French women didn’t win the vote until 1945. A big part of the argument against their enfranchisement: they’d be overly influenced by the opinions of their priests. This was partly a matter of plain old French anti-clericalism. But it rested largely too upon the idea that women would vote with their hearts rather than their brains, that they’d make decisions of national importance for ignorant and emotional — rather than informed and logical — reasons, that they’d more likely choose positions that permitted them to maintain important relationships (in this case, with their beloved village priests) than risk rupture by venturing to have opinions that might cause conflict.
Feeling uncomfortable yet? Let’s fast-forward to America in 2012. Given that the country is so evenly divided between die-hard Democrats and Republicans, this election, as we all know, is going to rest on a small percentage of undecided voters — people who didn’t watch the debates and haven’t closely followed campaign coverage. These are people who seem to relate to the big issues of the day in the smallest, most personal ways. As in: What candidate do they like? What candidate do they “trust”? People who seem disproportionately swayed by the relationships they establish in their minds with our leading candidates in areas like trust, likeability, affability — as opposed to the candidates’ positions on issues. People who, often enough, don’t like all this conflictual political stuff anyway.
People who — need I say it? — are majority female.
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After almost a month of chortling viciously along to a Saturday Night Live skit that eviscerated them as defensive, self-righteous, know-nothings, there’s a certain sense right now that it’s time to be kind to the undecided voter. To express sympathy and compassion in particular for the beleaguered “waitress mom” with her kids and her mortgage and her bills and her job, who doesn’t have the time to watch the news (or, God forbid, read the paper) to learn about the candidates and their actual positions on issues, which could change the course of not only her family’s life, but of the lives of the nation.
I, however, can’t quite get past a sense of disappointment and, yes, anger, that such a key portion of a population that had to work hard to be entrusted with the vote — here as in France and around the world — is now so willing to prove true to age-old stereotype. The abdication of living up to the inconvenient responsibility of being a well-informed citizen — who thinks, forms opinions, and dares to hold onto those opinions, even if they put her in a position of conflict with others — is, unfortunately, a stance that I see far too often among many women, and not just the white, employed, but low-income, non-college graduate, young-skewing, debates-skipping demographic now identified as that of the undecided female voter.
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I have too often seen highly educated women strike a smug above-it-all pose as they say they’re “so bored” by the election, are really “apolitical” and wish it would all just “go away” so we could get on with our presumably more interesting day-to-day lives. There’s a putatively ladylike character to these declarations; a sense that to be “political” is, somehow, to be overmuch. And to risk conflict, to which we do tend to be averse. (“Fear of confrontation in relationships,” the author Phyllis Chesler once put it, is one of the most problematic aspects of deep female attachments.) I wonder if this desire not to rock the boat may, in part, explain why married women uniquely appear to buck the gender gap trend that in many recent presidential elections has had women overwhelmingly favoring Democratic candidates while men overwhelmingly favored Republicans.
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To be undecided in this election, when our two major parties have never been further apart on a whole range of economic and social issues, including issues of the most intimate importance to women, is, as SNL made so bitingly clear, an act of utter absurdity. It’s difficult not to have strong feelings about the candidates — unless, of course, you’ve been paying no attention, or are bound up in smoothing over differences or burying your feelings and opinions.
That style of being — adaptive, no doubt, back in the days when women’s sphere of influence and activity was confined to the home — is not well adapted to the complexities of modern life. It makes women easy to manipulate, and easy to discount. We have far too much at stake in this election to allow that to happen.
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