Gender smarts

Will sex ever make us as smart as race when it comes time to vote?

This Reno woman, photographed last year, is not the feminist magazine editor Gloria Steinem.

This Reno woman, photographed last year, is not the feminist magazine editor Gloria Steinem.

Photo by Deidre Pike

When the stock market took a plunge and my pension fund went down with it, I had the classic female fear of becoming a bag lady. But I also had another thought: If “it’s the economy, stupid,” then this disaster will have been worth every penny. Even people who don’t care about the female half of the country, and who would be perfectly happy to bomb everything, will be mad as hell and looking for change.

I know this sounds contrary. There hasn’t been much criticism of Bush & Company since terrorism caused the country to circle its wagons. Even before that, there was the idea that Bush and Gore were pretty much alike, so why bother?

I remember when that tactic was first created by Richard Nixon, who suppressed mainstream-to-progressive voter turnout by pretending to be like Jack Kennedy. Now, rightwing extremist candidates get away with charging “negative campaigning” if their opponents so much as report their voting records. As for the media, they seem hooked on the idea that objectivity requires being even-handedly negative, and so suppress interest in politics even more.

When combined with the physical difficulties of voting—which are greater here than in any other country—this smokescreen has allowed a smaller proportion of people to rule this nation than in any democracy in the world. Older, richer, whiter voters are far more likely to go to the polls to vote their interests than younger, poorer, voters of color are to vote their hopes. Indeed, 36 million women aren’t registered at all, and 40 percent of those who did vote ended up supporting candidates who were opposed to women’s majority views on issues as crucial to life as reproductive freedom, protection of air and water, and support for public education.

Still, there was a 12-point gender gap that made the difference in hundreds of races, from school boards and the U.S. Senate to Bush’s defeat in the popular vote. Clinton couldn’t have won either of his races without this culturally female voting pattern that favors center-to-progressive issues. Nor could Gore have won any of the big electoral states if his greater support among white women hadn’t compensated for his low level of support among white men—and then some.

Yet imagine what those results would have been if white women had been voting with a little more of the self-respect and enlightened self-interest of, say, African-American male voters, who chose Gore over Bush by 85 percent two years ago. Or better yet, African-American female voters who, perhaps doubly educated by race and sex, rejected the rightwing platform by a nearly unanimous 94 percent.

The truth is that European-American women remain the largest group in this country that votes for leaders who don’t vote for us. Some of this is due to candidates who downplay their real positions, some to being surrounded by the belief that issues affecting the female half of the country can’t be serious, some to media that fail report issues as they impact our daily lives, and some to other causes; for example, being born into families that normalize inequality, or depending on the income and approval of supremacist men.

But I will go to my grave believing that one day, sex will make us as self-respecting and smart in our political behavior, as devoted to our own long-term empowerment and enlightened self-interest, as does race. There will come a time when we take prejudice that affects only females as seriously as we do race, class and other biases that also affect males.

If even a 10th of the women now letting others decide their fate were to register and vote out of self-respect, many of the policy-based dangers and humiliations we read about everyday would diminish or end. For example:

• Women’s reproductive systems make us the canaries in the mine of environmentally caused cancers that are the great majority of all cases, and are occurring in younger and younger women. Yet this administration and its Congressional supporters have done everything in their power to weaken and end environmental protections, both national and international.

• A woman dies every minute in the world because of pregnancy-related causes. Many deaths are due directly to Bush’s Global Gag Rule that threatens to deprive foreign entities of desperately needed U.S. aid if they provide, lobby for, or speak out about legal abortion—even with their own funds—a rule that could have been overturned in Congress by only four more votes. Bush Administration policy also opposes sex education, emergency contraception, and funds for international voluntary family planning, thus skyrocketing the number of dangerous and illegal abortions.

• In the U.S., too, having children is the single greatest determinant of women’s economic status, education and health, but we are only one Supreme Court appointment away from losing the constitutional right to control our own reproductive lives. Globally, the greatest danger to the environment is population growth, and the surest way to curb this growth is to give women the power to do so, yet Bush and his allies in Congress push policies shared mainly by the Vatican and the Moslem Brotherhood.

• Women are the fastest growing part of the prison population; the most likely to be poor and supporting children; the most frequent victims of violence and sexual abuse; and the largest source of underpaid or unpaid labor, nationally and internationally. Yet the Bush Administration is not focusing on those ills, but is investigating Title IX, one of the few measures that has helped equalize women’s opportunity in sports and education.

Any one of those—not to mention Bush’s plan to bomb Saddam Hussein, thus giving him reason to use his sinister weapons—should have been reason enough to vote this year, but I’ll take a plummeting stock market if it had the same result.

More members of Congress with the guts to say “No!” to Bush & Company would make me one happy bag lady.

Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer and co-founder of Ms. magazine. She has been traveling the campaign trail for Voters for Choice, a bipartisan political action committee.