The "gender gap" -- the decades-long gulf between the two major parties' ability to secure the support of women voters -- has become such a calcified part of how we talk about elections and political strategy that it has left both the Democratic and Republican parties, to different degrees and in different ways, silent about the basic status of women in our society. It is ironic that our political elites can talk so much about the importance of "the women's vote" and yet say so little about the issues that are so crucial in determining whether women thrive or not.
How did we get here?
The dynamics of the "gender gap" emerged in the '50s and '60s when white men in the South began to vote against the Democratic Party in response to its association with civil rights, voting rights, and school integration. While Southern white men gravitated to the GOP, women stayed put and became a major constituency for Democrats, creating a gap between women and men in party identification and voting behavior. The gap grew throughout the '70s and '80s and by the 1990s had become a seemingly immutable fact of political life.
The persistence of this gap over the decades has created an enduring narrative about "the women's vote," one that considers women voters either a monolith or a narrow special interest group. In election after election, the media and pundits create a new gender idiom -- soccer moms, security moms, waitress moms, the sex and the city voter, etc. -- that allegedly explains the "women's vote" in a particular election year. At the same time, both the Democratic and Republican parties reach out to women with efforts like "Women for [insert presidential candidate name here]" and holding a women's night at the party convention. Implicit in these efforts, women and women's issues can be addressed in a uniform manner, with a page on a website or a speech at a convention.
In 2012, the second "Year of the Woman" since 1992, this dynamic was particularly evident. To be sure, the comments of members of the "rape caucus" and the federal- and state-level assault on reproductive rights and health set the stage for a contentious and high-profile battle for the "women's vote." But the parties' responses were disappointingly narrow in their discussion of the "women's vote," as they were primarily focused on reproduction and motherhood.
Consider the convention speech given by Ann Romney. In addition to "humanizing" her husband, its intent was to reassure women voters that the GOP cares about and respects women ("I love you, women!). In her telling, women's value derives primarily from their motherhood role: "it's the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together. We're the mothers. We're the wives. We're the grandmothers. We're the big sisters. We're the little sisters and we are the daughters." Working mothers should be particularly rewarded, moreover, because they are pulling the "second shift," making sure the book report gets done and learning the routes to the emergency room. Mitt Romney, in noting Ann Romney's heroism for taking care of five boys while he traveled for work, said he tried to offer support long distance, but "every mom knows that doesn't help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school. I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine. And I knew without question that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine." While this particular approach to women communicates empathy and appreciation for what mothers do, it fails to assign any value to women's lives outside of that role, completely ignores women who are not mothers, and ignores larger issues affecting women's status in society.
Throughout the campaign, the Democratic Party clearly championed women's rights, especially reproductive rights, in a full-throated, unprecedented way. The Obama campaign ran ads defending a woman's right to choose and Planned Parenthood, in battleground states and nearly every competitive race against a Tea Party candidate down the ballot, invoked the GOP's "war on women." This approach was clear, a moral imperative given the level of misogyny coming out of the Republican Party, but also an effective campaign strategy; in Democracy Corps' post-election research, for example, defending Planned Parenthood was in the top tier of reasons to support President Obama, especially among women voters. But aside from reproductive rights and health, and a few nods to Lily Ledbetter and pay equity, there was little discussion from the Democractic Party of the broader set of issues that affect the status of woman in our society, let alone the cultural and legal structures that create economic inequality in the first place.
And so, between the Republican fixation on motherhood and the Democratic nearly exclusive focus on reproductive rights and health, women voters are defined primarily by their uterus.
It's certainly true that women bear children and men do not; the value we place on motherhood and the choice of whether or not to have children is critical to women's economic standing, as Senator-elect Tim Kaine said so eloquently in his race. But equally as important, women's economic inequality stems from the fact that our society and our laws continue to view women as part of a married couple with a male breadwinner. This 1950s model is ingrained into our cultural expectations and workplace norms, despite the fact that a near majority of women in this country are unmarried, more women than ever are forgoing having children, and most women with young children are in the workforce. And let's be clear, the "second shift" cited by the Right as one of the virtues of American mothers, is actually reflective of how little progress we have made in equalizing the responsibilites of women and men in the home.
As many academics note, this idealized view of the American family is a social construct and not dictated by biology or even reality. The persistence of this myth means that women continue to be more economically insecure and vulnerable than men and there are still relatively few women -- who might address ongoing gender inequality - in the halls of political and corporate power. There is no reason to believe our current political discussion about the "women's vote" will address these larger issues facing women and, in fact, there are few incentives for Republicans and Democrats to do so. At the moment, the Republican Party relies on their unshakable anti-abortion base, particularly in primaries, and it is hard to imagine a near term course correction from the most anti-choice GOP platform instituted to date. Democrats won this election, in part, by winning the argument on who would better represent women, and there is every reason to believe that advocating for women's reproductive rights will continue to pay political dividends.
The 2012 conversation about the women's vote was not always edifying, but it did reveal and even reinforced the very limited ways that the candidates and the parties conceive of women's issues. Imagine if we had a holistic discussion of the economic status of women that did not glorify juggling work and family or elevated the women's economic standing with along with the fight for reproductive rights; then, we might have a women's agenda focused on policies that would really improve the status of women such as requiring paid sick and parental leave, ending wage discrimination and sexual harassment, providing affordable and quality childcare, and devoting real resources to prevention of sexual and domestic violence. The women's agenda is broad and rich, and improving women's status would not only help women who are a majority of the population, it would make the country stronger as well.