Last winter, newspapers across the country publicized the startling fact that 22 million single women — including those never married, divorced, separated or widowed — simply didn’t bother to vote in the 2000 presidential election. “Women’s Voices. Women Vote” (WVWV), the nonpartisan project that released this focused poll data, quickly dubbed these voters “Women on Their Own.”
Had they voted in 2000, these voters would have sent Al Gore to the White House. Why? Because these women, many of whom are mothers, feel greater economic insecurity than married women. Single women also tend to be more progressive about social issues and are deeply concerned about improving the quality of public education, gaining access to healthcare, raising the minimum wage, demanding equal pay for equal work and protecting Social Security for their retirement.
The real story of this presidential election, then, is the widening Marriage Gap — the difference between how married and unmarried women vote — and what the presidential candidates have or have not done to mobilize these 22 million women.
Political analysts naturally expected that both presidential candidates would woo these women voters with a slew of seductive promises.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead of addressing the everyday security needs of “women on their own,” both candidates pandered to (largely married) “security moms” who were supposedly obsessed by the prospect of terrorist attacks. As Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg pointed out in September, unmarried women have seen the election as “dominated by a discussion of the war on terrorism and security.”
During most of the campaign, neither of the candidates addressed this huge demographic bloc. True, John Kerry and John Edwards went on talk shows popular with women, but they talked about how they would fight terrorism. And yes, Bush’s website has a section called “W Stands for Women,” but it does not address concerns these women view as critical to their lives. It was only during the last few weeks of the campaign that Kerry rolled out a new stump speech that directly addressed women’s economic security.
As it turned out, “security moms” proved to be more of a soundbite than an actual demographic group. “Unlike the soccer or security moms,” Greenberg recently told me, “these 22 million [single] women are not a fake group. They are 20 percent of the electorate, and their economic marginality makes them a huge demographic and voting bloc.”
“They are cynical,” said WVWV co-director Chris Desser, “and needed to be persuaded that their voice matters. They don’t believe politicians understand or will address their concerns. In fact, nearly one-third of unmarried women polled said their main reason for not voting is that they believe their lives will not improve, no matter who is elected.”
The first two debates did nothing to change that cynicism. Consider what happened when PBS moderator Gwen Ifill asked Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards how they would address the growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS among heterosexual African-American women. Cheney said he hadn’t heard about the problem; Edwards evaded the question and discussed Kerry’s health plan.
During the third debate, Senator Kerry finally spoke directly to these 22 million women when he promised to protect Social Security, vowed to provide health insurance by ending Bush’s tax cuts for those who earn more than $200,000 and pledged to raise the minimum wage, now at a deplorable $5.15 an hour, so that some 9.2 million women would earn an extra $3,800 a year. He also criticized the pay gap between men and women, expressed support for the principle of affirmative action and vowed not to appoint a Supreme Court Justice who would undo a woman’s constitutional right to choose an abortion.
Bush, for his part, ducked questions on selecting new Supreme Court Justices, the minimum wage, women’s unequal wages and affirmative action. He also advocated private retirement and healthcare accounts and reiterated his belief that maternity homes, better adoption laws and abstinence programs are the best way to deal with unwanted pregnancies.
What the candidates failed to address in any of their debates was the need for childcare — essential for women’s equal participation in the labor force. True, Kerry acknowledged its importance but said that the huge federal deficit precluded the funding of childcare: “I’ve even scaled back some of my favorite programs already, like the childcare program I wanted to fund.”
Although the candidates failed to appeal directly to single women, dozens of grassroots groups and national organizations pursued them with passionate determination. Armed with polling data and materials provided by WVWV, vast platoons of volunteers from America Coming Together, US Action, Mainstreet Moms Oppose Bush, the Feminist Majority and many ad hoc groups registered countless single women in swing states. They will also be working to bring these voters to the polls on election day.
Meanwhile, MoveOn.org, the Media Fund and Planned Parenthood broadcast ads that accurately reflected their precarious lives.
As a result, single women gradually became aware of their political power. “These women,” said Desser of WVWV, “who told us that they felt invisible and irrelevant in the political process, began to see themselves and their importance reflected in the print and electronic media.”
According to poll data compiled by Democracy Corps, single women now favor Kerry by twenty-six percentage points, while married women prefer Bush by two points. Memo to politicians and the political parties: The difference between married and unmarried women’s political views is greater and more decisive than the gender gap, which right now has women favoring Kerry by about ten points.
Soon we’ll know whether — and how — these 22 million women voted. Although the candidates largely ignored them, the decisions they make in the privacy of the polling booth may well end up deciding our nation’s future.
Ruth Rosen, professor emeritus of history at the