A sea change has washed over America since Sigmund Freud asked the question that forever perplexes everybody: "What do women want?" The question remains forever elusive because women are never of one mind. To the consternation of marketers -- political and otherwise -- women don't all think alike.
Whether Republican or Democrat, male or female, black or white, vegetarian or confirmed carnivore, women are not single-issue voters. In a world of multi-tasking, women are multi-everything.
But the political strategists of both parties do look at women differently. Democrats perpetuate the convenient stereotype of woman as helpless victim, ignoring the feminist revolution over the past 60 years that enabled women to earn equal employment and educational opportunities once reserved only for men.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, demonstrates anew how fickle voters can be. Just 47 percent of registered voters now regard Barack Obama favorably, down 7 percent from late spring. Worse for the Democrats, say the pollsters, the decline has occurred almost entirely among female voters.
Republicans, on the other hand, emphasize women's accomplishments and can-do independence. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez reveled in telling the Republicans in Tampa, Fla., how her father gave her a job in the family security business, assigned her to guard the parking lot for the weekly bingo games at the Catholic church and armed her with a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum (the gun of choice of Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry"). Condoleezza Rice -- who was raised in Jim Crow Birmingham, Ala. -- says she was taught not "grievance and entitlement" but that even though she couldn't have a hamburger at Woolworths, she could grow up to be secretary of state. Chris Christie, the macho governor of New Jersey, credited his mother as the model of independent thinking: "In the automobile of life, Dad was just a passenger. Mom was the driver."
The Democrats sometimes highlight strong women, too -- wives, moms and grandmothers who overcame tough times. But the Democratic emphasis is invariably on women who need help, even with their sex lives, determined to persuade the government to pay for contraception and, when that fails, unrestricted abortions. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the first woman to preside over a Fortune 100 company, had it right when she said she was tired of hearing about women as a special interest group. She scolded the Democrats for "milking" the abortion issue. "Women are over half of the population; they are not single-issue voters," she said on "Meet the Press."
Everyone is against rape, but one dumb remark about rape by a clueless Senate candidate, swiftly denounced by every prominent Republican, continues to distract attention from the issues really important to women.
Like men, most women want jobs, and it's women who have the education and employment momentum at their backs. Men are having a harder time in the shrunken job market. This was captured in a graphic cover of The New York Times Magazine depicting a man standing in his boxer shorts without his trousers, under this cover line: "Who Wears The Pants In this Economy?"
In what she characterizes as the "new middle-class matriarchy," Hanna Rosin, author of the forthcoming book "The End of Men," interviewed struggling couples in which the husband had been laid off and the wife has taken on the breadwinning. "A man needs a strong, macho job," one of these unhappy men told her. "He's not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen." The unemployed husbands she interviewed had worked mostly in construction and manufacturing, which have been particularly hard hit by the stubbornly bad economy. Younger generations typically characterize these sensibilities as "old-fashioned."
Macho sensibility has often been transferred to young ambitious women. These women told Rosin that their empowerment means that no romantic attachment should obstruct female success in the workplace. They have little use for men except to satisfy their bedroom yearnings in calculated and uncommitted "hook-ups." They should make enough to pay for the condoms.
But between the wives who, by necessity, have taken over the "man's job," as defined in the 1950s, and the young women of the 21st century who think they know the meaning of success and often act like the vulgar chauvinists they once railed against, many of the rest of the women feel insulted and demeaned by the simplicity with which politicians describe them.
What women want now is an intelligent debate over how to get the economy moving again. We know there's no "war on women" any more than there's a "war on men." What we need is a war on unemployment and the deficit, which limit the prosperity of all men, women and children -- and the grandchildren, too. Can we get serious?