Hillary Clinton woos women

News stories tell us again and again -- and again -- that Clinton can't count on the female vote. Why does this message bear so much repetition?

Published March 12, 2007 7:55PM (EDT)

This weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle joined a growing chorus of news outlets announcing that Hillary Clinton isn't guaranteed Democratic women's votes just because she's a woman. (ABC News and Women's eNews have recently run stories with related theses, but they're hardly the first; Linda Hirshman also assessed the question in the Washington Post in January, and Rebecca Traister wrote a thoughtful, substantive piece on women and Hillary back in October.) This week's news hook is that Sen. Clinton's office has been stepping up its efforts to woo women voters, launching a Web site pitched to women 18-35. Plus, "a CBS 5/Survey USA poll last week showed that among female voters in California, Clinton held a 22-point lead over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, with [John] Edwards running a distant third." Still, even in these slow, speculative early days, it's odd that this women-may-not-vote-for-Clinton observation continues to qualify as news.

The Chronicle piece quotes San Jose State University Survey and Policy Research Institute head and former Gov. Gray Davis aide Phil Trounstine as saying, "All other things being equal, women voters tend to favor women candidates ... But women voters are not one-dimensional. They're going to look at a whole variety of characteristics and assets that a candidate has." Er, yes. Former California Public Utilities Commission president Loretta Lynch told the Chronicle, "I don't think women are a massive whole that follow like lemmings ... they have to give (women) a reason to vote." Got that? Women aren't like lemmings. I guess I'm glad the mainstream media has noticed this, but why do these shallow statements even need to be made, much less made again and again?

Sure, commentators are accustomed to tracking and predicting the voting habits of assorted American subgroups; there's been plenty of chatter over whether Barack Obama will attract black voters, and New Mexico Gov. and presidential candidate Bill Richardson has long been discussed in the context of his presumed appeal to Latino voters. Organizations like the White House Project and EMILY's List, with their focus on getting qualified female candidates elected, may unintentionally reinforce the expectation that women will vote as a bloc. But women make up more than half the voting-age population; with so many voters composing the "women's vote," it's especially unlikely that we'd vote en masse. (Speaking to that point, the Chronicle piece did quote University of Southern California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe on "the myth that the women's vote -- like the black vote and the Latino vote -- is monolithic. None of them are monolithic.") Still, this more-than-half statistic may hold a clue as to why we keep seeing this news story again and again: The women's vote isn't monolithic, but if it were, any candidate who could secure "the women's vote" would be nearly impossible to beat (as would any candidate who had the "men's vote" locked up, but commentators seldom generalize this way about male voters).

Maybe that's the concern with Clinton: She's America's first could-go-all-the-way female candidate, and if she were guaranteed the women's vote, she'd be even more formidable. That prospect probably strikes fear in the hearts of Hillary haters and anyone who's anxious about the idea of a woman president. Recent news stories reminding us that women vote thoughtfully and individually aren't incorrect, and I definitely don't believe women are obligated to put gender before qualifications when voting. But I suspect these stories aren't just about the exotic nuances of women's non-lemming voting habits. They also remind readers that Clinton has serious competition for both the Democratic nomination and the Oval Office, and that it's really unlikely that a vast groundswell of sisterly solidarity would give her a landslide victory. I don't dispute the point, but I'm sorry, and a little saddened, that so many people feel compelled to keep making it.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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