Iowa women, just like many women throughout the nation, entered this election season with high hopes. For the first time in history, there would be a front-running woman vying for the nation's highest office. More importantly, after surviving the sound bite days of "soccer moms" and "security moms," women were ready to stand politically independent — no modifiers required.
With the Iowa caucus just past, there is cause for both celebration and angst in the feminist community. Without a doubt, this election has been as much about women as it has been about any other group or collective of issues. Early on, candidates from both sides of the aisle — but especially the Democratic contenders — announced their women's leadership committees. Due in large part to the fact that a viable woman had entered the race, campaigns were quick to tout their feminist credentials and female staff members. Official campaign press releases were issued when a candidate gained the support of a particularly well-known or well-respected woman.
Women, however, weren't content with platitudes, and, as the contest continued, it became clear to the campaigns that horse races listing female supporters and sound bites were not going to be enough. For this to be the political year of the woman, candidates were going to have to become serious about courting women — the largest population voting block — by speaking in detail about their core issues of concern. As any good campaign strategist will tell you, details do not a good sound bite make.
The Clinton Effect
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Despite all the promise that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton brought to the race and all the effort put into her candidacy by prominent women's groups such as EMILY's List, many women have ventured to other campaigns. The exact reasons are as varied as there are women, but the phrase of "I'm not going to vote for someone just because she has the same internal plumbing that I do" is one often heard in Iowa political circles. For these women, most of whom are between the ages of 18 and 50, there is no urgency of the moment — no feeling that this might be their last chance to do something for the overall betterment of women.
Conversely, there are women entering or in their golden years who mince few words when describing how Clinton's "internal plumbing" was one of their main deciding factors. "I'm not young," they say. "In my lifetime, I want to see a woman in the White House." Implicit in such statements is the fact that many of the women in this age group have either had to forge their own path to success or have helped female friends and family forge one. For them, Clinton's candidacy has become a culmination of a lifetime of working on behalf of women's issues.
Only time will tell how such stark contrasts within the Iowa women's movement will play out. Some are not taking chances that the emerging gender gap might keep them from female mentors.
"Of the women I admire — those I know that could help me and that I could learn the most from — they are supporting Clinton," a friend recently said in a phone conversation. "I hadn't found much of a difference between the candidates, so I went with Clinton too. It's a common thread, another way for me to connect with these women."
The internal politics of Iowa politics described in the above statement may be somewhat distasteful, but it is upheld by the comments of some women who have found their home in a campaign other than Clinton's.
"When I tell people who I'm supporting — even women I've considered close friends for years — they look at me with this quizzical look and ask, 'But aren't you a feminist?'" said one eastern Iowa county official. "When I tell them I do consider myself a feminist, they often ask if I'm sure. There seems to be a real belief, especially from some of our older women, that in order to be a feminist, you must support the woman running, even if you don't think she is the best person for the job."
Women Supporting Men
Historically, as women have moved up career ladders, they've learned that one of the ways to judge the character of a male co-worker is to meet his spouse or other women in his life. This tactic, often whispered in corporate bathrooms and during lunches away from the office, was brought into the political conversation by Roxanne Conlin, a prominent Iowa attorney and staunch supporter of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"I spent all my life in the company of men," she said during a campaign rally in Cedar Rapids. "When I first became a lawyer, there were very few women. … The reason I say that is one of the ways I have traditionally judged my male colleagues is by the women who chose them."
Elizabeth Edwards, Michelle Obama, Jackie Dodd, Jill Biden, Ann Romney, Valerie Biden Owens, Barbara Richardson, Carol Paul, Mary Romney, Cate Edwards, Marion Robinson, Maya Soetoro-Ng, Ashley Biden, Janet Huckabee, Carolyn Dodd, Sarah Huckabee, Jeri Thompson and Martha Buonanno are just a few of the women family members who have been in Iowa on behalf of the male candidates. In addition, there has been a parade of women who are political or social celebrities here to spread the good news of the male candidate they have chosen.
"If nothing else comes of this, we know now that our nation is full of strong women who are taking an active role in the political process — it's just too bad that more of them don't actually run for office themselves," said a male Obama supporter. "I'd vote for Michelle in a heartbeat — Elizabeth Edwards too."
Such sentiment isn't isolated and campaigns know it. In an interview this fall, Mary Romney, a daughter-in-law of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said, "We like to think that we are traveling the state, campaigning for Ann for First Lady.
Issues & Sound Bites
Last spring, in the midst of the whirl of the campaigns' attempts to one-up each other with women staffers and supporters, a request was sent from BlogHer, an internet community of more than 7 million techno-savvy women, to the leading Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. To date, not one campaign has agreed to participate, and, sadly, the BlogHer community is not alone. There are other organizations and blogs devoted to women who also feel they've received the cold shoulder from presidential hopefuls.
In response to the candidates' nonresponse, BlogHer announced a user survey that has shown that the vast majority — well over 90 percent — of women in the community want the group's editors to speak directly with the candidates and not rely on surrogates to address issues of concern. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the survey, however, came in response to the question of whether women bloggers are turned on or off by tactics to reach women and moms specifically. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed indicated that they found tactics such as "Women for Obama" and "Moms for Hillary" distasteful.
Just over 25 percent of women surveyed by BlogHer refused to give a one-word answer and instead opted for "other" and leaving a personal response. Comments such as "If it smacks of being patronizing or phony, it's a huge turn off for me" and "They seem to only want to talk to women on their terms and with their framing" were par for the course — and are on target with what's being said daily by women in Iowa.
Listen to the national media long enough and you'll soon be convinced that I'm one of the hottest commodities available in this presidential election. First, I'm a resident of Iowa. Second, I'm a woman. It is true that I was contacted by every Democratic campaign (and a couple of Republican ones as well) and asked to join their "Women for …" group. Over the summer, I spent hours in small meetings, visiting with leadership of said women's groups. Those who participated were told that the feedback garnered from those meetings was invaluable, that the views expressed by the women involved were going to be taken back to the top of the campaign and integrated into the messaging, plans and forthcoming white papers. Some of it was. Unless the other meetings held across the state of Iowa were drastically different from the ones I attended, very little of the substance of those meetings was converted to policy.
Women who attended the meetings, even those who remain firmly committed to the candidate hosting the meeting, still sometimes wonder where that information went or if it went anywhere at all. We asked to hear about reproductive health — not just abortion, but the full gamut of reproductive health issues — and have yet to see one white paper with that title. We asked for details concerning everything from early childhood learning to veterans' benefits to protecting family farms. We asked for a great deal. We gained very little.
Who would have guessed that the elderly woman on the Wendy's commercial who demanded, "Where's the beef?!" so many years ago would be so in tune with women today?
Contrary to radio entertainers who fill the day with notices of the "chickafication" of everything from the economy to the media, the best-kept secret of the women's community is that women's issues are human issues. We don't just care about families, contraception, security or education. Our key concerns are most likely your key concerns, and that fact, above all else, points to why this election cycle has been a disappointment.
Women want more than 30-second marketing spots and three-second sound bites on the evening news. Women, just like all Americans, are looking around the nation and finding room for improvement (if not full-fledged overhaul). From the economy to national security to health care, women are looking for answers. And it has been that quest for details, that want for something of substance, which has turned out to be the downfall of what could have been not only the political year of the woman but the political year of the citizen.