Women, Power and Politics

October 25, 2004

Mary Ann Travis
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Celeste Lay and Rachel Devlin If Susan B. Anthony stepped out of her silver dollar coin to survey the current political scene, she'd be disappointed, says Rachel Devlin.

Anthony, the 19th-century women's rights advocate, would not believe how puny a voice women have in politics.

Anthony spent half a century crusading for women's suffrage in the United States. She died in 1906 before that goal was realized in 1920.

Devlin, associate professor of history, says that Anthony, an "organizer and a doer," expected that politicians would have to "reckon with women" in a significant manner once women voted.

"I think she would be shocked that women have not exercised the ballot in a way that has had more influence," says Devlin.

Devlin, along with Celeste Lay, assistant professor of political science, and state Rep. Cheryl Gray participated in a panel discussion about "Women and the Electoral Process" on Sept. 29 in the Freeman Auditorium. Women did not vote as a block when they first got the vote, and they never have, says Devlin.

Women "did not prove to be an overwhelming force in electoral politics." Women traditionally have viewed politics as a dirty, corrupt business. And Devlin says that women have tended to be active as political figures outside of the political parties' apparatus. Once women were enfranchised, "their identity as distinct from men was lessened," says Devlin.

Officially, women became equal to men in the voting booth. Consequently, women became less cohesive as a political force. The phenomenon of a "gender gap," in which men and women vote significantly differently, occurred for the first time in 1980, says Lay, who studies the American political process and opinion polls.

Majorities of men supported Ronald Reagan in that election, while majorities of women supported Jimmy Carter. The gender gap was greatest in the 1996 election, where Bill Clinton, by 11 points, bested Bob Dole for the women's vote.

Even with these statistics, Lay says, "It is a myth that there is this gigantic gap between women and men." It's more useful to look at the differences among women, says Lay. "We are not all the same. We don't all care about the same things."

Looking at voting patterns of women in general masks the differences among young and old women, black and white, single and married, religious or not. For example, Lay says that in the 2000 presidential race, 54 percent of all women voted for Al Gore. That statistic alone hides the fact that George W. Bush got 52 percent of the white women's vote. Gore got 85 percent of the black women's vote and 48 percent of the white women's vote.

The prevailing notion now is that men and women share more similarities than differences. And what's come to pass--and what would probably surprise Susan B. Anthony--is that 84 years after women got the right to vote, women as a group do not greatly impact national elections.

As evidence that political parties do not feel beholden to women, Devlin points to the "masculinization" of this year's presidential race between Bush and John Kerry. Macho symbols are used to promote the candidates' fitness and qualifications. Who's more masculine? Who looks better in a flight suit? Images of masculinity appeal to men, particularly white men concerned about maintaining traditional masculine privilege, says Devlin. And this disturbs her.

The presidential candidates "don't seem worried at all about the female vote." Women have never gained real leverage in the political parties, says Devlin. Parties don't often put up women candidates. "Politics remains a male preserve." While men still control politics in the United States, women are slightly more likely to vote than men.

Lay says 52 percent of women voted in the 2000 presidential election, compared to 49 percent of men. Women are most likely to be the sought-after swing Voters--those voters who can be persuaded to change their minds about the candidates.

"Women are less partisan than men," says Lay. Lay says it's often a matter of intensity of commitment. "Men are more likely to identify themselves as strong Republicans or strong Democrats, while women tend to place themselves somewhere in the middle."

This year's typical swing voter may be the "security mom" concerned about terrorist threats rather than the "soccer mom" of 2000, who focused on domestic issues such as healthcare and education. Women may yet determine the 2004 election. Lay is not ready to call the race. She hasn't even paid much attention to the opinion polls thus far.

"These polls are reliable indicators of opinion at that particular day, but we should use caution in using them as predictors of what will happen on election day," says Lay. "Much can change between now and November. Swing voters characteristically make up their minds late." "That's why I'm not making any predictions."

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