Fall­ing into an­other gen­der gap

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

So many books and sur­veys, so lit­tle time, and many are still wrestling with Freud’s sim­ple ques­tion, “What do women want?” The books and sur­veys are so loaded with con­tra­dic­tory opin­ions that no so­ci­ol­o­gist’s “co­hort” is likely to come up with a de­fin­i­tive an­swer.

Some women in­sist that the only thing for an ed­u­cated wo­man to do is to work out­side her home. Oth­ers de­fend the Mom whose sat­is­fac­tion comes from be­ing with her chil­dren. Still oth­ers in­sist that mix and match is the best for­mula, for stay­ing home when the kids are young.

My grand­son, age 8, asked me the other day what his great­grand­mother — my mother — “did.” I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Did, did, did,” he re­peated. “You mean as in ‘work?’ “ I asked. “Yes, work.” Well, I told him, she spent a lot of time with her son and daugh­ter and grand­chil­dren when they were grow­ing up. “She of­ten picked up your mother at school when I couldn’t, and she al­ways had freshly baked cook­ies with her. She en­joyed mak­ing your great-grand­fa­ther happy.” Such a granny sounded ex­otic to the young man, not at all like the mom­mies he knew, whose work de­ter­mined their chil­dren’s “play dates” and af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties.

The frame of ref­er­ence for “did” has changed just as the word “gen­der” has re­placed the word “sex” (it’s still dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe as a “gen­der­pot”). I re­called this ex­change with my grand­son on read­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the po­lit­i­cal “gen­der gap” by the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and their spouses. The wo­man who sounds most like my mother is Ann Rom­ney. When Chris Wal­lace asked her about life on the cam­paign trail on Fox, she talked about how she wants to be with her hus­band to sup­port him when he’s be­ing kicked all the time: “I feel sorry for the guy.” That sounded both gen­uine and dis­arm­ing.

Hil­lary Clin­ton and John Ed­wards are the can­di­dates try­ing hard­est to ex­ploit “gen­der pol­i­tics,” and they’re the most disin­gen­u­ous. “To­day, too many women are sep­a­rated from the op­por­tu­ni­ties of our coun­try be­cause of their gen­der,” says Mr. Ed­wards. Does he know that women now hold half of all the man­age­ment jobs in Amer­ica? Mrs. Clin­ton in­sists that the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion de­nies free­dom to “women around the world.” Does she in­clude the women of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Arthur Brooks of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute ar­gues in the Wall Street Jour­nal that this is a hot is­sue be­cause a suc­cess­ful Demo­cratic nom­i­nee must win a large ma­jor­ity of the fe­male vote, which next year will make up the ma­jor­ity of ev­ery- thing. John Kerry counted on the gen­der gap his three Demo­cratic pre­de­ces­sors en­joyed, and was sorely dis­ap­pointed when the women’s vote tilted only slightly his way.

But is per­suad­ing women that their “free­doms” are in­fringed the way to earn the women’s vote? Mr. Brooks thinks not. He cites polling data to make his point. “Out­side the Demo­cratic base, the mes­sage of op­pres­sion ap­pears to have lit­tle res­o­nance. Repub­li­can women are seven per­cent­age points more likely than Demo­cratic women to say they feel free,” he says. “And the mix­ture of gen­der and pol­i­tics makes the free­dom dif­fer­ence ex­plode: Demo­cratic men are twothirds more likely than Repub­li­can women to say they do not have a great deal of free­dom.”

If there is a gen­der gap at all, it’s most like to be played out be­tween sin­gle women and mar­ried women with fam­i­lies. It’s hardly a sur­prise that women with kids feel slightly less en­cum­bered than those with­out chil­dren. Moth­ers are still most re­spon­si­ble for their care. But what might sur­prise a lot of Amer­i­cans is that mar­ried women — by 10 per­cent­age points — are more likely to say they feel “free” than sin­gle women.

Demo­cratic politi­cians fret over the glass ceil­ing and abor­tion on de­mand, but most or­di­nary women see free­dom in be­ing able to make choices for them­selves, and think Amer­ica of­fers the most free­dom of op­por­tu­nity. The Democrats fo­cus on the so-called lack of free­dom be­cause they know what the statis­ti­cians have found, that the per­cep­tion of free­dom di­rectly cor­re­lates with a sense of hap­pi­ness and qual­ity of life. A new Har­ris Poll, in fact, finds that a stun­ning 94 per­cent of all Amer­i­cans are happy with their lives, and most say their lives have im­proved over the past five years. Only in the North­east does a ma­jor­ity say their lives have soured (this may be the New York Times ef­fect).

We’ll find out why this is so over the next 14 months. Can­di­dates should beware, lest they fall into a gen­der gap of their own mak­ing.

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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