Gender bias in the voting booth?

Maybe not. A new study shows female voters aren't voting by gender.

Published January 3, 2008 6:27PM (EST)

As we approach the eve of the Iowa caucuses and word of Hillary Clinton's "pre-spinning possible bad news" is already spiraling through the media, I'm steeling myself for a tide of women-can't-win punditry. And one of those voices indirectly comes from Clinton, who has been known to throw down the gender card in a pinch. Should the senator find herself reassessing her campaign direction, she would do well to check out the new survey by New York Women in Communications.

Most polls I've seen about "voting for a female president" typically fixate on that idea alone. What's interesting about this study of more than 2,000 Americans is that it uncovers how female voters can proclaim their gender blindness on the one hand while still expressing strong opinions about the inherent appeal and potential mistreatment of female candidates. Interestingly, over one-third of Hispanic female voters and 18-to-24-year-old voters say they would vote for a woman primarily on the basis of historic precedence, but they are in the minority. According to the survey, most female voters, like their ballot-casting brothers, don't parse these issues with a pitchfork but with a dessert fork.

According to the study, only 17 percent of women voters would vote for a woman if they liked a male and a female candidate equally. If it sounds like women are more inclined to vote for the home team, it's interesting to note that 14 percent of men also said they would vote for a woman given an equal choice between a male and a female candidate. And though more women (18 percent) than men (10 percent) believe that women are better leaders, such small percentages beg more questions than they answer. What percentage of the rest thinks men are better leaders? Or that men and women are equals? What percentage thinks it's a dumb question?

On the other hand, it's not as if gender doesn't play any part: Over a third of women said they would be more likely to support a female politician on the assumption that she would be stronger on healthcare and education. Even more African-American and Hispanic female voters endorsed the idea of voting for a woman based on her superior support of these issues. In other words, female candidates may enjoy a presumption that they are "naturally" strong on certain key issues relevant to many women voters, but in no way should they assume that their XX chromosomes will keep their sisters happy if they turn into hawks with weak healthcare plans.

Unsurprisingly, the survey found that the largest disparity between male and female voters lies in their perception of how female candidates are treated. Forty-seven percent of the women surveyed, compared with only 35 percent of the men, said that female candidates are more likely than males to receive negative media coverage, and 60 percent of the women said females' clothing and hairstyle are more likely to be judged than are males'. In other words, women may be acutely sensitive to the trash talk, bigotry and invective thrown Clinton's way, but unless she represents their interests, those factors won't guarantee that she's their woman in the voting booth.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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