Those Fickle [White] Women

Yesterday’s Washington Post was a real doozy: Not only are women stupid, but they’re also fickle.

The kicker: The “women are fickle” piece was penned by feminist Linda Hirshman.

There are a lot of things that rub me the wrong way about the Hirshman article — and her accusation that female voters are fickle is actually the least of them. She begins with an insulting (and sexist) imaging of Maria Shriver haughtily tossing her hair and continues by claiming to speak up for working-class women — which is puzzling, given Hirshman’s history of either ignoring or expressing disdain for low-wage workers.

But never fear: Hirshman isn’t actually talking about working-class women. She’s talking about working-class white women.

And there we have one of the most puzzling conundrums of the 2008 Democratic contests. Black voters of all socioeconomic classes are voting for the black candidate. Men are voting for the male candidate regardless of race or class. But even though this is also a year with the first major female presidential candidate, women are split every way they can be. They’re the only voting bloc not voting their bloc.

And if their “bloc” is female and black? I’m sorry, those women simply don’t exist.

Penn was right about the importance of the women’s vote. About 57 percent of the voters in the Democratic primaries so far have been women. As of Feb. 12, Clinton had a lead of about seven percentage points over Obama among them (24 points among white women). But the Obama campaign reached out to the fair sex, following Clinton’s announcement of women-oriented programs with similar ones within a matter of weeks. I can imagine the strategists for the senator from Illinois thinking, “What’s that song in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’?” Women are fickle.

Turns out it’s true.

You mean women pay attention to the politicians’ positions on issues that affect their lives, and they may change their votes when a politician reaches out to them and improves his stance on important things? Those crazy bitches.

From the moment the primary season began, the group “women” divided along racial lines. Black women have backed Obama by more than 78 percent. But even after subtracting that group, white women (including Hispanics) are still the single largest demographic in the party, at 44 percent. If they voted as a bloc, it would take only a little help from any other bloc to elect the female candidate. White women favor Clinton. So why is she trailing as the contest heads to Ohio and Texas?

The answer is class. As of Feb. 19, the day of the Wisconsin primary, ABC pollster Gary Langer found that white women with a college degree had favored Clinton in the primaries by 13 percent up to that point. Among less educated women, meanwhile, she commanded a robust 38-point lead. But each passing week since Super Tuesday has seen a further erosion in support for the senator from New York among the educated classes. In Wisconsin, she won a minority of college-educated women. And unless there’s some sort of miracle turnaround in Ohio and Texas, this is what may cost her the Democratic nomination.

Sure, the answer is class — so long as you “subtract” black women and think that “class” is defined by educational level.

This isn’t the class divide I would have predicted a year ago. Among women, the obvious thing would be for lower-income, non-college-educated white and black women to line up behind the candidate with the more generous social platform. Both Clinton and Obama have generous platforms, but Clinton’s health-care plan is more ambitious, and she was the first to propose mandatory paid family leave (which mostly women take). But women, black and white, stubbornly refuse to behave according to a strict model of economic self-interest. Black women of all income levels have gone for Obama.

Which isn’t self-interested… how?

And health care isn’t the only issue at stake in this election. It’s an important one to be sure, but certainly lower-income women, women who stand up for immigrants, and women interested in social and economic justice have not forgotten Clinton’s stance on welfare “reform.” Certainly those women haven’t forgotten her Iraq war vote. Certainly those women have been paying attention to attempts at health care reform for the past decade, and realize that universal health care is (unfortunately) a long ways away, and perhaps they should vote on a series of issues instead of just one.

But Hirshman is clear that when she champions the interests of working-class women, she’s talking about a particular type of working-class woman. She’s throwing down the class card out of strategy, not out of any genuine concern for the needs or opinions of poor and working-class women; if she actually listened to women, maybe she’d realize that women of color and immigrant women are disproportionately working-class and poor, and so perhaps taking them out of the equation moots her argument:

So many feminists’ turn to solidarity with their own class is a surprise. For decades, they’ve been loudly proclaiming their loyalty to working-class women and criticizing reporters for writing chiefly about elite women who resemble themselves. Before the election got hot, Ellen Bravo, longtime director of 9 to 5, a national association of working women, asserted that working mothers “with more opportunities” must “take a stand with those who have fewer.” I’ve been the target of some of the more pointed criticism myself, for writing a book about educated women quitting their jobs for motherhood. Nation writer Liza Featherstone “guessed” that my life did not look “very much like that of a Starbucks barista.”

Now, though, many of the same women trumpeting the barista reality disagree with most working-class white women about which candidate would be better for the working class. Just look at Internet millionaire Joan Blades, co-founder of the political Web site MoveOn.org and the women’s Internet group MomsRising.org, whose signature issue is paid family leave. Clinton was the first candidate to propose such leave, but MoveOn endorsed Obama. The working-class members of the Service Employees International Union are 56 percent female. But even after working-class women in California ignored the local SEIU recommendation to back Obama, the national executive board endorsed him, again splitting the leadership from the workers.

She goes on to take a pot-shot at Obama’s wealth — as if any of the presidential candidates are poor:

Or it could just be that women with more education (and more money) relate on a subconscious level to the young and handsome Barack and Michelle Obama, with their white-porticoed mansion in one of the cooler Chicago neighborhoods and her Jimmy Choo shoes.

As opposed to Clinton’s single-room home and her Payless shoes?

Hirshman’s conclusion is this:

Whatever the explanation, the Clinton campaign could now be stuttering to its close, and Mark Penn has been criticized for everything from short-sightedness about the primary schedule to overspending on sandwich platters. But those failures pale beside the biggest one of all: not recognizing the fickleness of the female voter.

Or how about ignoring the genuine and legitimate needs and demands of the female voter, or assuming that women will automatically vote for Clinton?

I expect this kind of condescension and racial blindness from the likes of Charlotte Allen. I’m really disgusted to see it from a self-styled feminist.


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13 comments for “Those Fickle [White] Women

  1. puggins
    March 3, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Nothing I say would improve on your commentary.

    Isn’t it just great to see so-called liberals lobbing softballs to Limbaugh and his pack of ghouls? :/

  2. March 3, 2008 at 8:12 pm

    Goddamn, I hate Hirshman. I’m surprised she hasn’t been singled out as the next Christina Hoff Summers.

  3. March 3, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    There’s definitely some fishy and disturbing business going on in this primary, with all the sketchy comments about race and gender flying back and forth between the camps, the “Obama-bot” phenomenon, which Hirshman might have exaggerated a bit but which definitely exists, and not least — the tendency for observers like Hirshman to try and slice and dice the voting populations along these neat demographic lines as if any significant number of people can really, under close analysis, be analyzed like a pack of sheep. The simplicity of that method falls apart as soon as you notice that oh, some people are Latin@ AND middle-class AND women AND gay, etc etc.

    I start to zone out now as soon as I hear a pundit start saying “the Asian vote is going for Hillary!” — as if the vote of all the people who check “Asian” on a form is some singular, reified object that can roll from one box to another. It’s just way too generalized to make sense and as soon as you start thinking about that, all of Hirshmans “what-is” start to fall apart like a house of cards. You realize that she, and as usual most of the other talking heads trying to make predictions or make sense of things, don’t really know what’s going on in the complexities of people’s lives.

    The best way I could come up with to describe Obama’s popularity is that it seems to be infectious and fervor-inducing — somehow his campaign has ignited the imagination of whole clusters of people in ways that the Clinton campaign hasn’t seemed able to. (Clinton supporters tend to say it’s a form of blind mania, and they very well could be right.) I’m sure the difference is partly about race and gender and the national consciousness, and how different individuals relate to it. And I’m also pretty sure that it’s NOT about the minor but significant policy differences that differentiate the two candidates.

  4. March 3, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    Wait. She said “fair sex?” “Fair sex?!!!!” I’m not fair, I’m above-average to excellent, fuckyouverymuch! (that’s not how she meant it!) Oh, well, I’m olive, not fair. (that’s not how she meant it, either) Well, how did she mean it? Pedestals? Intellectual lightweights? fickle, hmmm? I second Lauren—Hirschman drives me up the fucking wall.

    Paid family leave? Please. First, you have to have a job. Then, FMLA actually has to be followed. My “choice” by the Department of Labor was my job or having my insurance paid. When I asked if it would be legal to hire me back for one day, then lay me off, the DoL answer was “yes”. Some choice, huh? Before Hirschman calls out Ellen Bravo, maybe she oughta flip through a few pages of her latest book, “Taking on the Big Boys”, where she specifically addresses the gaps in family leave.

    NAFTA. GATT. CAFTA. WTO. G-8. Those are fighting words in my neck of the midwest. If there is any one issue that drives more working-class midwestern votes toward Obama and away from Clinton, it is the neoliberal trade policies championed by the Clinton administration. So, every time Hillary talks about her “experience”, it is translated back here as jobs–good paying, family-supporting, union jobs— leaving the country.

  5. March 3, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    Ahh shit. Only the “or” was supposed to be bolded. sorry!

  6. Kenda
    March 3, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    um, did she not hear about the clintons loaning their campaign $5mill? they’ve got a little bit of money too.

  7. Betsy
    March 4, 2008 at 12:29 am

    Re: the bit about Obama and class:

    The irony is, and correct me if I’m wrong, that he and Michelle may have a fancy mansion now, but unlike Clinton, he didn’t COME from a wealthy and powerful family. He didn’t start from nearly the same position of privilege.

  8. Betsy
    March 4, 2008 at 12:32 am

    I also love that, even granting the premise that we all vote on the basis of identity politics, she thinks that we can/should only vote our own identities. So that, as a white woman, I couldn’t possibly think that having the first black president could be just as important for the country as having the first woman president.

  9. zuzu
    March 4, 2008 at 12:45 am

    Since when was Hillary Clinton from a wealthy and powerful family? She was comfortably middle-class, but we’re not talking Bush levels of wealth. Barack Obama is from an educated, middle-class background as well. Michelle Obama, however, is the daughter of a city employee, though she became successful as an attorney and served on the board of a Wal-Mart supplier.

    So, basically, the “humble beginnings” schtick is kind of a wash, and neither candidate has their spouse beat on that score.

    Digby has a great post about how the media has been slinging misogynist shit at Clinton, and how if she goes, they’re just going to re-tool a bit and tear down Obama.

  10. March 4, 2008 at 12:51 am

    Digby has a great post about how the media has been slinging misogynist shit at Clinton, and how if she goes, they’re just going to re-tool a bit and tear down Obama.

    Word.

  11. lizvelrene
    March 4, 2008 at 9:56 am

    I’m getting really sick of this shit. I voted for Obama, but it was not a simple choice for me. I looked over their platforms and went back and forth several times.

    But apparently, my vote somehow indicates that I am both stupid and fickle. It couldn’t possibly be an informed decision, it must be a misfire of my weak girly brain.

    Thanks again, Washington Post! Fuck you too.

  12. trishka
    March 4, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    well, i’m educated and middle-class, so i guess that makes my support for obama acceptable in some way. however, it doesn’t occur to hirshman that maybe some women voters want things like paid family leave and health insurance and so on, and understand that in order to get these things they’re going to have to choose the democratic candidate that stands the best shot at winning the general election.

    clinton may have a better platform on paper, but mccain’s platform? not so much.

  13. bekabot
    March 4, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    This just goes to show ya, and what it just goes to show ya is the extent to which pundits and pundettes and wannabe-pundits and wannabe-pundettes get all discombobulated when those mindless lemmings of voters fail to behave precisely the way the playground monitors of the media have predicted they will. You can see this kind of thinking Hirshman’s column as clearly as day. She thinks that blacks will vote for blacks and that males will vote for males, and when the polls show that that’s probably what will happen she pats herself on the back with a self-congratulatory sigh. But she also thinks that women will vote for a woman, and when evidence shows up to the effect that maybe she’s wrong (o heaven forbid) she stamps her little foot and pouts and throws the onus of her miscalculation all over its objects. It’s not, you see, that Linda Hirshman is destitute of godlike divinatory powers, it’s that women are fickle and therefore unpredictable. Chicks will do anything; everybody knows that. It’s not Hirshman’s fault that her class-divide theory didn’t pan out. It’s not, it’s not. (Stamp, pout.)

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