Asea change has washed over America since Freud asked the question that forever perplexes everybody: "What do women want?" The question remains forever elusive, because women are never of one mind. To the consternation of marketers, political and otherwise, women don't all think alike.
Whether Republican or Democrat, male or female, black or white, vegetarian or confirmed carnivore, women are not single-issue voters. In a world of multitasking, women are multi-everything.
But the political strategists of both parties do look at women differently. Democrats perpetuate the convenient stereotype of women as helpless victims, ignoring the feminist revolution over the past 60 years that enabled women to earn equal employment and educational opportunities once reserved only for men.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, demonstrates anew how fickle voters can be. Just 47 percent of registered voters now regard Barack Obama favorably, down 7 percent from late spring. Worse for the Democrats, say the pollsters, the decline occurs almost entirely among women voters.
Republicans, on the other hand, emphasize women's accomplishments and can-do independence. Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico reveled in telling the Republicans in Tampa, Fla., how her father gave her a job in the family security business, assigned her to guard the parking lot for the weekly bingo games at the Catholic church, and armed her with a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum (the gun of choice of Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry"). Condoleezza Rice, who was raised in Jim Crow Birmingham, Ala., says she was not taught "grievance and entitlement," but rather that even though she couldn't have a hamburger at Woolworth's, she could grow up to be secretary of state.
Chris Christie, the macho governor of New Jersey, credited his mother as the model of independent thinking: "In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver."
The Democrats sometimes highlight strong women, too -- wives, moms and grandmothers who overcame tough times. But the Democrats' emphasis is invariably on women who need help, even with their sex lives, determined that the government pay for contraception and, when that fails, unrestricted abortions. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. and the first woman to preside over a Fortune 100 company, had it right when she said she was tired of hearing about women as a special-interest group. She scolded the Democrats for "milking" the abortion issue. "Women are over half of the population, they are not single-issue voters," she said on "Meet the Press."
Everyone is against rape, but one dumb remark about rape by a clueless Senate candidate, swiftly denounced by every prominent Republican, continues to distract attention from the issues really important to women.
Like men, most women want jobs, and it's women who have the education and employment momentum at their backs. Men are having a harder time in the shrunken job market. This was captured in a graphic cover of the New York Times Magazine, depicting a man standing in his boxer shorts without his trousers under the cover line: "Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?"
In what she characterizes as the "new middle-class matriarchy," Hanna Rosin, author of the forthcoming book, "The End of Men," interviewed struggling couples; the husband had been laid off his job and the wife had taken on the role of breadwinner. "A man needs a strong, macho job," one of these unhappy men told her. "He's not going to be a schoolteacher or legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen." The unemployed husbands she interviewed had worked mostly in construction and manufacturing, which have been particularly hard hit by the stubborn recession. Younger generations typically characterize these sensibilities as "old-fashioned."
Macho sensibility has often been transferred to young, ambitious women. These women tell Ms. Rosin that their empowerment means that no romantic attachment should obstruct their success in the workplace. They have little use for men except to satisfy their bedroom yearnings in calculated and uncommitted "hookups." They should make enough to pay for the condoms.
But between the wives who have, by necessity, taken over the "man's job," as defined in the 1950s, and the young women of the 21st century who think they know the meaning of success and often act like the chauvinist pigs they once railed against, many of the rest of the women feel insulted and demeaned by the simplicity with which politicians describe them.
What women want now is an intelligent debate on how to get the economy moving again. We know there's no "war on women" any more than there's a "war on men." What we need is a war on unemployment and the deficit that limits the prosperity of all men, women and children, and the grandchildren, too. Can we get serious?
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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