Monday, January 29, 2007

Linda Hirshman on Women and Politics

Linda Hirshman's column in the Washington Post today asks whether women will sweep Hillary Clinton into the White House. The answer seems to be negative, given that Hirshman believes that women as a group have mostly not made a difference in election results, that women are less interested in politics and less informed about it than men are and that women make their decisions based on perceived characters of the politicians, their histories and impulse. Men, in contrast, all spend most of their awake-time reading and arguing politics and are never swayed by any emotional reasoning whatsoever. This is very evident to anyone who reads the comments threads of political blogs. Heh.

Do you want to know what I think? I think Hirshman has figured out how one gets published in this era of rat-swallowers in reality shows. You must be controversial and say shocking things. Then a discussion might suddenly erupt and some other people might rise up and say the rational things. I may be completely mistaken, of course, and perhaps Hirshman is really advocating a peek in the pants as a way of deciding who is allowed to vote or not.

However it might be, I'm willing to swallow the bait and discuss the column a little more. Here is Hirshman's theory about why women, according to her (though not necessarily according to actual historical findings) have never mattered much in elections:

In every election, there's a chance that women will be the decisive force that will elect someone who embraces their views. Yet they seem never to have done so, and I've never seen a satisfactory answer as to why. My own theory is that women don't decide elections because they're not rational political actors -- they don't make firm policy commitments and back the candidates who will move society in the direction they want it to go. Instead, they vote on impulse, and on elusive factors such as personality.

With Clinton's candidacy on the horizon, I decided to test my theory by asking a few white, married women -- the key demographic -- what they are up to this time.

If any women were going to be politically aware, I figured, it would be those in the Washington area. So I contacted half a dozen members of the Wednesday Morning Group, a D.C. area organization that provides speakers and programs mostly for stay-at-home moms. (One even told me I had caught her sitting on her living room couch.)

She then goes on to chat with six women, all stay-at-home mothers of at least middle class income (based on the occupational hints given). Now, six women is a very tiny sample in any field but certainly in the social sciences, and picking only one area of the country and one social class makes the sample even less satisfactory. As Hirshman points out herself, the survey is unscientific. But she still goes on to talk about it. Strictly speaking, the problems I mentioned mean that the results cannot really be generalized outside the group of the six women she interviewed.

A further complication is caused by the lack of any similar interviews with some (even if nonrandomly selected) six men. Instead, all men are simply assumed to be properly informed and motivated. None of them are affected by the desire to have a beer or two with George Bush or by the size of his codpiece in those "Mission Accomplished" pictures. Not even Chris Matthews. Or Andrew Sullivan.

Well, I've met loads of men who vote pretty much on the basis of what their parents taught them, loads of other men who vote on the basis of party fidelity and loads more who vote on the basis of one single issue which is usually how much taxes they might pay if a certain politician gets elected. The number of men or women who are interested in politics in a wider sense is quite small, and so is the number who is interested in the intricacies of any practical policy initiative.

Then there is the fairly large group of men who like politics as a game. I wouldn't necessarily regard the game-players as rational political actors, because the game is always about winning and to hell with the consequences. There are women who like playing the political game, too, of course. But it's a very manly game, with lots of anger being thrown about, and all sorts of impulsive statements exploding in the air. Oops.

Hirshman does give us some real evidence on political participation, too:

To this day -- as even my D.C. area correspondents seemed to confirm -- women just aren't as interested in politics as men are. The Center for Civic Education recently reported that American women are less likely than men to discuss politics, contribute to campaigns, contact public officials or join a political organization. About 42 percent of men told University of Michigan researchers last year that "they are 'very interested' in government and public affairs, compared with 34 percent of women."

I find these numbers pretty positive, actually, given how politics and war used to be the two fields for men-only until quite recently and how politics-the-game looks as if it's almost decided to put women off from participation. Add to that the fact that we have a large Taliban sector in this country, and the actual number of women who see themselves as very interested in politics is encouraging. Certainly more encouraging than the numbers of women and men in the U.S. Congress are.

I tend to view progress in gender roles as necessarily fairly slow, because so many of the myths and restrictions are passed on in our childhoods. The fact that women have not yet had the vote for even one century should not be forgotten. Changing the social norms and codes takes time.

Two more quick ideas on Hirshman's topic: First, she is correct in arguing that women as a block will not vote Hillary Clinton or any other woman in. Women are not just members of the class "women" but also members of other groups and the interests of these other groups or the individual women themselves can take precedence to any desires to see women's roles expanded. But there will be some women who will find the gender of Clinton an added bonus.

Second, the column mentions that some women don't follow international news because of their focus on war and violence. This might be interpreted as yet another example of women's emotionality (if one assumed that to be upset over people suffering and dying is somehow overemotional), but I also think that the decision not to follow certain news may be a very rational response to realizing that one has no control over the events described.

Which brings me to my last point in this review: The more women feel as fully empowered members of the political decision-making structures, the more women will find the topic of taking care of our shared concerns important. Note how framing politics that way makes it look almost...girly?