VOTING

What Women Voters Want

Talking Politics: A Taboo for American Women?

Melinda Henneberger is a journalist who has covered politics since 1994, including 10 years at the New York Times. In 2007 she published a book called If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear. While researching this book, she spent eighteen months traveling across the United States and listening to what women of all ages, races, tax brackets and political views had to say about how they vote, what they care about, and what drives them crazy about candidates in both parties. She found out that a surprising number of women still avoid talking about politics and she feels that silence is hurting her country.

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U.S. women interviewed in this book say that they want to be able to trust their presidential candidate even more than they want to agree with him or her. View Larger >

Why did you become a political journalist?

I grew up in an extremely conservative small town in southern Illinois in a family that discussed politics every day, and late into the night. Lots of nights, my Uncle Bob and Aunt Ginny would come over and they and my dad would be denouncing the Trilateral Commission or the Equal Rights Amendment until the wee hours--or until my mother threw them out, whichever came first.

I have covered politics since 1994, mostly for the New York Times, where I worked for 10 years. People in the political world are pretty much all crazy in a way I find irresistible. But my biggest frustration in covering campaigns has always been how little time we got to listen to voters; I've actually been left behind a few times by the press plane because I couldn't manage to tear myself away from talking to people in the crowd after a campaign event.

What inspired you to write If They Only Listened to Us?

My motivation for the book was really straightforward: After the '04 presidential election, I was curious to find out why the gender gap by which women voters have traditionally favored Democratic candidates had slightly narrowed. John Kerry talked constantly about the wage gap and the glass ceiling and the Supreme Court, and he nevertheless lost some women who had supported Al Gore to George W. Bush. Why was that?

I wanted to hear from women themselves what they were thinking, and what they wanted to see happen in '08 so I decided to get out of Washington and ask them. Then I just sat back and learned from what they had to say--what a luxury!

Why did Kerry lose some Democrat women in ‘04?

Well, it wasn't because of the "security moms'' we heard so much about in those days. Women who voted for Bush because they considered him the better general in the war on terror weren't "security moms"--they were Republicans, and would have voted for him in any case.

Instead, it was the general feeling that Kerry was an elitist (Doesn't that sound familiar?) who looked down on the average person, while Bush was this good guy who could relate. That year, I heard an awful lot about what a snob Kerry's polyglot wife supposedly was, and what a turnoff it was to see him windsurfing.

What did you learn about the U.S. women voters?

One big take-away was that a lot more of us than you might expect don't vote on issues at all; we vote on emotion.

Why do I say that? Because so often, women would first tell me what their number-one issue was--choice or the environment or health care--and then they'd explain why they voted AGAINST the person who agreed with them on what they just said was their top issue.

The bottom line usually boiled down to: "I just didn't like the guy; I liked the other guy.'' (I do not, by the way, think that women vote any more emotionally than men. But I do think that Republicans have become better at wielding emotion than Democrats.)

Hasn't your research also shown that many U.S. women feel excluded from politics?

Yes, women across the political spectrum have told me that they feel unheard by politicians in both parties. But we don't have to wait for them to listen to us when there's so much to be gained from listening to each other.

What I loved more than anything about this project is that some of the groups of women in the book still continue meeting and talking, trying to figure out what they really care about, what they're going to do about it and how can they do it together. It's such an important thing to listen to and be heard by people who do not share our opinions. I have come to believe that our squeamishness about having these sometimes uncomfortable conversations is part of the problem--and that a willingness to listen and learn from each other is the beginning of the solution.

In what way has your book contributed to our understanding of both women and politics?

Interviewing women all across the United States, I saw that many still don't talk much about politics, even with their closest friends. Or if they do, it's only with people they're sure would agree with them, because they "don't want to get into it'' or hurt anyone's feelings. Or, if they didn't go to the Kennedy School or get a PhD in political science, they might think, "Oh, I don't really know enough to weigh in."

But I usually talked to women in groups of their friends, and once they got started, they had a LOT to say, and showed how much untapped political passion there is out there.

It was a beautiful thing to see how, in these groups, women would just instinctively look for the common ground. It is a shame that a lot of these people have taken themselves out of political life because they think it's a dirty business. As more women opt out, the less our political leaders do end up resembling or representing us, making politics dirtier. And the more women get involved beyond just voting, the more we can set the agenda and the tone.

The subtitle to your books reads: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear. What do women across the United States want their politicians to hear?

Of course, that depends on which women; some of us want universal health care and some want a fence along the Mexican border. But one thing that did hold true across the political spectrum was that women want to be able to trust their candidate even more than they want to agree with him or her. Yes, that's right. So many women said that it's the person they believe is telling them the truth who will get their vote, even if what he or she is saying is not exactly what they want to hear.

Can you help us bust some stereotypes? What are some stereotypes about women voters that your research has trumped?

I guess the biggest one is that conservative women aren't ready for a woman in the White House. I didn't find that true at all. On the contrary, that was one of the few issues on which there was almost no disagreement. We are all ready, now we just have to agree on a candidate!

What issues will be most important for women in the '08 election?

Most people agree that the top issues for November for men and women are the economy, the war, and high gas prices. But which candidate will win as a result? No one knows, especially, as I had said, I don't think you can draw a very straight line between issues and election results at all.

An example of this is the fact that one in four Hillary supporters have told pollsters that they're considering either voting for John McCain or staying home on Election Day. Clearly, they're planning on doing this not because McCain is more in sync with them on the issues than Obama, but because they're still unhappy over the primary season.

Currently, I'm working on a series of stories for Grist.org on voters in swing states. I'm visiting states that are in play in November and asking people whom they're supporting and why. And everywhere I go, some people come right out and mention race as a reason why they‘d never support Obama. Now, this is not a poll; it's a postcard! But the fact that it's mentioned so often and so openly does make me wonder how many more people have it on their mind but wouldn't say so.


To purchase Melinda Henneberger's book If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear please visit amazon.com.




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