Falling into the Gender Gap

Posted: Aug 20, 2007 12:01 AM

So many books and surveys, so little time, and many are still wrestling with Freud's simple question, "What do women want?" The books and surveys are so loaded with contradictory opinions that no sociologist's "cohort" is likely to come up with a definitive answer.

Some women insist that the only thing for an educated woman to do is to work outside her home. Others defend the mom whose satisfaction comes from being with her children. Still others insist that mix and match is the best formula, for staying home when the kids are young.

My grandson, age 8, asked me the other day what his great-grandmother -- my mother -- "did." I wasn't sure what he meant. "Did, did, did," he repeated. "You mean as in 'work'?" I asked. "Yes, work."

Well, I told him, she spent a lot of time with her son and daughter and grandchildren when they were growing up. "She often picked up your mother at school when I couldn't, and she always had freshly baked cookies with her. She enjoyed making your great-grandfather happy." Such a granny sounded exotic to the young man, not at all like the mommies he knew, whose work determined their children's "play dates" and after-school activities.

The frame of reference for "did" has changed just as the word "gender" has replaced the word "sex." (It's still difficult to imagine Marilyn Monroe as a "genderpot.") I recalled this exchange with my grandson on reading interpretations of the political "gender gap" by the presidential candidates and their spouses. The woman who sounds most like my mother is Ann Romney. When Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace asked her about life on the campaign trail, she talked about how she wants to be with her husband to support him when he's being kicked all the time: "I feel sorry for the guy." That sounded both genuine and disarming.

Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are the candidates trying hardest to exploit "gender politics," and they're the most disingenuous. "Today, too many women are separated from the opportunities of our country because of their gender," says John Edwards. Does he know that women now hold half of all the management jobs in America? Hillary Clinton insists that the Bush administration denies freedom to "women around the world." Does she include the women of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute argues in The Wall Street Journal that this is a hot issue because a successful Democratic nominee must win a large majority of the female vote, which next year will make up the majority of everything. John Kerry counted on the gender gap his three Democratic predecessors enjoyed, and was sorely disappointed when the women's vote tilted only slightly his way.

But is persuading women that their "freedoms" are infringed the way to earn the women's vote? Brooks thinks not. He cites polling data to make his point. "Outside the Democratic base, the message of oppression appears to have little resonance. Republican women are seven percentage points more likely than Democratic women to say they feel free," he says. "And the mixture of gender and politics makes the freedom difference explode: Democratic men are two-thirds more likely than Republican women to say they do not have a great deal of freedom."

If there is a gender gap at all, it's most likely to be played out between single women and married women with families. It's hardly a surprise that women with kids feel slightly less encumbered than those without children. Mothers are still most responsible for their care. But what might surprise a lot of Americans is that married women -- by 10 percentage points -- are more likely to say they feel "free" than single women.

Democratic politicians fret over the glass ceiling and abortion on demand, but most ordinary women see freedom in being able to make choices for themselves, and think America offers the most freedom of opportunity. The Democrats focus on the so-called lack of freedom because they know what the statisticians have found, that the perception of freedom directly correlates with a sense of happiness and quality of life. A new Harris Poll, in fact, finds that a stunning 94 percent of all Americans are happy with their lives, and most say their lives have improved over the past five years. Only in the Northeast does a majority say their lives have soured (this may be The New York Times effect).

We'll find out why this is so over the next 14 months. Candidates should beware, lest they fall into a gender gap of their own making.