Sex and the single voter

Single women are the hot, must-have demo for the 2004 presidential race. But will they put out this November?

Rebecca Traister
April 13, 2004 12:58AM (UTC)

It's nearly time to announce the winner of the race to be the new soccer moms for the 2004 presidential election -- that carefully carved out segment of the American population on whom pundits, pollsters, journalists and candidates have decided victory hinges. It looks as though it's almost final: after staving off fierce competition from NASCAR dads (blue-collar men), office-park dads (upscale suburban men), and Wal-Mart moms (working-class suburban women), 2004's snazzy political demographic of choice is going to be: single women.

"It's this monolithic, undiscovered demographic that marketing folks understand, but politicians don't," said Elaine Lafferty, the editor in chief of Ms. magazine. She added that while she hadn't yet seen numbers thoroughly persuading her this phenomenon is real, "it certainly is what the media is portraying."


What the media is portraying, in approximately one bazillion recent articles, is that on the political dinner table is my own young -- and available! -- demographic. According to a 2003 study by Democratic pollsters Celinda Lake and Stan Greenberg, that single female demographic would -- if subtly coerced into enfranchisement -- lean left. So Democratic presidential strategists should consider us a big, tasty filet mignon: tender, juicy, and just waiting to be ravished.

It's all based on statistics, of course. According to Census numbers, there were 16 million unmarried, unregistered female voters in 2000, and 22 million single women who registered but did not vote. Six million registered singleton women did not pull a lever in an election that came down to a half-million votes nationally. And even though the 6 million non-voters include never-married women, women who live with partners, widows and divorcées of all races and economic backgrounds, you can practically hear analysts and journalists coughing "Carrie Bradshaw" under their breath. Some haven't even bothered to cover their mouths; the unnerving phrase "Sex and the City Voters" has now appeared in several publications.

It's a yoke I am not particularly eager to bear. I am this demographic: a woman, 25 to 34, who has never married. But I vote, and so do all my single girlfriends. Or so they proclaim, loudly, until they get a few beers in them and one or two admit that maybe they didn't, in 2000, because it didn't really matter in New York anyway -- Gore was winning the state by a landslide. And then a few more -- political activists even -- admit that while they hit the polls for the presidential elections, they have failed to do so for local and state elections. And just about none of them bothered to vote in the March presidential primary. "I don't know why I didn't," said one of my oldest friends, a 29-year-old. "I'm bad, I guess." My 24-year-old buddy said simply of her most recent failure to turn up at the polls, "I didn't feel informed enough."


It turns out there are statistics that could back up the argument that it's us urban single broads creating a sinkhole in the youth voting statistic. After all, "the new spinster" is an exploding population. The percentage of women 30 to 34 who have never been married rose from 6 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2000. Among women 40 to 44 years old in 2000, 20 percent were childless, a figure that had nearly doubled since 1980. And Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation who coined the term "gender gap," emphasized that while the overarching statistic -- 68 percent of married women voted in 2000 compared to 52 percent of single women -- the real factor seems to be age. It's the population of young, never-married women who are creating the difference: 57 percent of married 25- to 44-year-olds claimed to have voted in 2000, compared to 47 percent of never-married women in the same age bracket.

But statistics are slippery, and "young never-married women" do not necessarily mean Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. Haven't I -- a woman whose life sounds on paper like it might resemble theirs -- spent the better part of a decade explaining to loved ones that no one I know has that much sex, that much money, or one of those large ball gowns made of feathers? But I bet that even given those (quite serious) distinctions, my friends and I have a lot more in common with the "SATC" girls than most Americans. What about all those technically single women in long-term live-in partnerships? What about lesbians? (No, not the ones on "The L Word.") What about rural and suburban single women, non-professional wage-earners, the middle and working classes, minorities and immigrants? Could it be that reporters are taking compelling statistics and turning them into their own wet dream of a target demographic?

Probably. But the "Sex and the City Voter" -- or her nearest real-life approximation, the urban professional single woman -- does exist. When I got in touch with people who specialize in thinking about, marketing to, writing of, and otherwise engaging single urban women, I expected flip, funny responses to the question of how to woo them to the polls: sample sales at the polling places? Gift bags? Hey, don't think I wasn't thinking it myself. But whether the statistics tell the whole story, those who make their living understanding women like me were worried about my peers' disconnection from the political process. Why is it that we -- better educated, better employed, and the beneficiaries of the serious gender politicking of our forebears -- aren't interested in making our electoral voices heard?


"The reality is that politically, not much is geared toward single women," said Candace Bushnell, whose newspaper column "Sex and the City" ran in the New York Observer and was later adapted into the HBO series. "A lot of single women wonder what men even have to offer them -- almost like they live in a different world. Single women tend to live in a world that's largely about women." And it's not as though there are any women running for president. In fact, Bushnell pointed out, the only visible single women on the political horizon are thin pundits like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. "Why are they all Republicans?" asked Bushnell incredulously. "Maybe the Democrats need to look into this."

Bushnell added that the shark- (and leech-) infested waters of today's dating pool have also left single girls distrustful of guys who appear on their televisions, bearing promises of tax cuts and an end to terrorism. "A lot of single women in their 20s and 30s will say they've been disturbed by male dating behavior, and now they don't really trust men," said Bushnell. And it's not just that our political options remind us of dud paramours; it's that -- with the exception of the mesmerizing Bill Clinton -- presidential candidates tend to have the look and feel of our fathers. "They represent the rigid kind of male authority that single women have basically been fighting against their whole lives. And it's that male authority that has proven to be in their experience intrinsically false and suspicious," Bushnell said.


All of our presidential choices are, literally, fathers and husbands, Bushnell noted, anxious to tell us what they're going to do for the American family. It's not a message likely to warm the hearts of unmarried young women who have never considered home ownership, the marriage tax, buying a car, sending children to school, or "investing" their money -- they're just hoping it stays in their bank account long enough to keep the rent check from bouncing. Smeal agreed on this point. "The issues being emphasized are issues of the 'traditional family.' Even the Democrats who feel they're more liberal talk about families all the time," she said. "Who are they really talking about? I think they are still picturing the Cleavers: June and Ward and the two boys."

Smeal said that this particular shortcoming unites the never-married with their older, divorced or widowed sisters, who may have adult children and feel equally invisible to politicians who speak only to young growing families. "We see these two males both dragging around the perfect wife," said Smeal. "This is not a picture of [single women's] lives and they don't trust it. They probably look at that image and figure that he's running around on the side. They've seen life. They don't buy the storybook. But the storybook just doesn't seem to change!"

Smeal also said that in the case of the 25- to 44-year-old never-married woman, voting becomes less of a practical reality because "she is so damn busy all the time." Karen Catchpole, senior editor at Jane, which targets women in their 20s, said that it is just these kinds of practical realities that have turned women off to presidential politics. "Women respond to legitimate choice, and to a system that is trustworthy," she said. "We're busy. We don't have time to go out and play some kind of crazy power game." Catchpole said that in the surveys Jane has conducted as part of the magazine's faux "Jane Pratt For President 2004" campaign -- which includes a voter registration link on its home page -- many readers admitted that they did not vote. But, Catchpole said, "what they said was basically, 'I would have gone to vote if there was someone who wasn't a moron to choose.'" So, she continued, "if we legitimately believed that Bush cronies and dangling chads weren't going to undermine the choices we made, and if there was a candidate who wasn't a moron ..." the ladies might get out the vote.


Well, sure. But back here on planet Earth, what could the candidates do to reach single women and make them listen? Catchpole said, "It's not like they should start thinking 'let's do a mall tour because we're going to talk to women.'" She paused, and said with audible disgust, "By the way, I'm 100 percent sure that that idea has come up, and that's just offensive." She's also not keen on the idea that women are really only interested in voting on "soft" issues like reproductive rights. "There's a misconception that if you say 'abortion' a couple of times and get teary when you talk about Iraq that you are going to have the chick vote in your pocket," said Catchpole. "That's simplistic and insulting, to think that just because they're women doesn't mean they're not interested in the economy."

So rather than setting up polling locations at a Contempo Casuals in Paramus Park Mall or distributing morning-after pills on the stump, Catchpole suggested laying off the WWF Smackdown-inspired oratorial stylings. "Most male candidates speak in terms of power and 'beat the other guy,'" she said. "They focus on a warlike scenario when it comes to voting and that's not the most inspirational tone to take with a 23-year-old woman who's got bills to pay and has a job to hold down. But that's not to say that you should use cool words and get a better wardrobe. The secret isn't to be a woman. The secret is: Don't be a moron."

Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys New York, isn't so sure that there is any secret. Doonan, who prefaced his comments by noting that he has "one Manolo Blahnik plonked firmly in the camp" of the single babes he deals with every day, said darkly, "The 'Sex and the City' single women are never going to take an interest in politics. They are so completely mired in fashion and style and self-indulgence. They have, maybe quite wisely, decided to center their entire lives on themselves. They're very inwardly focused; they make random attempts at caring about the world by going to yoga class." Doonan added that youthful political indifference is the inevitable result of the celebrity-lubricated dumb-down of the electorate. "The Blahnik-wearing Gen X chick's only glancing connection with politics is that she's heard it's groovy to hate George Bush," he said. "Hollywood celebrities have given people the impression that politics is a bumper sticker ... But it's not just about saying 'George Bush is a scum-bag' over and over again, or wearing a Katherine Hamnet T-shirt."


Elle editor in chief Roberta Myers was more politic in her diagnosis of a similar singleton trait -- self-absorption. "Once you have children," she said, "you are invested in the community more, and you feel more of a personal impact about the way your government behaves," she said, emphasizing that she wasn't implying that "young single women aren't serious and don't care about the world. It's just that they are more personally oriented. When you have children your relationship to the bigger world changes and the fact that women are waiting longer to have children because they are doing other things means that they are going to be a little more apathetic about politics." She also said that the younger generation has inherited a less idealized view of the American government from parents disillusioned by Watergate and Vietnam. "Young people don't seem as dewy-eyed about the Constitution and the beauty of democracy as previous generations were," she said. As for how candidates could catch the eyes of single women, Myers said that in practical terms, "One thing the Kerry campaign could do is get John Edwards [as the vice-presidential candidate]." She was quick to add, "not just because John Edwards is cute. It's that he's got a magnetism, and you can hear the message a little more easily. It's true that you actually pay more attention to people who are compelling speakers and deft with language."

New York magazine sex columnist Amy Sohn wasn't nearly so hesitant in her implication that maybe the way to the female voter's heart was through her libido. By e-mail, Sohn suggested that John Kerry "should trot out his stepsons at benefits because they're hot and eligible." And those benefits? Sohn said they shouldn't be $1,000-a-head affairs, but "$250-a-head appetizer hours because single women don't have that kind of money and live on finger food anyway." That's all fine for the campaign, but how would Sohn lure women into the actual voting booths? "[Kerry] should hire really good-looking men to stand outside the polling places in high-single areas," she said. "All the men should have sideburns and good breath. Any time they see a harried woman walking by in unreasonably high heels, they hand her a flier that says Choose, Then Booze." Sohn also echoed Eleanor Smeal, who says that Election Day should be a work-holiday so as not to penalize wage-earners for taking time to vote, in her assertion that we need to completely re-envision what the day means. "Who has plans for a Tuesday night?" said Sohn, who apparently already thinks of voting as an evening activity. "When I was single I always voted because I never had a date and it was one way to make the evening go by more quickly. Plus, it takes less time to vote than to masturbate, and the feeling of satisfaction lasts longer."

Over at Red Dress Ink, the publishing imprint dedicated to the "chick lit" genre of fiction -- written for, by, and about young single women -- editor Margaret Marbury said, "If they would catch the right tone and the attitude then a modern woman would prick up her ears. But she's not going to pay attention to these dull, boring, almost vindictive political smears." Marbury wondered why political campaigns don't produce "cute and witty female-toned media campaigns." But before we start envisioning John Kerry waving from a podium, bunches of red balloons floating behind him and that "More more more ..." song playing in the background, Marbury said, "they'd need to do it in a way where a man wouldn't say 'Oh, that was a chick commercial." Oh. Boo.

What everyone agreed on is that there is nothing cute or witty about the fact that single women seem to have gotten themselves into a vicious cycle. They don't vote because they don't feel that their needs, tastes, realities, or concerns, are being addressed by candidates. But even as their numbers and potential political clout grows, the unwillingness to cast a vote leaves them even more underrepresented. And the very vulnerabilities that alienate them from the electorate -- their economic challenges, taxing professional demands, inability to buy property, inability to qualify for tax breaks afforded to families -- go unchecked. Monica Crowley, the conservative host of WABC's "The Monica Crowley Show" and an analyst for Fox News, said in an e-mail that single women "need to feel that policies will be in place for their economic and physical safety. That means they should be courted with messages and policies on taxes, health care/insurance, job opportunities, and national security." But if they're not voting, their growing population is not getting represented, government will pay less attention to them, and they will feel increasingly divorced from their own leadership.


And they will be shirking a very serious responsibility. Just ask the 76-year-old sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. "For me, as an immigrant to this country, coming out of Nazi Germany, voting is an obligation," said Westheimer, who is currently co-teaching a class at Yale and has a new book, "Musically Speaking: A Life Through Song." Westheimer escaped Germany for Switzerland with a group of children in 1939, where she lived in an orphanage, then in Palestine, then in Paris.

"I came to this great country in 1956," said Westheimer, "And as soon as I became a citizen, and ever since, I have not missed one voting." But Westheimer was direct in her message to the invisible hordes of abstaining women: "Don't be stupid," she said. "Go and vote at maybe a lunch hour where there are the most eligible men hanging around." There, she said, single voters might "meet like-minded people who take their civic responsibilities seriously." But, she cautioned, "Don't go voting half-naked. Be dressed seductively but nicely. Business wear with maybe a nice loud scarf. And if you walk around in sneakers all day like I do, just for this half-hour, put on a nice heel."

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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