Domestic Disturbances
by Judith Warner

The ever-controversial Linda Hirshman, had an article in the Washington Post this past week, in which she depicted American women voters – and suburban stay-at-home moms in particular – as politically ignorant, disinterested and ultimately self-defeating.

Citing studies and anecdotes culled from a few conversations with Washington-area suburban moms who appear to spend a fair amount of their time sitting around on their living room sofas and reading People magazine, she painted a rather damning portrait of women who don’t read newspapers, don’t read up on policy, and very often get their information on the outside world from their more tuned-in working husbands. Ignorant of the issues, they cast their votes based on such slippery stuff as “character,” and then, in election after election, blow their chances of being “the decisive force that will elect someone who embraces their views.”

Women are not “rational political actors,” Hirshman writes. “Instead, they vote on impulse, and on elusive factors such as personality.”

Some of what Hirshman has to say is, unfortunately, true. Survey after survey shows the consumers of news today to be disproportionately male. In my own anecdotal forays through the living rooms of America’s suburbs, I’ve often been struck by the degree to which women – particularly mothers of young children – don’t keep up with world events.

The reasons are quite obvious – for stay-at-home moms in particular, who don’t have the excuse of in-office dead time to read the paper or browse the Internet, there are just no free moments in the day. But, however understandable the phenomenon, the results can be worrisome. Hirshman cites a recent Pew Research Center study showing that nearly half the women surveyed said they “sometimes do not follow international news because of excessive coverage of wars and violence”; a New York Times/CBS poll last year found that nearly 10 percent more women than men still believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In an age when Americans are showing a troublesome tendency toward irrational belief (There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark), keeping up, at least minimally, with the news probably ought to be a prerequisite for the job of childrearing.

That said, while Hirshman’s statistics on female ignorance of the news are worth note, her conclusions about women’s particular irrationality as voters truly miss the mark. These days, all voters vote “irrationally” – if such factors as personal appeal and character can be said to be irrational.

Just look at the presidential election results of 2004: a solid majority of voters said they disapproved of George Bush’s handling of the war and the economy. Most voters, furthermore, said they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. But 70 percent of voters also rated the president as “likeable.” They overwhelmingly said they’d rather have a beer with him than with John Kerry and would be much more likely to trust him to walk their dog. No matter where he was on the issues, Kerry’s “personality gap” just couldn’t be breached.

Look at how John Edwards feels the need to fuss with his hair; how pundits worry that it’s his temper and general bonkers factor – not his anti-choice or pro-war votes – that will prove John McCain’s undoing. Character, personality, “likeability” as the pollsters put it – they’re huge issues for voters now, in particular for the swing voters who don’t have strong ideological leanings. Regardless of gender.

“It’s sort of the same thing that makes us believe celebrities are one of us,” Sherry Bebich-Jeffe, a senior scholar of policy planning at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, told me. “When we see these people in our living rooms all the time, it’s as though they are among us, and then it becomes important for us to feel we can relate to them. We all tend to vote on personality. Women are no different than any other voters.”

In fact, last October, in the run-up to the Congressional midterm elections, another New York Times/CBS poll found no significant difference between the percentages of men and women who cited “personal qualities” as the main reason they were supporting their chosen candidate for the House of Representatives.

Singling out women voters for alleged soft thinking is misguided, and a little bit bizarre. It reminds me of the arguments used historically by the French left to deny their countrywomen the vote. The ladies, the leftists said, were much too close to their village priests; hence, a vote for a woman was a vote for irrationality – and, of course, a conservative candidate. (This worked; French women didn’t get the vote until 1945.)

Hirshman’s disdain for the way many women live their lives today shouldn’t lead her to underestimate their cognitive skills – or overestimate those of their spouses. Our country may well be sliding towards idiocracy (to borrow from the title of Mike Judge’s recent dystopic), but it’s not just a girl thing.