Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why There Are No Women Voters and No Women’s Issues

Lauren Swayne Barthold and Brian Glenney


November 9, 2012

By Lauren Barthold and Brian Glenney

An earlier version of this article was published in Faculty Central, a publication of Gordon College, Wenham, MA.

Binders or not, there are no women voters. Period. There is, we mean, no unique demographic of women, whose vote Governor Mitt Romney supposedly lost and whose vote President Obama reportedly won. Nor is there a “gender gap” problem for Republicans.

In the second presidential debate, when Romney described his process for hiring qualified women for his cabinet, he did not confuse and frustrate women voters, but any prospective voter. Nor did his description prompt the abortion debate or any other issue that allegedly concerns only women voters because there are no “women’s” issues.

Consider this noteworthy term “women.” As philosophers, we of course feel compelled to ask, “Do women even exist?” A recent consideration of the history of western thought by Denise Riley shows the use of the label “women” to be, well, erratic at best: At some points in history it suggests equality to men in terms of passion, at others superiority in terms of social morality, and at others inferiority in terms of intellect. In other words, historically we have never been able to agree on an unequivocal definition of “women.” Even present attempts grounded on an alleged “feminine conscience” become too complex to be satisfying. This is not to suggest we enter a post-gender society, where concepts and practices of gender have no role to play. But it does make us wonder who is using the term “women” and why.

Let’s look at a clear example. “Equal pay for women” is, we claim, not a “women’s” issue. Men whose female partners work may feel deep concern with this issue. So too might men whose passion for justice and the common good heartily disapprove of such inequality within any modern society. And women with more traditional religious convictions may personally find such an issue anathema. Therefore, equal pay is not a women’s issue: it is constituted out of concern from, and for, all working humans. To achieve equal pay will require the sweat of those other than women to correct. And frankly, more than binders of women will be needed for such changes. We’ll need actual cabinets full of women and men, even self-interested men, because its correction will require that together we re-imagine how our society could be. 

Our argument finds strength when we consider how the term “women” is actually used. When it is tossed around, as was done during this election cycle and the post-election blitz, aren’t pundits really referring to “Christian, white, educated, able-bodied middle class” women? Yet, when we take religion, class, race and able-bodied-ness into account, there is certainly no sense in which we can speak of “women” writ large. To do so covers up a multitude of faces, faces that are very real and important, but faces that we already too easily pretend don’t exist.

So, who really benefits from talking about gender discrepancy in voting behavior? Perhaps it—like most labels—provides a placeholder for statistical correlations and is needed for campaign managers, statisticians and pollsters. Sure, there are probably actual statistical correlations between women who vote and the issues they care most about, and even how they vote on these issues. Or it may be that the term “woman voter” is useful in the technical sense for these matches, allowing pollsters and such to quantify this population/issue correlation.

But if we have learned anything from freak-o-nomicists it is this: correlations are everywhere. A further caution from their ‘work’ should keep us from creating flippant connections between populations and issues. Too often, though, we attribute a causal link to the technical term “women voter” and it suddenly becomes the popular connotation for women and politics.

When we use this otherwise empty term, we run the risk of undercutting how women, and for that matter men, engage politics, for they don’t do so as a “block vote” but as individuals with a diversity of identities, concerns and convictions. In fact, the very notion of “social” concerns emerges from efforts to preserve a separate but equal domain for women. This, too, is a problem: as women move out of the private realm of home life, their interests are still limited to those directly impinging upon the very domestic lives they sought to move beyond: health care, child care, education, etc. Historically this has meant assuming that women are not all that interested in—or should not be interested in—political issues or acting politically, as in, voting, organizing or running for office.

When our nation was fighting for a woman’s right to vote, the central objection was that women would all vote as a group and cancel out the men’s votes. In a real sense, to claim that “women” voters exist is to play along with the “block vote” stereotype of this adolescent political discourse. That means our political discourse needs, if you will, maturing so as to acknowledge that there are no women, politically speaking.

After all, women—like men—are massively diverse in their concerns and how they believe these can be addressed. Just as campaigns don’t tailor their messages to men voters, neither should they to women who vote.

--Lauren Swayne Barthold is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Coordinator of the Gender Studies Program at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. Brian Glenney is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gordon College.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”