The 1950s called: They want their stereotypes back. In what feels like a throwback to a bygone era, paternalist politics were alive and well in this election. We heard about binders full of women and "legitimate rape." We heard old, white men question the merits of equal pay for equal work for women and the value of access to birth control. And we're still hearing it: former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney again personified the 1950s male archetype when he called free contraception a "gift" to college-age women.
Even today, voters expect women candidates to be more June Cleaver than Joan Crawford. Even with their big Election Day wins and a record 20 seats in the U.S. Senate, women still have to clear higher hurdles than men to reach the same goals.
New research released post-election by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation with Lake Research Partners reveals that voters want women candidates to fit into a mold that doesn't reflect our country's makeup. Voters penalize women for being single, without children, gay, divorced, or dating. Yet, more than 50 percent American households do not look like the family from a 1950s sitcom, according to a recent report on 2010 census data. For the first time since the Census Bureau began tracking this data in 1940, straight married couples with children make up less than half of households.
Voter demographics reflect that change in family makeup, too. According to the Voter Participation Center, single women comprise 55 million eligible voters and make up more than 25 percent of the population.
In this research on women candidates, we found that women need third-party validators to qualify their qualifications. Women have little room to make mistakes on the campaign trail. However, if she does misstep, a woman can bounce back by quickly and succinctly addressing the mistake and calling in third-party endorsers to reaffirm her qualifications.
The good news is this strategy is more effective for women than men. The bad news is that in 2012, women still need to employ this strategy at all.
Voters claim they want to see more diversity in Congress, yet what they expect from women candidates doesn't reflect that. In order to have a truly representative democracy, we must start by re-aligning our expectations of candidates with reality.
Even while expectations of women candidates seem stuck in a blender in Betty Crocker's kitchen, women made measurable progress this year. We sent a Congress of firsts to the Capitol, including Representative-elect Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the first bisexual member of Congress; Senator-elect Mazie Hironi of Hawaii, the first Buddhist Senator; Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first openly gay Senator; and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the first Hindu representative. And GOP members elected Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers as House Republican Caucus Chair, the first woman to serve in that role.
Attacks on women's autonomy, an onslaught of startlingly misinformed comments about conception, and attempts to redefine rape mobilized women. This war on women resulted in a triumphant banner year for women. In a significant win for women, and therefore, a win for good public policy, voters dipped their toe into the water of diversity. Next, let's jump in.