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FEATURE | WINTER 2013

The Feminist Factor


By ELEANOR SMEALGrace and Grit Cover

As we move forward after the elections of 2012, it's time to acknowledge that it wasn't just women who made a critical difference in reelecting President Barack Obama, but feminists

I've been thinking about the gender gap since the early 1970s, when I was doing graduate work on women's political attitudes. And in 1980, I proved its existence while analyzing job-approval polling, segmented by gender, for President Ronald Reagan, who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Women approved of him less than men—a statistic borne out in the election, in which there was an 8-point gap between women's votes for Reagan and men's. A team of us at NOW (the National Organization for Women), who were campaigning hard for the ERA, named it the gender gap, and we even had a ditty that we chanted toward politicians we opposed: "The gender gap will get you if you don't watch out!"

The gap—the measurable difference between the voting behavior and political attitudes of women and men—has grown considerably since then. It was decisive in November, both in the presidential race and in maintaining a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.

To begin with, women (53 percent of all voters) cast some 8 million more votes for the president than men did. And 55 percent of those women chose Obama, compared to just 45 percent of men—for a 10-percent gender gap. If only men had voted, Mitt Romney would have won the presidency, 52 percent to 45 percent.

The gender gap and women's votes were also decisive in some key Senate races in which the Democratic candidate won, including Elizabeth Warren's in Massachusetts (a 12-percent gender gap) and Chris Murphy's in Connecticut (11 percent). If only men had voted in each of these races, the Republican candidate would have won.

Most importantly, this gender gap was crucial in the battleground states in which the presidential election was determined: In Ohio and Wisconsin, for example, the gender gap was 10 percent pro-Obama, and 8 percent and 10 percent, respectively, in favor of Democratic senatorial candidates Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin. Even in states in which the gap was smaller, such as Virginia and Florida, it was large enough for Democrats to win the presidential and Senate contests.

But now it's time to add another metric beyond the gender gap to our postelection analysis: the "feminist factor." While there were many reasons for President Obama's decisive victory, the feminist factor may be one of the most significant.

We dubbed it that after analyzing an in-depth poll Ms. commissioned with the Communications Consortium Media Center and the Feminist Majority Foundation. Conducted Nov. 4–6, 2012, by Lake Research Partners, it found that 55 percent of women voters and even 30 percent of men voters consider themselves feminist.

These results are generally 9 points higher than they were in 2008, when the same question was posed to voters, and this upward trend is likely to continue given the strong identification with feminism by younger women and women of color.

Speaking of younger women, a solid majority of them (58 percent) identify as feminists—as did 54 percent of older women, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of Democratic women and a respectable 38 percent of Republican women. The feminist factor cuts across race and ethnic lines, with a majority of Latina, African American and white women voters considering themselves feminists.

Most importantly, voters' views on feminism correlated with their choice of candidates. Among feminist women, some two-thirds (64 percent) voted for Obama, as did 54 percent of feminist-identified men. Looking at voters who identified as pro-choice, 61 percent cast their ballot for Obama.

While the votes of women—especially feminist women—were crucial in reelecting the president and a Democratic-majority Senate, they were not successful in electing a Democratic House majority. However, they probably could have done so if it weren't for severely gerrymandered districts that underrepresent Democrats (60 percent of whom are women), Latina/os, African Americans and women. Overall, Americans cast some 1.3 million more votes for House Democrats than House Republicans, but because of gerrymandering, they would need to win the popular vote in House elections by more than 7 percent just to barely gain a House majority. (Thanks to Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress for that analysis.)

Although feminists feel that the election was a victory for us in the War on Women—the term now commonly used by feminists and the media to describe initiatives in state legislatures and Congress that severely restrict women's rights in such areas as reproduction, violence and pay equity—we can't savor it for long. The 2012 election wins have prevented some of the worst attacks on women's rights from succeeding, but we won just a battle: The opposition to women's rights, especially at the state level, is certainly not going away. We have much to do if we are to realize the pro-choice, pro-women's rights agenda upon which President Obama and other candidates ran—an agenda that will move women and the nation forward.

Now is the time for feminists and feminist organizations to gear up and mobilize, making sure that the message we delivered in the 2012 election is actually received and results are delivered. We must work to prevent a backslide, as happened in the congressional and state elections in 2009 and 2010, and instead build for further victories in the 2013 and 2014 elections.

Here is what we must do:

FIRST We must work to avert an economic crisis. As I write this, we just faced a "fiscal cliff," with another fight looming in Congress about raising the debt limit. Conservatives in Congress keep demanding benefits cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid— programs that women, especially, desperately need—so we cannot let this happen.

Congress must not balance the federal budget on the backs of the poor, the disabled or the elderly. There are plenty of cuts that can be realized without slashing benefits for programs that women rely upon. Just one example: The Affordable Care Act cuts some $716 billion out of Medicare over 10 years, but does so by reducing administrative costs and insurance company subsidies rather than cutting benefits to older recipients.

SECOND We must work to pass a series of other critical measures in Congress. For one, there's the federal Paycheck Fairness Act—filibustered by Senate Republicans in 2012— which increases protections for workers who sue employers for sex discrimination or even discuss their pay with coworkers. And we still must pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which House Republicans blocked in 2012 by rolling back coverage the Senate had voted on for students, immigrants, Native Americans and the LGBT community.

We also must urge Congress to increase access to family planning and abortion, and keep intact the Affordable Care Act. Plus, we repeat: In these tough economic times, we must insist on keeping the protections of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

But the next set of battles is not just at the national level.

THIRD We must organize to stop attacks on women's rights in many state legislatures, which are often led by their governors. We hardly had time to analyze the election results before those attacks started up again. One of the more egregious examples was when the lame-duck Michigan Legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, an extreme TRAP law (Targeted Regulations against Abortion Providers) in an effort to close abortion clinics.

Ohio's Legislature also used its lame-duck session to attack women's rights, introducing a very restrictive abortion law—which, fortunately, was withdrawn. But in Mississippi, the state is defending a newly passed TRAP law designed to close the only remaining abortion clinic in the state (see page 16). And in Texas, a law that went into effect earlier this year is preventing Planned Parenthood— because it provides abortion services— from receiving any funding from the new Texas Women's Health Program, even though the health-care provider's services other than abortion aid some 50,000 women.

Clearly, the message of the gender gap and feminist factor weren't heard in Virginia, either. That state is in the process of implementing its new TRAP law, which the Republican anti-choice governor signed in late December, even though state voters favored President Obama and prochoice Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine (Kaine's gender gap was 7 percent, by the way). This action by the state just continues the extreme anti-abortion and anti-family-planning measures that seemed to dominate the Virginia Legislature in 2012.

FOURTH We must help build upon the wins in the equal-marriage movement for gay men and lesbians. Feminists were thrilled that four states voted in favor of same-sex marriage (with the gender gap being decisive in each state), and we eagerly await the outcome of the Supreme Court cases concerning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California's Proposition 8 (see page 14). But, of course, we can't become complacent, and must still work to make equal marriage available in all 50 states.

FIFTH Feminists must seize the opening to push for more-stringent gun control. Considering the nationwide horror of the Sandy Hook massacre, there's probably no better time than now to bring this issue to congressional and state attention and support President Obama's gun-control initiatives. Too often women and children are the victims of gun violence, so it's no surprise that there is a massive gender gap on this issue, with women more strongly in favor of gun control. We cannot be ignored any longer on this issue: Enough is enough.

SIXTH We can't forget the women around the globe fighting against violence—from the girls in Pakistan such as Malala Yousafzai, battling the Taliban for the right to be educated; or the Pakistani women health-care workers assassinated just for doing their jobs; or Afghan girls and women bravely going to school and work or seeking health care despite threats and assassinations; or the women in India, victims of brutal gang rapes and facing everyday hostility.

One of the things we can do is work hard for the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and pass the International Violence Against Women Act. It is disgraceful that the U.S. is one of only seven nations that has not ratified CEDAW, which requires a two-thirds vote, so the Democratic Senate must keep bringing it up until it is passed. The women of the world fighting horrific violence deserve our nation's full and unqualified support, and we feminists must demand it.

Finally, we'll keep pressing for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. How can women and feminists accept anything less than full equality for women in the supreme law of our nation? Recognizing the power of the gender gap and the feminist factor, we can and must make it happen. Our strategy will be to increase cosponsors of the ERA in the new Congress and fight for its passage in the unratified states.

Full equality and full respect, nothing less and nothing more. We take that as the message of the 2012 elections as we continue to push forward.

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