THE BLOG
11/07/2012 01:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2013

Women Voters Won Last Night -- But Did Anyone Get The Message?

Women voters were the prize in the 2012 campaign. They turn out in higher numbers than men and it has long been impossible to win an election without them.

And yet, for far too long, candidates seemed to think women's votes could be gotten with good looks (most recently the Wisconsin ad urging women to "Vote for the cute one," before that the selection of Dan Quayle because, as one prominent Republican noted at the time "I can't believe a guy that handsome wouldn't have some impact") or a pandering placement on the ticket (hello, Sarah Palin), or by spending a lot of time calling us Mom

Perhaps last night they finally gotten the message. Or, messages: 

You don't win if you dismiss us. Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" struck a chord because it felt like a rare moment of candor. He seemed to see us as a box to be checked. A former governor who appointed competent, talented women to his cabinet because he saw them as integral and intrinsic to governing rather than tokens of their gender would never have used those words. 

You don't win if you think you know more about our bodies than we do. Especially if you are horrifyingly wrong. Todd Akin proved that when Missouri voters rebuked him for saying that pregnancy rarely results from "legitimate rape" because a woman's body "has ways to shut the whole thing down."  (It didn't help that he later explained he was confident he would win because opponent Claire McCaskill did not appear "ladylike" during their September debate, and went on to compare her to a dog.

You don't win if you equate rape with anything other than the evil that it is.  Defeated Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock knows that now, after saying that pregnancies resulting from rape are  "something that God intended to happen."

You probably shouldn't joke about birth control, either. We take it very, very seriously. We made that clear during the primaries when Foster Friess, the wealthy Rick Santorum supporter, tried to distract us from his candidate's archaic stance on contraception, saying "back in my days, they'd use Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly." (It wasn't just women, of course, who joined the firestorm of response on Facebook and Twitter. Men made it clear that they care about birth control, too.)

It should go without saying, but you don't win just because you are a woman. Linda McMahon learned that in Connecticut, as did Heather Wilson in New Mexico and Shelley Berkley in Nevada. Tellingly, when women ran against women, it was the candidates who were championed women's rights who tended to win: pro-choice women, supported by such organizations as Emily's List, beat Republican women for Senate in California, New York and Hawaii.

We are not single issue voters and don't respond well to being viewed as such. Policies about our bodies are not the only questions we take to the voting booth. But even if what tipped us was the economy, or the war, or climate change, our world view as women -- or, more accurately, how the political world viewed us as women -- seeped into how we processed this campaign. There were candidates who respected us and others who insulted us. With few exceptions (Michele Bachmann comes to mind), respect won.
 
Partly because many candidates failed to hear or heed the messages above, this newly elected 113th Congress will include 19 women senators, the largest number in history. (Yes, it is still absurdly low in a country where half the population is female -- equally baffling is why so many states had no women candidates in any race -- but it's a start.)

New Hampshire, in turn, will be represented at the highest levels entirely by women -- Democrat Maggie Hassan is governor elect, and two congresswomen will join the two female senators who already represent the state. 

And President Obama arguably owes his re-election to women. He won with an 18-point gender gap nationwide, making victory possible in several key swing states  including Ohio (where he led by 12 percent among women) and Pennsylvania (where women preferred him by 16 percent). 

Heady stuff, right? The ultimate proof of the power of women? Perhaps. We certainly got their attention over the past year, when women's issues took center stage more than any campaign in history. But attention from a candidate is not the same as action from an elected representative, and the real test will be what happens next.

Politicians talked to women, about women and at women when they wanted our vote. Now they have to talk with women if they want to keep our support.