The post-State of the Union preschool debate and the anniversary of the Feminine Mystique make this a good time to examine views on the "women's issues" Stephanie Coontz so eloquently described as human rights issues. Turns out there is more consensus than division.
Most Americans feel women should be free to participate in the workforce without facing disapproval. This CNN/ORC poll from last year showed 97 percent "approve of a married woman holding a job in business or industry if her husband is able to support her." Almost as many (89 percent) also approved of a "married woman with young children" working. Also in 2012, Pew found nearly 80 percent -- a record high -- disagreed with the statement: "Women should return to their traditional roles in society."
And while CNN showed sizeable majorities finding "women working outside the home" a good thing for marriages (75 percent), the workplace (88 percent) and "society in general" (81 percent), the biggest shift was in views toward the effect of working women on their children. A majority said more women working was a good thing for their children (52 percent); in past decades a majority felt it was a bad thing. Similarly, Pew found a record high (61 percent) disagreed with the statement: "A preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works."
Not only do people approve, but majorities of women themselves say they would prefer to work outside the home. CNN/ORC found 60 percent of women would prefer to work outside the home, the highest in decades of tracking. Gallup tracking confirms this, and even shows women not currently working are pretty divided on what they'd prefer.
But while support for working women in theory may pervade, so do daily struggles to balance work and family. A 2012 bipartisan post-election poll for the National Partnership for Women and Families showed huge numbers feel conflict in "managing work, family and personal responsibilities." Women feel the squeeze at least "some of the time" more than men (76 percent vs. 70 percent), a gap that widens among working women and men (81 percent vs. 72 percent). (Thanks to the National Partnership for Women and Families for providing crosstabs on their data.)
Efforts to improve preschool options could greatly ease these hardships. In my firm's focus groups with Walmart moms last week, moms became animated when talking about the President's agenda on public preschool. Each mom had a story of struggling to afford, or simply get to, their child's preschool. One mom said she had to quit her full-time job in order to be able to take her child to a part-time, private preschool. Another fondly recalled the public preschool program for which her family qualified.
(My firm, Momentum Analysis, along with Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, conducted two focus groups of Walmart moms on February 13, 2013, one in Philadelphia, the other in Kansas City. The groups are qualitative, rather than quantitative, and so results are not statistically projectable onto the population at large. Walmart moms are defined as moms with kids under 18 living at home who have shopped at a Walmart at least once in the last month. See more of our past research here. All Walmart moms research is sponsored by Walmart. The views in this post are my own.)
Candidates looking to reach women voters would be well-advised to address issues of work/life balance. Currently, though, it seems Democrats have the advantage. In a May 2012 Hart/McInturff poll for the Wall Street Journal, Democrats were seen as having a 26-point advantage being "attuned and sensitive" to the needs of working women. (They had an 8-point advantage in being attuned to the needs of stay-at-home moms.) In the official 2012 exit polls, Obama benefited from a large gender gap overall (+10), and a larger gender gap among parents (+11) than among non-parents (+7). (The official exit polls do not include a gender/employment crosstab.)
But helping working families doesn't have to be a partisan issue. According to the National Partnership crosstabs, Republican women are actually slightly more likely to say they face hardships managing household struggles than are independent and Democratic women. Helping working families juggle home and work -- through programs like full-day public preschool -- would actually benefit women and men, Democrats and Republicans. And it could help candidates of both parties at the polls.