OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON - Barack Obama and John McCain are the two contenders in America's presidential election this year, but the campaign has also been dominated by two very different women, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Indeed, many observers believe that women will determine the election's outcome. So, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, "What do American women want?"
Until the 1960's, American women were more likely than men to support Republicans. In the 1980 election, a different gender gap emerged, with women more likely than men to support Democrats. In 1996, women's support for Bill Clinton was 14 percentage points higher than men's, and in 2000, women favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by 12 points.
But, since 1996, the political gender gap has been halved. The women gravitating back to the Republicans, according to conventional wisdom, are "security moms" - suburban wives and mothers who started worrying about their families' safety after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. McCain's selection of Palin was an attempt to appeal to these mothers and to pick up votes from women disappointed about Clinton's loss.
In fact, the shift to Republicans since 2001 was largely confined to Southern white women. In the nation as a whole, notes political scientist Karen Kaufmann, 50% of mothers with children voted for Bush in 2000, and this actually dipped to 49% in 2004. But Southern white women, who were much more likely than Southern white men to support Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, were less likely than Southern men to support Democrat John Kerry in 2004. There is now a bigger difference between the voting preferences of Southern white women and white women in the rest of the country than between men and women.
Outside the South, female voters are less likely to be hawkish on foreign policy and more likely to support spending on health, education, and other social-welfare programs. Women also tend to be more sympathetic to efforts to reduce income inequality, although African-American men are just as "compassionate" on these issues as African-American women.
Can either party really win by appealing to gender? Women do like to see other women emerge as leaders. When the Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice-president in 1984, she attracted huge crowds, just as Palin does today. Shortly after Palin's nomination, one in three white women said that they would be more likely to vote for McCain.
At first glance, it seems reasonable that political parties might be able to translate women's gender consciousness into a unified voting bloc. Women do have some common interests, especially with regard to controlling their own reproductive decisions and protecting themselves against sexual exploitation and rape. Most women also recognize and resent that the media judge them more harshly than they judge men. And, because women generally expect to bear most of the responsibility for nurturing children, they tend to evaluate social policies through this lens.
But how women address gender-based reproductive, sexual, and family interests varies by their class position and their personal options outside the family. Women who compete in the labor market generally support efforts to challenge sexual double standards and vigorously prosecute sexual harassment. But women who are more dependent upon a husband often accept a double standard that stresses female purity and male gallantry. These women believe that adherence to stereotyped gender roles protects "good" women.
Similarly, women know that they are usually paid less and have less chance for professional advancement than men. But they may choose different strategies for coping with these disadvantages. Those who can or must support themselves outside marriage tend to favor expanding economic opportunities for women and to oppose laws and values that give familial authority to husbands and fathers.
By contrast, women with less economic autonomy may feel that their interests are best served by emphasizing family hierarchies and reciprocal duties. Wifely deference may be seen as reinforcing the husband's obligation to support the family.
Even on issues like contraception and abortion, women's positions are sometimes influenced by conflicting assessments. Women who plan to postpone marriage while building their careers are far more likely to want to ensure that they can avoid or end an unintended pregnancy. But women who believe that their best hope for security is to find a husband often tell interviewers that if other women are allowed to escape the biological consequences of having sex, men will be less willing to offer marriage in return for it.
Likewise, women who want to stay home with their children tend to favor tax breaks or family subsidies, whereas women who want to combine work and family are more likely to support expanded childcare and guaranteed parental work leave.
In the long run, these differences outweigh women's commonalities. Palin's approval ratings among women fell as they learned more about what she stands for. The main reason some women - and even more men - are more likely to vote for a McCain-Palin combination is not because of Palin's gender, but because her presence on the ticket reassures social conservatives of McCain's willingness to accommodate their agenda.
Palin's nomination, however, could have an unintended consequence on the gender views of social conservatives. This summer, the Pew Research Center found that only 20% of Republicans said they would support a female candidate who had school-age children. Today, those same Republicans seem to find nothing to criticize in the fact that Palin returned to work three days after the birth of her last child. In supporting a woman's choice to combine motherhood with a demanding job, social conservatives now seem to agree with long-time feminists.
Stephanie Coontz teaches history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.