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Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Women's Issues in the 2012 Elections

Cynthia Harrison, Associate Professor, George Washington University
Washington, DC
September 28, 2012

11:00 A.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Good morning once again, everyone. I think by this point you know the routine. We’re about ready to get started with our second briefing of the morning here at the Foreign Press Center. Our next presenter is Professor Cynthia Harrison. She is an associate professor of History, Women’s Studies, and Public Policy at George Washington University. She focuses on women in public policy with particular focus on the current constitutional status of women, the long-term impact of the women’s movement, the need to resolve the issue of childcare and women’s work, and the policy goals of feminist organizations concerning poor women. Her current book project is tentatively entitled, “Race, Class, Feminism, and the American Policy Crucible: 1966-2000.” I will now give her the floor.

MS. HARRISON: Good morning. Thank you very much. I am delighted to be here and to talk about the very important issue of women’s influence in this campaign. I think perhaps the best thing to start with is the number – the relative number of women and men who are going to be taking part in this election. Women are just slightly over 50 percent of the American population, 50.8 percent. They are 53 percent of the electorate, which means people who are eligible to vote. And their participation rate of those who are eligible to vote is 60.4 percent for women and 55.7 percent for men. So you can see that women not only outnumber men, but they have a much higher level, a significantly higher level of participation in elections. And so the women’s vote is something that most candidates have tried very hard to cultivate, certainly since 1980 when a clear gender gap showed up.

Women who vote tend to support Democrats, and I’ll get into that a little bit more. Men tend to support Republicans. Even in elections where the majority of women vote for the Republican candidate, they vote by a slimmer margin for the Republican candidate than men do. So men go heavily for the Republican candidate. If – women will go either slightly over 50 percent for the Republican candidate, but if they’re going to vote for the Democrat, then the Democrat usually winds up with a substantial portion of the women’s vote.

Why is that? Well, I think the central question is not actually some of the issues that people would think were important to women. For example, the Equal Rights Amendment – there isn’t actually much of a difference in opinion between men and women concerning the Equal Rights Amendment, or even concerning abortion, which I think is a topic that has been much in the news.

The role that – the difference stems from the view, their view, women’s views and men’s views, of the role that government should play in the lives of citizens. And women tend to believe that the government should take a larger role. Well, okay, so we next ask, well, why is it that women are more interested than men in having the government take a larger role in orchestrating the economy and providing for welfare and taking care of those who need assistance?

Well, for example, one good example of that – of the reasoning is that 48 million Americans were poor in 2011. The poverty rate among women is – has continued to rise, in part because of the recession but also because of cutbacks in what we call the social safety net. Many more women than men fall under the heading of extreme poverty, and the reason for that is that women’s – the jobs that women do pay lower wages than the jobs that men do, traditionally. So we would therefore not be surprised to learn that single mothers who head households, 40 percent of those families headed by single mothers are in poverty. And I have to say that our poverty standard is a very old line that needs really to be readjusted, so this actually underestimates the number of women with children who are living in poverty.

In 12 states plus the District of Columbia, more than a quarter of the children were poor. And of course, it’s not that men are not concerned about the poverty of children; it’s that women are responsible for the day-to-day care of children and therefore they are going to be – it’s an issue that’s going to be much more salient for women than for men because women are involved in that care.

In terms of – I mentioned the wages that women work for and the jobs that women do. For example, people who do the hands-on care in nursing homes are almost 100 percent women, a very high proportion of women. People who work in childcare centers are almost always women. And these are jobs that pay the minimum wage. And the minimum wage is – it varies across the country. In some states it’s higher than others. But the fact is that in no place does the minimum wage come close even to meeting the poverty level for a family of three. So those mothers who are working fulltime and doing very hard jobs – the job of a nursing home assistant is one of the most dangerous jobs, one of the jobs that produces the most injury – and so they’re working at these very difficult jobs, very long hours, and they are still very marginally able to provide for their families.

So the social safety net is something that the federal government has a very heavy hand in, and has since the Great Depression in the 1930s, was when the federal government began a program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. And that assistance was to go to any family that was missing a parent – interesting in that that legislation was actually gender neutral. But in fact, what that meant was that there was federal aid going to the states that was intended to support mothers to stay home and take care of their own children.

That system changed under President Clinton, who ran on a platform of ending welfare as we know it. Welfare became very stigmatized. It wasn’t stigmatized initially; it was understood that this – that the aid was going mostly to widows, and so – and mostly, in fact, to white widows. And that group was actually a very sympathetic group.

As the aid was going more and more to women of color and more often to families that resulted from children being born outside of marriage, there was a great decline in the amount of sympathy that went towards these families and much more of a stigma attached to the receipt of welfare. And so what happens in 1992 is that there is a big cutback on access to support (inaudible) federal government. Excuse me a minute.

So Democrats, as I’m sure you’ve observed as you listen to the campaign rhetoric, are much more willing to say that the government should play a larger role in helping families who for one reason or another have difficulties. Now, with the recent recession, we – it was very obvious that people were hit across – pretty much across the board, and people lost homes as well as losing jobs, even when they had had fairly responsible jobs, not even the minimum wage jobs.

And so because Democrats have that view of the government, women therefore tend more often to support the Democratic candidate. Now, you would assume, I think, that one of the ways that women could help to ensure that the kind of assistance that they want is available would be to elect women to public office. And in fact, the proportion of women in public office has gone up in the 20th century. But today, out of 100 senators, 17 are women, 12 of them are Democrats. In the House, 73 of the representatives in the House of Representatives are women out of 435 representatives. So it works out overall to about something like 17 percent.

In state legislatures, which are also very important, because when states get federal money, they usually have to up a match, and it’s usually the responsibility of the state legislature to decide how to use that money. And so you would really think that it would be important to have women members of state legislatures. That started to go up in the 1960s and ‘70s and ‘80s and has plateaued at about 25 percent of state legislatures. So there – that produces some issues.

It is the case that when women are in public office, regardless of whether or not their own constituency, for example, is poor, women in public office do tend to focus more on issues of concern to women and to children. And they don’t have to be – this is true of both Democratic and Republican women. They may see the solutions to those problems be somewhat different, but one of the very important things that women representatives do in legislatures is bring up issues that had not before been considered because the people who were writing the legislation were just not – they were not coming up against similar problems on a day-to-day basis.

And so once the legislation is produced and voting takes place in state legislatures, Democratic men are as likely to vote for legislation of that kind – almost as likely to vote for legislation of that kind as Democratic women. Republican women are more likely to vote for supportive legislation than are Republican men, but the most liberal Republican woman is still more conservative than the most conservative male Democrat. So party, it turns out, is a better predictor of what position a person is going to take on legislation than is sex of the legislator.

So the function of bringing issues to the forefront and producing bills to address those issues is extremely important. And therefore there is concern about the fact that there are so few women representing – representatives in Congress and in state legislatures. So, of course, we ask why. Well, there is a path, for example, to the presidency. Now, Barack Obama actually skipped ahead a couple steps, did it very quickly, but he did start off in the Illinois state legislature and then he became a senator from Illinois, and then he ran for Congress. So that is more or less the pathway.

For women, it’s more likely to start in a municipal position, for example, to run for the city school board or the city council – not usually for mayor; we don’t have very many women mayors – and then to go from the municipal office to the state legislature and then from the state legislature to run for Congress. The problem is that because women take – start that path later than men do, by the time they have acquired the credentials to make a legitimate run for very high office, for the presidency for example, they are older than men.

And one of the – you’ve probably heard the speculation about whether Hillary Clinton is actually going to run in 2016. And part of the problem is in 2016 she’s going to be 70, which is – well, first of all, substantially older than Barack Obama, but in general being President is a tough job, and at 70 people tend to look toward retirement and playing more with their grandchildren. So whether or not Hillary Clinton is going to make that decision at that age is up in the air. Now, of course, what stalled her career was unusual in that she was married to the President and so couldn’t take on a political office of her own. And while he was governor of Arkansas she had to actually be the primary income provider for the family, working as a lawyer. So her career got started a little bit later for that reason.

For most women, however, who are interested in running for public office, the handicap or the obstacle is exactly what you would expect, which is that women are much more likely than men to have the primary care of children, and therefore they need – they often make the decision to wait until their children are in school or past elementary school and perhaps even into high school before they begin their careers as politicians.

So that’s a very short summary of something – of what’s going on in the political scene concerning women and the 2012 elections. I’m happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: All right. I’m sure you’re familiar with the format. Please wait for one of my colleagues to bring you the microphone before stating your question. Please identify yourself by name and media organization, also, for Dr. Harrison. We’ll start on the left side, please.

QUESTION: Okay. My name is Aissatou Diallo. I work for Cherie FM. That’s in Conakry, Guinea. I would like to know on the significance of the woman vote and the outcome, how it’s going to affect the outcomes of the elections.

MS. HARRISON: Well, this is – what everybody points to, you hear everybody say, this is a turnout election. Even though Barack Obama is ahead in most of the polls that we’re seeing now, he’s ahead by a very small margin, often within the statistical boundaries. So it’s not clear how far ahead he is in several of the polls.

And what I mean by turnout, the main thing each candidate wants to do is to ensure that his or her supporters get to the polls. And the population is about evenly divided between conservatives and more progressive or liberal voters, and so who gets his – or his voters to the polls more efficiently and in greater numbers is very – is much more likely to win the election, and therefore, for Barack Obama, getting women to vote is really key. And the more women vote – and they do, as I mentioned, have a higher turnout rate than men – the more women vote, the more likely the Democratic candidate is to be elected.

MODERATOR: All right. We’ll stay on the left side. Irene.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Irene Fon Zih. I report (inaudible) newswire from Cameroon. My question is: Could you please explain to us what the controversies are surrounding women’s issues in the United States, especially in relation to health care, the abortion controversy, as well as Medicare? Thank you.

MS. HARRISON: Yes. Well, let me start with abortion, because that’s obviously the most controversial of the political issues that we’re addressing. And what has happened – the Republican Party and the Democratic Party – the old gag was that American politics ran the gamut from A to B. So both parties tend to hover around the center. What has happened in recent years is that the Republican Party has taken a sharp turn toward the more conservative members of its parties, and therefore has revived the issue of abortion.

The old argument used to be about public funding for abortion. That meant federal funding and state funding for poor women who wanted to have abortions but couldn’t afford them, and the rule that was passed in Congress was that since the Medicaid money comes from the federal government in large part, is that there would be no federal funding and ultimately no state funding for any abortion that was not necessary to preserve the health or the life of the mother. So it was a funding question, and that’s not – the division there is not surprising because Democrats are more willing to use funds, federal funds, public funds, to support public programs. And for women, abortion was a health care issue.

What we’ve seen happen now in this election is that many of the new and very determined conservative Republicans have made the issue whether or not abortion will be legal. So it has turned from a funding issue to the question of, quote, “when life begins.” The original issue, when it came before the Supreme Court, that the Justice who wrote the opinion said, “We can’t actually decide when life begins.” And that is true. And so he set it aside, he said, “We’re not going to talk about that because it’s not knowable. It’s a personal matter. It’s a theological matter. It’s a philosophical matter. But it’s not a legal matter.” The legal issue is when does a fetus become a person, because the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees equal protection to persons, and so Republicans have now made the debate about when a fetus becomes a person enrobed with all of the Constitutional rights as any born child.

And that is a very – it’s a difficult argument to make, but it appeals to some very strongly committed voters that any abortion, from the moment of conception – and we have even heard people talk about even before conception, whenever there is the possibility of conception – there should be no measures allowed, to ensure that every fertilized ovum becomes a born child. So that has really skewed the debate very much in a way – in a very surprising way, that we are now talking about the legality of abortion. And Mr. Romney, Governor Romney, actually made the statement, I think about two weeks ago, that he thought abortion ought to be illegal except to save the health and the life of the mother. And he had to retract that statement, and make it, “except to preserve the life of the mother.” And there are even some people who would say, well, not in that case, either; that pregnancy should come to terms – term even if the mother’s life is endangered.

That is not a position, in fact, that most Americans hold. Most Americans think that abortion should be legal at least under certain circumstances. Some people think it should be more limited than it has been, other people think it should be less limited than it has been. But this notion now of prohibiting abortion even when the mother’s health is at stake is not endorsed by the majority of the American people.

So the Republicans – Mitt Romney is in a very difficult position, because on the one hand, he needs to rally his base. He needs to be sure that his base gets to the polls, because if they don’t, then he has not won the election. But he’s in a bind, because if he appeals strongly to that part of those committed voters, then he is going to lose voters on the other end of the Republican spectrum. And they are – they might not vote for Barack Obama, but they might stay home, and that could be just as deadly for Mitt Romney’s candidacy as if they voted for Barack Obama.

So that issue has suddenly become much more salient, much more prominent than it has been over the last several decades, when we reached this rather uneasy compromise that abortion should be available, not supported by any state funds, and that’s actually gone even to the point of prohibiting abortion in publicly funded hospitals. So there has been a movement to continue to work on funding aspects of abortion, and some states hoping that the decision that legalized abortion would be overturned, but they are very much in a minority. And so the issue went from being more or less quiescent around a consensus that it should be available but not well-supported or not easily accessible to one where we’re now talking about the fetus as a person from the moment of conception. So that’s a problem for Governor Romney.

MODERATOR: All right. Do we have a question up here on the right? (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Ahmed Bassant Zein, from Egypt. I have two questions. First one: Has the – Mr. Obama been committed to his plan four years ago when he ran for candidacy towards women’s issue or not. Did he committed to his plan, it’s gone right or not? And my second question is: What is the main point of fear in women’s society here in America, if Mr. Obama became President, or Mr. Romney, the main fears? Thank you.

MS. HARRISON: The main fears. Let me answer that part of the question first. I don’t think – well, conservative women fear that if Barack Obama becomes President, he’s going to take positions that undermine the traditional family. The traditional family is viewed as a family where the mother is a fulltime homemaker and caregiver to children, and the father is sole breadwinner. Now the irony of that is that even families who think that that’s the way life ought to be do not live that – in that kind of family. That kind of family is – has not actually been supportable for a very long time.

What we’ve seen over the course of the 20th century, in fact, is that mothers replaced children as the second wage earner in the family, because most families require two wage earners, at least for part of the time. Now, while the kids are little, a mother might stay home full time. Once kids start heading off for college, she’s going to need to work, because college is expensive, and if she has a kid in college, and there’s another one in high school and maybe another one in elementary school, that family requires that the mother work for wages. And when you consider that earlier in the 20th century, teenagers were working to help support the family, then changing that second worker from a teenage child to the mother has many advantages, primarily, the children can stay in school longer.

But nevertheless, this vision of the traditional family is very powerful, and there is concern that liberals will take steps, for example, that would be more supportive of solo-mother families, and therefore undermine the traditional families – family. Likewise gay rights; Obama has finally announced that he is in favor of gay marriage, which is anathema to the conservative Republican tradition as really violating all of the fundamental biblical principles in which they believe. So that’s the conservative fear.

The fear of women in the – further to the left end of the spectrum is that if Mitt Romney becomes president, he is going to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans. I mean, he’s stated that because he says that they are the job creators, which is a term that we have not heard really before Mitt Romney started running for the presidency. There was no category of people that we were concerned about called “job creators.” But Mitt Romney has made that a central focus, and the argument is a conservative economic one, which is that the higher the tax, the less likely an individual is – or a company will have less money to expand and to hire people.

So his argument is that he will lower taxes on the job makers, the well-to-do. And what that means is that taxes are going to go up on families who are working families, because one of the things he says he’s going to do is abolish deductions, which – I’m not sure how much we want to go into the American income tax system, but there is a very important mortgage – there’s a very important privilege of deducting the amount of interest you pay on your mortgage from your income, which lowers your taxes. And that is one of the possibilities that Romney has spoken to about eliminating that deduction. There is a deduction for charitable giving, and if that deduction is eliminated, then people who routinely give more money to charity are going to presumably, the argument is, give less money to charity.

So liberals are concerned that if Romney becomes president, he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do. It’s going to result, actually, in an increase in taxes for middle-class people, because he also wants a very strong American military. The American military costs a lot of money. And so the money has to come from somewhere.

I’m sorry. You had a first part. Yeah. What was that again?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Mr. Obama – sorry. Mr. Obama has been committed to his plan four years ago towards women issue or not?

MS. HARRISON: On women’s issues?


MS. HARRISON: Yes, yes. He has been committed to work on women’s issues, and I think that women feel that he has been doing what he promised to do. He very early signed a piece of legislation that was going to reverse a Supreme Court decision about interpreting the antidiscrimination laws, and it was going to make it easier to sue to get to get equal pay in instances in which they had been discriminated, where they had been discriminated.

So I think that women do see Barack Obama as a friend, not so much, I would say – I’m not sure that there – I can’t recall specific things that he promised to do, but I think there is just a general feeling that he is much more well disposed toward progressive and liberal measures and much more willing to use the government as an instrument to help families who have one kind of trouble or another.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question during group Q&A, and then we’ll do our gaggle as we have in the past. And why don’t we go over here to the right in the center, please.


QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Racheal Ninsiima from The Observer newspaper in Uganda. I have two questions for you. Does the delay in women’s occupation of office have an effect in the quick address of their issues? Then the second one: Has the poverty among women increased socioeconomic disasters like women trafficking, prostitution, and seen an increase in maternal and child deaths? And what have the women legislators done to address such issues? Thank you.

MS. HARRISON: Yes. I think that not having more women in public office does, to some extent, retard the ability of legislators and Congress to take – to support issues that are important to women, particularly the issues that concern poverty and the elimination of poverty and the support of poor families.

The question that you raise is interesting, about whether the fact that the social safety net has become weaker has turned women to crime is actually one I can’t answer, partly because we don’t have very good data about that. And the way that the data were kept once the welfare system changed, if a family was on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the old system, but didn’t apply to the new system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, as we call it, the state counted that family as a success and made the assumption that that family had now – the mother had gotten employment and therefore didn’t need assistance. Now, that’s a very questionable assumption. There are many reasons why families didn’t reapply for assistance under TANF. TANF, the key policy – the key poverty-reducing policy in TANF – and I’m not making this up – it says in the preamble to the legislation that it is designed to encourage marriage so that for poor mothers – for mothers heading poor families by themselves, the solution, according to that legislation, is to get married.

Now, that’s not always doable, and the general overall policy for getting onto TANF is diversion. If you were eligible for AFDC, the old system, then you were entitled to be on that system. If you are eligible for TANF, the goal of the state is to divert you from getting public assistance into work. And what that has resulted in is women taking very poorly paid jobs and leaving children with neighbors or relatives, if they have to leave the home and can’t care for them themselves. And so if a child gets sick and a woman loses her job, it’s counted against her. There’s a very high rate of punitive measures in TANF that allows case – state caseworkers to penalize a family if the mother doesn’t keep a job, doesn’t keep an appointment with a caseworker, doesn’t – there are just many, many circumstances, because the goal is to lower the welfare rolls.

And it has succeeded. Under last year of AFDC, there were 14 million people on welfare out of 300 million Americans. And of that 14 million, 10 million were children. So let’s let them off the hook and say that we weren’t hoping that they would get jobs, but that left 4 million mothers. There is now a total of 4 million people on welfare, again, two-thirds of them children. So the change did succeed in reducing the welfare rolls, but liberals don’t necessarily regard that as a great success. That’s not where the success ought to be. The success ought to be in lowering the poverty rate, and in fact, the poverty rate continues to rise.

MODERATOR: All right. I thank everyone. I know that we still have a few more questions, and we’ll take these off-camera. But for now, this event is concluded. Thank you once again to Dr. Harrison, and we’ll continue the conversation.

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