How Will Women Voters Use Their Power This Election?

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Photo: Corbis

When it comes to women voters in Tuesday’s midterm elections, the metaphors are all mixed up. In some headlines, it’s a war. Democrats are still referencing the Republican “war on women,” while GOP candidates say there’s no war at all — it was all a liberal meme. In other headlines, it’s a political dating game. “Women are big this election season,” wrote New York Times columnist Gail Collins last week. “No group is more courted. It’s great!”

So which is it: a battle or a courtship? It’s both. The election has started to feel like a bar fight between two entitled dudes over a woman — it might seem like they’re each trying to earn her attention, but in many ways it’s more about them. This is a strange political era, in which it’s finally cool for politicians of all stripes to claim they are pro-empowerment, but they don’t all feel obligated to follow through with the sorts of policies that would improve life for a majority of American women. Our votes have never been more coveted, but meaningful changes — mandatory family-leave policies or a $15 federal minimum wage — still seem like only distant possibilities.

The default way of appealing to women has lately hinged on highlighting (for Democrats) or ignoring (for Republicans) the extremely retrograde views of a handful of candidates. Even though women care about the full range of political and social issues, nothing motivates them at the polls quite like threats to their bodily autonomy. Last election cycle, Democrats pounced on Republican candidates’ anti-choice extremism and parlayed it into a record-breaking gender gap on Election Day. (Remember Todd Akin saying women’s bodies could just “shut down” unwanted sexual advances?) The GOP’s “war on women,” as Dems dubbed this and other gaffes, made it seem easy for women to choose a party — and critical for them to get out and vote. “The gender gap is smaller when Republicans don't make mistakes," Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University, told CNN.

This year, there have been far fewer mistakes. Republicans’ strategy has been about abortion, too — mostly attempting to distract women voters from the issue altogether. They’ve made superficial pleas for women to “break up” with Obama, a metaphor expertly skewered by Kristen Schaal on The Daily Show earlier this month. They’ve been promoting female candidates with noun-heavy non-slogans like “Mother. Soldier. Independent leader.” They’ve run ads featuring gay sons and reassuring lady-doctors. And, not surprisingly, they’ve trotted out the argument that “all issues are women’s issues,” which mostly amounts to peppy talk about women-owned businesses. “Women care as much as anyone about economic empowerment, pocketbook issues,” said Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, the Republican who is running against Wendy Davis, and ahead of her in some polls of women voters.

In some ways, Abbott is right. What constitutes a “women’s issue” has never been murkier. “We’re being allowed to be just as vast and messy and complicated as men have always been allowed to be,” says a young woman in a Planned Parenthood–produced get-out-the-vote video featuring Lena Dunham and her fans. In it, young women call for action on classic feminist issues like reproductive justice and pay equality, but also family-oriented immigration policies, prison reform, and a higher minimum wage. These are the sorts of issues that are rarely trotted out in ads targeting women voters.

It pains me to say that it’s up to women to make sure the bar fight is about us and what we want. Women’s coveted-voter status means we’re in a great position to demand action on all of the issues we care about. The first step is for us to turn out in droves in midterm elections (like Tuesday’s), especially because there isn’t a GOP “rape caucus” on the ballot. While reproductive choice is obviously a fundamental right, it’s on us to demand that a pro-woman platform address other issues, too. And that those issues are just as important to us.

One experiment in organizing women voters to collectively demand better is the Women’s Equality Party in New York State, which allows voters to vote for a major-party candidate while also “cross-endorsing” the platform of a smaller political party. The newly formed WEP says it offers voters “a real chance to make history, and codify in votes and laws that women deserve to be treated equally.” Its main issues are abortion rights and equal pay, which, along with references to Seneca Falls and a prominent endorsement from Gloria Steinem, give it a distinctly second-wave flavor. And it’s controversial — some feminists have charged the WEP with siphoning off votes from the longer-established progressive Working Families Party — in other words, using women’s interests as a convenient cover for old-fashioned political maneuvering.

Now that everyone claims to be fighting on behalf of women, it’s become more difficult to know whom to go home with. But the only way beyond the pandering is to get more involved, not to tune it out. The new challenge for women voters is to demand, with the same fervor we feel when we read offensive quotes about our reproductive rights, that pandering politicians actually address all of our issues. Because going home alone to eat Cheez-Its in our underwear is not an option.