ST. PAUL--Last night I dropped by “Political Chicks a Go-Go,” a women-in-politics shindig sponsored by the Lifetime network and RightNow!, an organization for women who share a belief in “common belief in free-markets, limited government and personal responsibility.” I’ve been fascinated for a while by the possibility that disgruntled female supporters of Hillary Clinton might end up voting for John McCain, and I wanted to see what women there had to see about that scenario—particularly in the wake of McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
First up: Crystal Dueker, an older businesswoman from Fargo, North Dakota who was decked out in a flag hair scrunchie, flag scarf, and flag rhinestone earrings. “I’ve met a lot of women who were on the fence and liked the idea of making history with Hillary,” Dueker, a guest of the ND delegation, said. “They weren’t necessarily 100 precent behind her, but the just felt like it was about time we had a woman president. So there was this push. Also, a lot of women wanted Barack Obama to pick her for vice president, because the race was close. I think there are a lot people middle, looking at history, who like Palin. She’s tough. I call her the Margaret Thatcher of America!” (I would have thought that was Hillary, but I'm biased.)
When I broached the topic with some younger women sitting a few feet away, though, their reaction made me feel like I should apologize for even floating the question. "I think it’s completely ridiculous and offensive to believe that, actually,” said Holly Carmichael, an education researcher from Manhattan who identified herself as a Hillary fan and staunch Democrat. “I would hope that all women would be given credit for being able to understand issues, and stand behind the issues Hillary stood behind, and not just fall behind Palin because she’s a female. I think that McCain’s strategists really underestimated the women of the United States.
"It's pretty transparent pandering to Hillary supporters," added Jessie Everts, a doctoral student in family therapy who was sitting with Carmichael. "I think it’ll backfire. And I think the polls will probably show that pretty quickly, especially with Palin's daughter.”
Now, bear with me for a second. At this point, I chatted with three women who who seemed quite a bit more conservative, including Jane Bonvillain and lobbyist/running sensation Kristen Henehan. (Woman #3, I believe your first name was Stephanie--sorry!) Unfortunately, my audio of that conversation was either A) inadvertently deleted or B) never created in the first place--so I'll have to summarize. Like their counterparts, these women (who ranged from their late 20s to their early 40s) bristled at the idea that women might cast their vote on the basis of gender. "Insulting" was used (by Woman #3); so was "degrading."
Whch brings me, finally, to my attempt at a Working Theory of (Female) Puma-dom. The notion that angry women might vote for McCain after voting for Hillary isn't a bogus media construct. Nor is it a universal concern. It is, instead, something that breaks down largely along generational lines. Women who came of age during the Golden Age of Feminism (GAF) grew up thinking of women's rights as The Cause. Consequently, for many of them--e.g., Geraldine Ferraro--it doesn't seem unreasonable at all to suggest that frustration over Hillary's perceived ill treatment by the press and the Obama campaign might lead to a passive or active lack of support for Obama's candidacy.
But for younger women who grew up after the GAF--and have benefitted from what transpired a generation or two ago-- gender issues, especially those involving opportunity and access, are less pivotal. They matter, but they coexist with other considerations rather than trumping them. So if you're in this group--if you're a woman in your 20s or 30s or 40s--the idea that you'll vote your sex is either absurd or downright demeaning.
One final point: I asked both groups of young-ish women if they thought they'd see a woman president elected in their lifetimes. The conservatives were sanguine, the liberals less so. "Our culture and our society haven't gotten there yet," said Kimberly Diggles, a Democrat and (like Everts) a doctoral student in family therapy. "With Palin, one of the first things they mention for her is that she has kids. Would you do that for a man?" "We have a lot of progress to make before we see a woman as just another politician," added Carmichael. "And I think we need to get to that point before we get one into the White House."
That's an interesting point--and it raises a question: will the first woman president be someone who manages her gender the same way Obama has managed his race?