[ Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]

the Body Politic
Vol. 2, No. 8 - August 1992, Page 1
Copyright © 1992, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

Ethel Klein, author of Gender Politics

Interview by Anne Bower

In 1984, Ethel Klein, at 32 already an Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, published her book, Gender Politics, a discussion of the emergence of feminism and the "woman's vote" and in the Twentieth Century. One of Ms. Klein's thesis was that, "the meaning of being female has been transformed during this century." This transformation guided women to new role models which eventually exploded in a group-consciousness that became Feminism.

According to Ms. Klein, the Strike for Women's Equality, August 26, 1970 marks the beginning of women starting to take political power. The August date was chosen because it was the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. In Gender Politics, Ms. Klein analyzes the results of presidential voting in the 1972, '76 & '80 elections. According to her analysis, by 1980 a "women's vote" had truly emerged.

"In 1972 when men and women voted on the basis of their concern for sex equality, there was a feminist vote but no women's vote. By 1980, the size of the feminist constituency had expanded and become part of a larger women's vote. This women's vote reflects a difference in men's and women's perception of what is best for the country and what is best for women. It provides women with a new political resource that can force politicians to take women and their concerns seriously."

In a few days, it will be the 72nd anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment. For years, pundits have proclaimed the year of the Woman in politics and yes, there are definitely more women in government than in 1980. But are women any better off? What happened to the women's vote?

This was the question put to Ethel Klein, now President of E.D.K. Associates, a strategic research firm which conducts survey across America. Ms. Klein has been taking the temperature of the American voter and it appears there is a real fever in the land. The Perot Campaign and the numbers of voters who flocked to that call may indicate the emergence of a group-consciousness that will catalyze real social action.

Ms. Klein states that today, there is a women's vote, although perhaps not in the sense of "sisterhood", but the votes of women may have a profound effect on the elections this year. Women have a different view of the role of government in our lives. If voters expect the government to actively help its people, there will be a change in power this election year -- and it is women who will likely have made the difference.

If Ethel Klein's analysis is correct, this may really, honest to goodness, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die be the year of the Woman. Perhaps after the 1992 election, we will finally have "come a long way, baby!"

Q: Ethel, what happened to the "women's vote"?

A: This is a pet peeve of mine. There has consistently been a women's vote. The question is, "what do you want it to do? What is your expectation of women's control over political processes?" In every election year since 1980 there has been a tendency for women to vote more Democratic. In many elections, women gave Democratic members of the House and Senate the margin of victory.

I want to talk about the "women's vote" in two different ways. The way the press talks about it, is really to say, "Did this person win and did they win because women voted for this person?" Usually, the "this person" is the President. If the existence of the women's vote depends on women giving a Democratic presidential candidate the margin of victory, then it doesn't exist.

My definition of the women's vote is that women vote on a set of issues, concerns, and priorities that are different from men. They vote for a candidate much more because of social issues -- because women believe much more in active government than men do. The big divide between men and women in the 80's and now 90's is that women have consistently believed in government intervention more than men.

What happened prior to the Reagan years was, we had a debate about how much government. The Reagan Revolution changed the debate to say, "government or no government". Does government have some obligations to help people make it, or is it a complete hindrance and the less government the better the economy can run and the better off we'll all be?

Men have said historically, "let the system go and keep government out." Women, because they know nobody does things on their own -- because they've helped everyone out -- have really looked for more social involvement. That happens in the context of political opportunities.

The big story in the 80's is that women forestalled a Republican realignment.

My definition of the women's vote is that women vote on a set of issues, concerns, and priorities that are different from men. They vote for a candidate much more because of social issues -- because women believe much more in active government than men do.

Q: What do you mean?

Look at the Senate. In every Senate race after 1980 when we lost all those pro-abortion Senators and all those liberals, the majority of newcomers are pro-choice. They are also slightly more liberal. These Senators won on a margin of votes from women. Paul Simon and Tom Harkin are there because of women. John Kerry kept his job at one point because of women. This is a consistent pattern through the decade.

In 1986, the big political question was, will the Democrats retake the Senate? Until the day of the election it was supposed to be up in the air. They got back huge numbers of states. In the South, it was mostly on black votes, but if blacks hadn't voted -- only white men and women -- white women would have given the margin of victory. What you see is a tendency for women to shift and keep at bay the kind of growth for the Republicans. This is why Republicans have spent so much time and money analyzing the "women's vote".

The history of the 80's is the Democrats taking the women's vote for granted and the Republicans courting the women's vote, big time.

The historic difference for this presidential nomination, especially this convention, is that finally you see the Democratic Party acknowledging women as part of the base they want to have.

Q: What are the Republicans doing?

A: In 1984 and '88, the Republicans did an enormous media campaign. Look at the participants in their commercials and where the commercials were placed. (Where you place is based on the demographics of who you expect to view the commercials). What was the message? It was aimed at women.

Worthlin really cares about this and is probably one of the leading experts in the country on the women's vote. The Republicans put enormous amounts of money on this. They have a databank that can divide women by demographic groups that fall into 64 categories. Finally, the Democrats are doing the same.

Q: If the Republicans put this much effort into it, they still didn't succeed.

A: Sure they did! A lot of that Dukakis lead that disappeared was women. That's who the Republicans were taking away -- the 17%. There isn't -- and I doubt there ever will be -- a monolithic women's vote where we all vote the same. But there is a tendency towards a social agenda that Democrats are more likely to take up.

Q: How are the Republicans getting women to believe in their social agenda?

A: They aren't getting women to believe in the agenda. What they have convinced women is that they can run the country. Basically, in 1988 you gave women the choice between a person (Bush) who was not close to them ideologically, and someone (Dukakis) who had an agenda they cared about, but looked like a complete idiot! Very few are going to look at a race and say, this person is with me on this and this and this, but can't run the country, but I'll still vote for him.

This has been a constant problem. In 1984 and 88, basically the perception of the Democratic presidential candidate was that he was not competent. You can't ask people to vote for someone they believe isn't competent -- even if the candidate is closer to them on the issues. People didn't believe that the candidate was able to handle the economy, keep the United States a world power, or was able to hold press conference, let alone a Summit.

Q: I remember in 1988 being told how badly managed the Dukakis campaign was.

A: The guy didn't leave Massachusetts for a month! The campaign was badly organized and badly managed. In the Republican primary, Bob Dole was the big challenge to Bush. For Bush, his biggest problem was being a "wimp". Bush basically had to worry about being strong, so he had a very male "biography" during the primary. You saw him in trucks, you saw him fishing, you saw him with a windbreaker having breakfast in some diner talking to the boys. Then there was his military history. It was a constant masculine, macho biography -- as macho as "what's his name" gets.

Then came the general election. Every other photo, ad, appearance, visual opportunity was a family picture. This was a female, family biography deliberately presented. This was a much "kindler, gentler" George Bush. He knew the image that he needed to present and what he needed to do.

Now look at Mike Dukakis. During the primary, he was the guy who knew the price of milk, mowed his own lawn, he was mister family man. He talked about abortion, he talked about child care, he talked about health care all the time. He was out there, not warm and fuzzy by any means, but he had a much more female biography. He established himself as a real human being, which was what people had doubts about -- whether he had blood in his veins.

In contrast to candidates like Gephardt, who was very UAW -- lets beat the Japanese, or Gary Hart doing a very esoteric world policy, "I'm the genius who knows everything" act, Dukakis tried to talk about how he really knew peoples' problems. "I don't live in a mansion. I live in a house." In his own way he tried to show that he was a real person who knew what real problems were. The focus groups showed that what people liked about him was the fact that he knew what their lives were like.

Now, after the primary, this guy's in a tank with a helmet -- trying to establish a masculine biography. That's what happened.

Q: I've heard people say that Bush defined the election.

A: Oh, quickly. Actually, I think Jim Baker defined the election. We elected Jim Baker and I hope it's too late to elect him again. George Bush becomes the person Jim Baker tells him to be.

Q: What's happening this year?

A: The difference this year is, while people were worried about the economy in 1988 (and if we'd had a stronger candidate we'd have had a shot), people aren't worried about the economy -- they are terrified. There is a profound understanding that this country is in bad shape to the core. This is not about laying off auto workers. This is not about saving the family farm. The economic sad stories of the Reagan years were isolated regional unemployment. No one saw that it was structural deterioration.

That's gone. Everybody thinks it is structural and the people who are losing jobs now are white middle class managers. Now they call it "right sizing" instead of "down sizing" -- getting it smaller. The implication of "down sizing" was, you used to get rid of what you couldn't afford and then grow again. "Right sizing" really means you aren't growing again. Now you look for the "right size" for your business.

Bush basically had to worry about being strong, so he had a very male "biography" during the primary. You saw him in trucks, you saw him fishing, you saw him with a windbreaker having breakfast in some diner talking to the boys. Then there was his military history. It was a constant masculine, macho biography -- as macho as "what's his name" gets.

People know that this economy is structurally flawed. The biggest mistake that Bush made -- the biggest mistake that he made -- was not to acknowledge that we were in a recession two years ago. He should have become the advocate for fighting out of the recession. Even if we were still in bad shape, even if his policies were failures, there would not be this sense that the guy's asleep at the switch. This is the opening we have.

Q: How do women fit in to this?

A: The people who have always worried about economics more are women -- for two reasons. One, women are the marginal labor force. They are the ones in jobs with low wages and no bennies. They are the most expendable workers who get bounced around in this kind of economy. They see how bad it is. They also have the least amount of money. Therefore they feel the shock sooner.

The "growth" of the American economy is often in "bad" jobs -- meaning low-benefit, low-wage. These are service jobs that more than likely employ women. The shopping center clerks, waitresses, and maids who clean in hotels and motels for the tourist industry are the ones affected when people pull back. These jobs are disposable and the women who have them are part of the disposable workforce.

Secondly, more women have the experience of unemployment as their own and their families. When a man is unemployed he loses his identity. In the worst case scenario, there is violence in the home. In the not so worst case, Daddy is just home and the kids are scared. "Why is Daddy home?" Daddy becomes depressed. The kids watch their father be depressed and their sense of security is gone. Women experience all of this. The woman may even be working and making descent money, but she is watching the psychological fabric of her family fall apart. It's terrifying.

Q: So you think that this year there is a real shift.

A: I think this year offers a tremendous opportunity for a shift. The Republicans will not be able to do in this election what they did before. They won before on two things. One, they actually had better campaigns -- really objectively better campaigns. They had a public will to try a new way. They no longer believe that this works.

Now the question is, will the electorate believe that the Democrats can make it work. It is now Bill Clinton's to lose. In other words, the people now believe that George Bush has done an absolutely terrible job. So the question is, will Bill Clinton do a worse job? It's going to be ugly.

Q: Have you gotten any sense of how Clinton is projecting himself?

A: Wow, right now he's doing great. But now is not when you want to look. Look in September. Right now the data I have seen shows that the Democrats had a brilliant convention. For the first time, by not running away from "family values", they have redefined them. They have done something that they needed to do to win. The leadership finally took away the symbols of the family from the Right.

And they didn't stay on their turf. Even Dukakis stayed on the Republican turf. He said, I'm a family man, I have a wife and kids, I'm normal. If you try that tack, the Republicans will always "out normal" you. This isn't the right turf. That's the past and it's mean.

The Democrats used the convention brilliantly to make the family values theme more inclusive. We just did a poll that's not published yet. We asked people, "Can you be a single parent and still have strong family values?" People said yes. "Can you use day care and still have strong family values?" Everybody said yes. "If a mother of young children works even though she could afford to stay home, can she still have strong family values?" The overwhelming response was yes.

Q: A quote in Gender Politics was from the Secretary of Labor who in 1923 said that women going to work would destroy the economy.

A: Now women not going to work would destroy the economy. There was an op ed piece in the Times the other day saying what would happen if women stopped working for one hour. You would feel the incredible integration of women in the work force.

What the 90's represent is that people are now willing to do the hard work they wouldn't do before. People are saying, nostalgia won't get it any more. Just saying "No" isn't going to be the answer. It won't be simple so let's just get down and do what needs to be done.

Now people will look at the two candidates and say, OK which one of these two guys can do something, and what will it be? Bush has a record of doing nothing to run against. To the extent that the Democrats can paint him as a "do-nothing" guy, some one who was asleep at the stitch, keep the blame on Bush for the economy, they can win.

Q: People believe that Bush is to blame for the economy?

A: Yes. That's what people think. If what happens is that people can raise doubts about Clinton/Gore, then people might say that Bush may have been asleep at the switch, but Clinton could be robbing the till. At this time in 1988, Bush was 17 points down in the poll. I don't ever count him out. Actually, the person I don't really count out is Jim Baker.

You might hear a woman say, "God, I'm having another kid, but I wish I could get a bigger house, but I can't sell because the market is so bad. I can't get a loan."

Of course, the Republicans think that the mistakes they made were over taxes. It wasn't. Their mistake was not acknowledging the trouble with the economy. That was mean. People know that there is real suffering out there. In the Northeast, one of the ways that people are in trouble is that their property taxes are going up. Yes, maybe their jobs are fine. They're a little scared because people are losing jobs all around. But even though they're working, their income isn't growing and hasn't been for a long time. And their property taxes and cost of living keeps going up. That growth in property tax may cause some people to have to sell their house. This cuts into real quality of life issues for the electorate.

They don't take vacations. Now some people might say, that's too bad! But if you're used to taking a vacation, and you're not because you're saving for your property tax, it makes you feel the edge. It's not that you're not eating, but you are experiencing the edge.

The other thing that has happened is that Americans used to be "house rich". Part of the euphoria of the 80's wasn't just felt by stock brokers who made that obscene amount of money for no work (but got ulcers). Part of the euphoria was people watching their assets double because their property values grew. People felt secure. You used to hear people say, "I bought my house for $100,000 and now it's worth $150,000." Those were the kinds of conversations that people had and they treated it as real money. As if some day they would sell this house for that money and have this quality of life.

That money is gone. The collapse of the real estate market has meant that people's net assets, their life savings, have been cut in half. They don't feel very secure.

Q: And these are the people who vote.

A: Yes. These people vote. These are things that you can't paper over and people are facing them every day. You might hear a woman say, "God, I'm having another kid, but I wish I could get a bigger house, but I can't sell because the market is so bad. I can't get a loan." These are daily conversations. This is too deeply imbedded.

Now the Republicans are going to say, this is a guy who comes from a little rinky-dink state, who can't handle his own marriage, let alone handle the responsibilities of the Presidency. They'll try.

Q: How much of an impact will this have?

A: That's not the line that will work with women. If they see Clinton unable to handle the pressure, that could hurt.

Q: Do you see that happening?

A: No. People think that what killed Dukakis was he got painted as a Liberal. What killed Dukakis was that he got painted as Weak. Clinton hasn't fallen into that trap. He has been aggressive on foreign policy. He has been aggressive on the L-word. He is defining himself.

But the American public will vote on character. Issues give you a window on someone's character. The Democrats showed that movie about Clinton at the convention to make him "textured". The goal was to make Bill Clinton a real person, so that it's harder to make the negatives stick. If someone is just a list of issues without emotional attachment, the support is very weak. That was the problem with Dukakis. There was no depth to his support -- no one ever got attached to him. In the end you got to marry one of these guys. Whether you like them or not, these are your only choices.

Q: What about Perot?

A: I think he gave this to Clinton. His statement about the "revitalized Democratic Party" was the giveaway. If Perot had waited until the next day, he could have gotten more publicity. But he didn't want more publicity, because the guy was basically chicken. He was an embarrassment. His supporters deserved better.

Third party politics doesn't work. But what you see when you raise the mantel are people desperately looking for a new way. It's so hard to bring certain people into the system because they are so turned off. That's what Perot did on a massive scale. It was a Rorshack test of alienation. But Perot allowed Clinton to frame the endorsement and he gave Clinton the opportunity to say "I want you."

Q: What does Clinton need to do to win?

A: Stay strong and stay focused. Especially focused on a combination of the economy and his humanity. He has got to have people like him. He's got a good shot. Gore was a fabulous choice. He's got the strength that Clinton lacks. I do focus groups all over the country and people have said to me, "When he picked Gore, I went to him." I was surprised to see how popular Gore was. Al Gore is Superman. He looks so strong.

They have a good act. They look good -- they have a rapport. It's a good marriage!

[ Top of article | Contents of this issue | Other online articles ]