It's Super Tuesday: What will women do?

A piece from the New York Times looks at 16 ways to evaluate women and their voting habits.

Published February 5, 2008 3:00PM (EST)

Welcome to Super Tuesday. As inspiration to go out and vote, I thought I'd direct you to a piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine called "16 Ways of Looking at a Female Voter." (This is not to be confused with the similarly named "Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary" essay collection.)

Five-page story made short: It's a look by Linda Hirshman into what the deal is with female voters -- in terms of both stereotypes about their voting behavior and actual statistics about their involvement with politics.

The piece starts off with the question of whether New Hampshire women voted for Hillary just because she's female, but then moves on to a different subject: what American women's track record actually is in politics. Here are a few highlights (beyond the fact that an article by Broadsheet's own Rebecca Traister gets quoted):

Hirshman points out the potential errors in the perceived gender gap (including confounding variables like race), and the fact that with the possible exception of Bill Clinton in 1996, the supposed "gender gap" has not swung elections in women's favor. She also purports that many female "swing voters," when polled, actually lean more toward Democratic values than Republican and, thus, are "misidentifying" themselves simply because, as one expert quoted by the article puts it, women "don't see the political world as legible, especially in the media." (I take issue with that particular point, since I think it's quite possible to lean to one side or the other and still not want to identify yourself with a particular party.)

Hirshman also describes how men, on average, are more interested in national politics than women -- 42 percent versus 34 percent in a 2006 study. (Similar discrepancies have been found for at least the past 20 years.) She quotes a specific study by the Pew Center that tested men and women on their political knowledge and found that, on average, men were far more knowledgeable than women on the national level. (Women tend to catch up when it comes to awareness of local politics.) Depressingly (at least to me), women reported getting their news from "soft" sources like morning talk shows far more often than did men, who said they turn more frequently to newspapers and Internet news.

This isn't saying that the American public on the whole spends a lot of time perusing policy proposals to begin with, but among the people who do pay attention to news, women do so less intensely than men. Why is this? One reason suggested by Hirshman is that women are more likely to know about a candidate or politician if she's female -- and since there are far fewer female than male politicians, it makes sense that women might lose interest.

I don't know if I buy this reasoning. (I would think it'd have more to do with the possibility that women's tendency -- on average -- to be the primary caregivers in their families would make them more interested in local rather than national issues.) If it's true, it immediately leads to a Catch-22: Having more female politicians requires having more women who are interested in politics to begin with (not just as voters but as candidates). But if people seem more interested in the political process when a person of their gender is involved, and if there are still far fewer women than men, then it's difficult to get more women interested.

Anyway, the question of how to involve more women in politics is more theoretical than practical -- at least today -- since I doubt many of us are going to launch last-ditch presidential efforts before we leave work this evening. But I still think it should help inspire us all (men too) to make sure to take a break today if you live in a Super Tuesday state and get out to vote. Not because of your candidate's gender but because, well, it's your right. Go exercise it.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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