Losing their voting virginity

The newest wave of voting chic: Make it sound like sex!

By Rebecca Traister

Published October 24, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Another day, another crafty plan to try to persuade women to vote. Yup, it's that time of the election cycle again, when candidates and pollsters remember that if chicks actually cast the ballots they've had the right to cast for 86 years, we'd have a whole different political landscape. This seasonal realization is typically followed by a lot of sweaty-palmed thinking about how to lure the American female into the voting booth: What do women like? Shoes? Clothes? Sex?

Ding ding ding! That's the story of how we get ad campaigns like "Remember Your First Time" from Women's Voices, Women Vote. There are three PSAs, but the one featured most prominently on the WVWV Web site (and the one that has already gotten the most online pickup, naturally) features spliced interviews with actresses Felicity Huffman, Tyne Daly, Regina King and Angie Harmon talking about their virgin voting experiences as if they were talking about ... well, wink-wink, nudge-nudge ... you know.

"You want me to tell you about the first time I did it?" says Harmon, later purring: "I did a lot of research on the positions that I liked."

"I like to do it in the morning when I'm fresh ... and I feel that my synapses are clicking," avers Huffman, who adds that voting makes her feel "pretty."

"It was the summer of love, 1968," Tyne Daly tells us, following that by admitting, "The first man I had a crush on that wasn't my dad was John F. Kennedy, and I really wanted to do it for him." I think she means that she wanted to vote for JFK before she could legally pull a lever, but the context is strange and makes it sound as if she tried to do so in 1968. Which would not have gone well for her.

Regina King concludes the 60-second spot by asserting, "You got all that energy flowing inside and you go in and commit? It's a beautiful thing."

Ack. Voting is a beautiful thing! It is empowering and liberating and it does make you feel grown-up and I guess it could be sexy if you're into that kind of thing. And good for these actresses, all very cool women who have volunteered their time to make this spot to help get women to the polls. And, yes, good for Women's Voices, Women Vote for taking women seriously as political participants.

But maybe we should take women a little more seriously than we do when we treat them as though the only way to get them to participate in the democratic process is to promise them glossy locks in return. This pains me because I love Felicity Huffman and she's the one who says this, but I am so sick of being pandered to by people who think I'm going to vote because it will make me pretty. Voting does not make me pretty. It also doesn't feel anything like sex.

Yeah, I get the connection: It's an activity that can be fun, and that you can feel good about, and that you get to take part in as an adult. But enfranchisement doesn't need to be gussied up in lingerie. It's part of being a citizen. It's part of caring about your government, your country, your community, your family, your rights. It's part of being an American. It's the exercise of a right that your foremothers and fathers fought long and painful battles to secure.

If women aren't voting, it is a huge, sad problem. But perhaps part of why they're not voting is because no one bothers to speak to them seriously about politics. Perhaps if advocates and advertisers treated them like people with brains as well as hand mirrors, or made spots addressing political issues, they'd have more luck getting them to the polls. And here's another tip: If you tell nonvoters that casting a ballot is going to be like a trip to the salon, they are going to emerge from the voting booth pretty confused.

The truth is, the other two ads in WVWV's "Remember Your First Time" series do much better than the "sex" one. There is a fantastic spot -- one I would love to see broadcast on every television channel and Web site, were they not all too busy giggling over Angie Harmon researching positions -- in which many of the same actresses explain that 20 million single women didn't vote in the last presidential election. "Together, we can make a difference" on issues like healthcare, job security, the environment, war and peace, they say. "We have the power. If we choose to use it."

We do have the power. A power that is not just about sex. It's the same power that American men have, but no one is telling them that punching a ballot is going to give them big hard-ons. It's the power to do everything possible to steer the country in the direction we believe it can go. Let's use it.

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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