over the long term, what is most likely to result in their kids being able to get the education they need to compete.”
Women are the majority of voters and don’t all agree. But if Republicans want to erase the decades-long gender gap, they could start by respecting women as active thinkers and then pay attention to how women’s lives are connected to their political wants.