WHAT DO women want? The question has confounded greater minds than John Kerry's or George Bush's for generations.
And yet it is the key to an enormously powerful political constituency -- more than 40 million of whom declined to vote in the 2000 presidential election. The man who moves the hearts of women -- and, more important, their feet -- at the polls can be swept into office in November. Call it the skirt-tail effect.
Of course, the trouble with women, as with any large voting bloc, is that they are not a bloc at all. Researchers working with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation have been poring over the potential in the 22 million unmarried women who did not cast ballots in 2000. But little unites this group.
It includes single mothers and Sun Belt widows; Carrie and Mary and Maude. The main thing they have in common is alienation from the political process.
Whether married or single, women also dominate the undecided voters at this stage in the campaign. The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., found that women make up 58 percent of the coveted swing voters -- those who are either undecided or say they may yet switch their allegiance beforeNovember.
The power of women to change the agenda of the country is enormous if only they would seize it. It is the Axis of Eve -- and here I do not mean the youthful protest group of the same name, which plans to demonstrate at the Republican Convention in New York wearing thongs emblazoned with (very small, presumably) anti-Bush slogans. I mean the millions of ordinary women, with bills and kids and thwarted dreams, who could overturn an election or turn a squeaker into a romp.
Strategists in both parties know this, and like Willie Sutton, who famously said he robbed banks because that's where the money is, they are targeting women for their mother lode of votes. Republicans organize hundreds of "W parties" in battleground states. The DemocraticNational Convention last night showcased the party's nine female US senators. Today an ostensibly nonpartisan conference called Revolutionary Women is being held at the new convention center in South Boston.
Many have noted that this is the 20th anniversary of the historic 1984 election when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as a vice presidential candidate. But the fresher comparison is with 1992, a high-water mark for women in politics. Propelled by anger over the disdainful treatment of Anita Hill by the all-male Judiciary Committee and buoyed by Bill Clinton (or was it the other way around?) in a national mandate for change, record numbers of women voted, and 53 women -- up from 30 -- were elected to the US Congress.
Another reason 1992 was such a strong year for women is that domestic issues dominated the agenda: health care chief among them, but also education, Social Security, and the economy, stupid. The first post-9/11 election may well be different.
Women continue to identify domestic issues as most important to them, and some strategists fear they will stay home if the campaign is dominated by manlier-thanthou fulminating on war and security. Despite the celebration of women last night, the DNC's carefully crafted daily themes this week -- "A Stronger, More Secure America," "A Lifetime of Service and Strength," and "Stronger at Home. Respected in theWorld" -- send a very different message.
Historically, the gender gap has favored Democrats; indeed, a recent CBSNews poll found those aforementioned single women favor Kerry over Bush by 21 points. But women have also been found to vote differently when security is at stake. "Women are really torn between their security interests and their domestic interests," says Celinda Lake, one of the party's chief pollsters.
But women's sensibilities can also frame security issues. At a forum in Cambridge yesterday,US Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas said a top security concern for her is the fact that 200,000 American military families are not eligible for the child tax credit because they earn too little -- less than $25,000 a year.
Political participation by women is not just a matter of equity. Of course women should be more than 14 percent of the US Congress. But what's important isn't the way politicians dress. It's the distinct attitudes and experiences women bring to public of.ce, their issue priorities and perspectives, such as Senator Lincoln's, that make the gender difference.
What do women want? To have their voices heard, to see more people like them making the laws, to believe the political process isn't a closed shop. But the 50 million women who don't vote also have to believe in themselves. The House minority leader,Nancy Pelosi, top-ranking woman in Congress, almost admonished women when she spoke at the gathering in Cambridge yesterday. "Know how important you are," she said. "Know your power."
Renée Loth is editor of the editorial page.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.