Political Ladies Talk Michelle O., the War on Women, and the Power of the Fifty-One Percent

by Maggie Carr

Engaging lady voters is critical to winning the upcoming election—we are the majority of the population, after all—but looking at the “female vote” as a monolith ain’t the way to do it.

A panel of four prominent political women, including Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, MSNBC host and writer Melissa Harris-Perry, pollster Kellyanne Conway, and strategist Margaret Hoover, gathered at this year’s New Yorker Festival this past Saturday to take on the complexities of the female electorate. In short, it was ah-may-zing.


The panel (L to R): Dorothy Wickenden, Kellyanne Conway, Melissa Harris-Perry, Margaret Hoover, and Cecile Richards.  Photo by Todd France for The New Yorker.


Some highlights:


The “War on Women”

Moderator Dorothy Wickenden, executive editor of the magazine, kicked off the panel with arguably the most hot-button issue in politics today: Republican attempts to curtail reproductive rights on both the federal and state level. Unsurprisingly, the conservative and liberal members of the panel were divided on the issue.

The debate between Cecile Richards (who’s on leave from Planned Parenthood to volunteer for the Obama campaign) and Kellyanne Conway (a staunch Republican strategist) became particularly heated; this snippet should give you an idea of the tenor of their interaction.

Regardless of their personal feelings on abortion and contraception, one thing the panel could agree on was how successful the Democrats have been in branding those legislative initiatives as an attack. Though the threat implied by the “War on Women” is largely “dependent on your definition of war,” according to Melissa Harris-Perry, it’s nonetheless an incredibly effective partisan move.

Though women’s reproductive rights were revisited throughout the debate, Conway insisted “waist-down” politics simply aren’t a good political strategy. Over 11 percent of unmarried women are out of work right now, so economic recovery is at the top of their priority list; abortion and contraception haven’t even cleared the top five issues motivating female voters this cycle. As the average woman gets older, Conway stated, her “landscape gets much broader” and ‘women’s issues’ aren’t as important to her anymore. (This statement drew some murmurs of disapproval from the largely female crowd.)


How Women Vote

Cecile Richards said it plain as day: “Women will determine the next election.” Nearly 10 million more women than men voted in the last presidential election, and as Kellyanne Conway noted, lady voters—who pay more attention to late-game moves—are super critical in the last few weeks of a campaign.

But as Melissa Harris-Perry added, “When we talk about women voters, we need to ask which women.” Obama’s incredible 56-percent capture of the female vote in 2008 was mostly due to high participation by Latinas and African-American women.

Conway also brought up an excellent point about the limits of age as a voting predictor: today, a 48-year-old is equally likely to be a blue-collar first-time grandmother, the married mom of a kindergartner, or a single-by-choice jetsetter with two master’s degrees. There’s a lot more potential for intersectionality between generations: the married mom, for instance, probably has more in common with the 28-year-old moms in her child’s class than women her age in a completely different socioeconomic position.

Margaret Hoover added that we can’t even look at self-declared Republicans as a strict voting bloc. Although we’ve been seeing a ton of anti-gay rhetoric and legislation from many Republicans in power, Hoover—a gay rights activist—sees the potential for the many Republicans with socially liberal views on women’s and LGBT rights to elect like-minded officials in the near future.

Women as a whole, though, tend to sway Democratic, so expect to see a 9 to 13 percent gap in female support for the candidates this November.

Obviously, new voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania disenfranchise voters of color and homeless or impoverished voters—but Harris-Perry theorizes that these new laws will also suppress the female vote. High rates of both marriage and divorce mean that women are more likely to have last-name discrepancies between their IDs and voter registration information. Whether these laws will be upheld in time for the election is up for debate, but the damage, Harris-Perry theorizes, may already have been done. Ladies who can’t get a valid and accurate ID in time for the election may avoid the polls entirely.


Melissa Harris-Perry lays down the law. Photo by Todd France for The New Yorker.


First Ladies

First ladies: we love them! And nobody with eyes and ears could deny that Ann Romney and Michelle Obama made two of the best speeches at their respective conventions.

Though Michelle Obama’s convention speech was impressively fiery and emotionally compelling, Margaret Hoover contended that Ann Romney’s speech spoke more directly to the economic reality of middle-class women, who make over 80 percent of household healthcare and purchasing decisions.

Melissa Harris-Perry, after getting some belly laughs with her thoughts on being married to Mitt Romney, focused on how enormously public opinion on the First Lady has shifted in the last four years. Remember back when Michelle was thought to be a harsh, scary radical? That impression, Harris-Perry argued, was due in large part to the New Yorker’s infamous “fist-bump” cover.

Although the cartoon was satirical, she continued, it played upon an “ugly public conception” of black women: Obama has been photographed in a traditional turban and robes, but the Afro-and-combat-boots ensemble sported by Cartoon Michelle has no basis in reality. As a former colleague of the First Lady’s at the University of Chicago, Harris-Perry insists that Michelle is “profoundly traditional” and there’s nothing forced about her self-identification as “Mom-in-Chief.”


Bonus Memorable Sound Bite!

Cecile Richards: “Birth control isn’t a ‘social issue’ unless you’ve never taken it!”


The entire panel is available for download at the New Yorker’s website. And while I’m at it: for the love of pete, people, VOTE! Many states’ registration deadlines are coming up, so click this helpful link for state-specific voting info.

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