This really is the Year of the Woman.
We know, you’ve heard this all before. But consider these numbers: More women are running for Congress than in any previous year — 16 for the Senate and 163 for the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. And this year, women voters almost certainly will determine the outcome of the election.
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll in swing states makes this abundantly clear. In Ohio, Mitt Romney holds a slim lead among men, but President Obama enjoys a 17-point margin among women and an eight-point advantage overall. In Florida, men strongly favor Romney, but women are even more enthusiastic about Obama, putting the president ahead by four points.
Another sign that this is truly the Year of the Woman: On a busy day in New York, where he was addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Obama (and his wife, Michelle) made time to tape “The View,” the popular morning show hosted by five women and watched mainly by stay-at-home moms. He arrived with a basket of birthday gifts for co-host Barbara Walters and proclaimed his role was to provide “eye candy” for the audience.
Romney was caught on tape at a private fundraiser saying he’d never do the show because four of the hosts were “sharp-tongued and not conservative,” but he’s now agreed to appear next month. Clearly, he was afraid of a rising wimp factor. Co-host Sherri Shepherd got it right when she cracked, “If you can’t handle four sharp-tongued women, how are you going to handle the country?”
Women as candidates and as voters are tied together by an important theme — what women want out of politics. Sure, there are plenty of female ideologues on both sides, but on balance, women tend to be more practical, realistic and conciliatory.
“Women are pretty frustrated with what they’re seeing in terms of the way Congress operates,” Karen Middleton of Emerge America, a group that trains Democratic women to run for office, told The New York Times. “We tend to be problem solvers.” And there are plenty of problems to solve, starting with a dismally dysfunctional legislative process.
The last Year of the Woman occurred 20 years ago, when the female caucus in the Senate tripled from two to six. The numbers have grown since then — 17 women now sit in the Senate, 73 in the House — but America still lags far behind many other countries, ranking 78th when it comes to female representation in the national legislature. That makes us tied with Turkmenistan, and that’s not nearly good enough.
This is not a question of quotas or correctness. As legislators, women make a difference. They are far more likely to identify problems of gender bias, and we know this firsthand. Cokie’s mom, Lindy Boggs, served 18 years in Congress and authored legislation banning discrimination against women in bank lending practices. No man would have made that issue a top priority.
Women are also more likely to work across party lines. One example: Sens. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, co-sponsored an airline passenger bill of rights after a series of torturous flight delays. “Our constituents,” explained Boxer, “were getting stuck on aircraft hour after hour … with no food, kids screaming, nightmare scenarios.”
In perhaps the last bastion of bipartisanship left on Capitol Hill, the female senators from both parties gather regularly to share meals, stories and concerns. Speaking recently at the Rotary Club of Kalamazoo, Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow explained that these personal connections go “a long way” toward softening partisan hostilities. “I absolutely believe that building relationships and creating trust is critical,” she said, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette.
Women make a difference as voters, too. Since 1980, two trends have emerged: Women vote in greater numbers than men, and women are more likely to back Democrats. In 2008, the female vote exceeded the male vote by 10 million, and that gap is almost certain to expand this year. Obama barely beat John McCain among men but trounced him by 13 points among women. In 1996, Bill Clinton actually trailed among men but was rescued by women, who favored him by 16 points.
So that’s why Obama is happy to be “eye candy” on “The View,” and why Romney is willing to brave “sharp-tongued” questioning on the same show. This is the Year of the Woman, and both candidates know it.
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(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)