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Post-election thought: Women get what they want

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | November 3, 2010

Now that the 2010 election is safely over, we can get down to the fun part: arguing about what it all means. There will be – as there always is – a lot of temptation to boil it all down to one or at most two factors: the economy, most likely. Certainly economic angst has to be factored into any conclusions that are drawn. But the results of the election are as always multi-factored and some factors are less obvious but perhaps more important, over the long haul, than others.

One such factor is that the tried and true Democratic faithful may be becoming less so: women, Latinos, African Americans, and other “others.” The pundits are lumping these groups together, but that may not produce an accurate reading. For instance, let us just consider the case of women.

The “gender gap” has been a (greater or lesser) factor in American electoral politics since 1980 – or at least that was when it was first noted and measured. But in 2010, while men still voted disproportionately for Republicans and women for Democrats, the difference was significantly smaller than in 2008: more women voted Republican. What are we to make of this?

That question can be approached and answered in two ways: first, what did it mean in this election? And second, what does it augur for the Democrats, and for women, in the future?

Well, there are at least two ways to interpret these observations. One might be that women are finally wising up: as long as the Democratic Party can confidently take them for granted, they can be sure they will get nothing from the Democratic Party. So in the 2008 primaries, the party paid no attention to the rampant misogyny of many of its own most prominent members. And the jewel in the Obama administration’s crown, the health care bill, was won by Senate and House Democrats, along with the President, throwing reproductive rights under the bus in their haste to pass a health care bill. The lesson here for the Democrats: cherish your base. Give your most loyal supporters what they want. Do not cozy up to your natural enemies, the Blue Dog contingent, who will betray you first chance they get (and will be unseated at the first opportunity).

For those of us women who usually vote for Democrats, the results of this election should be a wake-up call. Your party needs a good kick in the butt: they need to realize that women exist not merely to serve, but to be served. Women must be more proactive: demand and get, and only then give up your vote. We have been putting up with second-class treatment for too long; let us learn to act like other groups that the Republicans like to sneer at as “special interests” (as though white males did not constitute one “special interest”).

But there are other potential takeaways as well, less worrisome and longer-term. Perhaps women have finally, really, begun to arrive at “normality.” We are in fact ceasing to be “special,” or marked, or “other”; we are beginning to be able to see ourselves and be seen like historically dominant groups, as individual and neutral. So the idea that there is a category called “women” who, inevitably, feel and vote a certain way en masse, no longer makes the kind of sense it used to. Just as white males can see themselves as individuals who can act autonomously, women are starting to feel that way too, and therefore, the urge to support one or another group because that’s what “women” do and I am a woman is becoming less strong.

If this shift is in fact occurring, and one of the reasons women defected from the Democrats, and therefore one reason why some seats were lost, it is good news and bad news. The bad news is that it may be harder for Democrats to win elections in the near future, until they learn to speak to all interests, the formerly special and the “normal,” with one voice and become truly a party for all of us (unlike a certain other Party one could name). That will require the development of a new vocabulary and a new rhetoric, but there are plenty of smart and talented people among the Democrats who can make that happen.

The good news is that if this interpretation is correct, America is really entering a new era. No more phony “Year of the Woman” without any corresponding “Year of the Man.”; Now women are ready to take their place as equals at the bargaining table, confident of being treated as normal and equal human beings.

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