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If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear

If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear

by Melinda Henneberger

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Soon after the 2004 presidential election, veteran reporter Melinda Henneberger set out across the country to listen to women of all ages and occupations express their strong opinions on the major issues of our time. Over eighteen months she spoke in depth and at length with more than two hundred women in twenty states, from Massachusetts to Arizona and Oregon to


Soon after the 2004 presidential election, veteran reporter Melinda Henneberger set out across the country to listen to women of all ages and occupations express their strong opinions on the major issues of our time. Over eighteen months she spoke in depth and at length with more than two hundred women in twenty states, from Massachusetts to Arizona and Oregon to Texas. She discovered how unheard women feel, how ignored and disregarded by both major parties and by most politicians.

Listening to women all over the nation -- not only on what are traditionally thought of as "women's issues" but on issues of paramount importance to all Americans -- Henneberger shines a light on what women voters are thinking and how that translates into how and for whom they vote.

The issues that these women focused on were Iraq, abortion, the environment, globalization (and job loss), and corruption (and lack of trust) in the government and the entire electoral process. Again and again these women of all ages, social classes, and regions returned to the matter of authenticity. And they came back again and again to their commonly held feeling that neither party takes any genuine interest in their actual lives, that politicians across the board seem, as a young waitress in Sacramento put it, "to be talking about people who don't exist."

A patient, sensitive, experienced, intelligent listener, Henneberger reports how women feel about the nation's politics and politicians. Her findings will surprise you. Knowing the answers these women give will tell you a great deal about how the next presidential and other elections will be decided.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Puzzled by why traditionally Democrat women switched camps and voted for George Bush in the 2004 election, Henneberger, a contributing editor at Newsweek, set out to identify divisive issues among women. Traveling around the country, she talked with a random sample of 234 ordinary women in 20 states—both blue and red. The result is a compelling and surprising look at what most sways women's votes. In 2006, 51% of voters were female; yet, with the exception of professionals trying to juggle motherhood and careers, average women are not asked their opinions on what they consider to be pivotal issues—abortion, religion and gay marriage, among others. While many profess to be Democrats at heart, numerous women switched sides during the presidential election because of just a single issue, even when they agreed with the Democrats on everything else. Even extremely anti-Bush Katrina victims say they won't hold Bush's ineffectiveness against his party, and they will vote for the candidate who supports their belief on the most critical matters. With political campaigning beginning earlier than ever and elections won by the narrowest of margins, politicians on both sides would do well to heed Henneberger's message that for the average woman, all issues are not created equal; candidates would do well to listen to the voices she recounts. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
She's been out in the field, and this prize-winning Newsweek reporter declares that what women want is not what the experts think. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"In If They Only Listened to Us, Melinda Henneberger offers politicians a witty, incisive, and sharp direction manual for making the gender gap work to their advantage. Anyone interested in politics, and how to be successful in politics, would be wise to pay attention. She knows what she's talking about and she's right."

— Donna Brazile, political strategist and Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000

"Pioneering a new and bracing form of journalism, Melinda Henneberger offers an inspiring break from the normal run of political analysis. If They Only Listened to Us will be one of the best explanations we get for how George W. Bush could rise so high and fall so low. The president would have done well to listen to them, the people in this book."

— E. J. Dionne, Jr, author of Why Americans Hate Politics

"I am not a woman or a politician, but this is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated by, passionate about, or at all concerned with politics. Melinda Henneberger opened my eyes to critical issues around abortion and gay rights that have changed my thinking on these issues."

— Robert Greenwald, producer and director of Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and Iraq for Sale

"This is the book that will make you care about politics again. Melinda Henneberger's storytelling is so revelatory and the women she talks to so wise that readers simply won't be able to look at '08 as just another red-versus-blue horse race. Her highly personal account reintroduces us to all of the issues that matter most, as they are actually lived and deeply felt."

— Arianna Huffington, author of On Becoming Fearless and editor in chief of the HuffingtonPost.com

"Everyone claims to know what women want, but Melinda Henneberger actually went out and asked them. In this engaging, eye-opening book, she gives voice to their hopes, concerns, and especially their frustrations. Both political parties would be wise to listen."

— Amy Sullivan, contributing editor of The Washington Monthly and author of the forthcoming Resurrection: Why Democrats Need to See the Light if They Want to Win the White House

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If They Only Listened to Us

What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear
By Melinda Henneberger

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2007 Melinda Henneberger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743278966

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

March 28, 2003

The Girlfriend Gap

"What you've got to understand is that nobody ever asks us what we think."

I made the mistake of letting my seven-year-old twins watch President George W. Bush address the nation before we invaded Iraq, and they both burst into tears: Would Iraqi children die in the attacks? What about their moms? They were still upset -- and I was still annoyed at myself -- as I drove to West Virginia a few days later to meet up with my three closest friends from high school. The timing was not the best; there was snow in the forecast and "multiple terror attacks" predicted in the event of war. The threat level had just been jacked up again, so all of Washington was a little extra twitchy -- and we were not a real low-key bunch to begin with.

Now that Baghdad was in shock and awe, I was tempted to stick close, with my duct tape and bottled water at the ready. But this weekend had been planned for months, in part to celebrate the end of my treatment for breast cancer, and it was a big deal for the four of us. Pam, Kim, Cathy, and I have supported each other through first dates and divorce, teen pregnancy andinfertility, good fortune and loss. We've dissected every relationship in our lives and lately listened together for the disquieting little scratch of mortality. In our forties, we still need to check in.

We grew up together in Mount Carmel, Illinois, population eight thousand, on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River. It's a pretty little farm town -- or was, before the Target moved in, wiped out Market Street, and then moved on, like a bad storm. They all still live around there, six hours south of Chicago, in an area so conservative it went for Alan Keyes over Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate in 2004. And though I'm over a day's drive away now, we try to meet up somewhere at least once a year -- sort of a Same Time Next Year for girlfriends -- to tell secrets, swill girlie drinks, laugh at ourselves, and thank God for one another. After thirty years of friendship, I would have said we knew just about everything there was to know about one another. But I would have been wrong, because until that weekend, politics had never really come up. When it did, we found that we were as divided as the rest of the country, over the war and more.

It all started when Kim suggested that we sing patriotic songs as we hiked along, in support of the troops -- and ended in a fairly astringent disagreement over whether weapons of mass destruction had been discovered in Iraq. "FOX News would have told us" if they had not been located, Kim was sure. But no such weapons had turned up yet, I insisted. She wanted to know where I got my news, and when I mentioned The New York Times, she laughed at what she dismissed as brand loyalty to my old employer. "You have your sources of information, and I have mine," she said.

I had just spent some time at the United Nations, working on a profile of Kofi Annan for Newsweek, and I had to say that nobody there seemed to think there were any WMDs to be found in Iraq; from the lowest-level functionary to the guys on the top floor, they were convinced that Iran and North Korea posed far more certain threats. But America was not about to let a bunch of wilting, Saddam-coddling diplomats tell us what was what, so telling my friends "Hey, I heard it at the UN!" was about like saying Harry Potter's house elf had come to me in a dream.

The last time any of us had quarreled like this had to have been in high school, when my friends decided I really ought to break up with my boyfriend if I had no intention of marrying him. They all did marry their teen sweethearts, the last of them at age nineteen, and had high school kids of their own by the time I made it down the aisle at thirty-three. As adults, the four of us had always respected one another's choices and taken one another's part. But now, over George W. Bush, we found ourselves taking umbrage and taking sides. Pam lined up with me, though a tad to my left; she couldn't quite bring herself to acknowledge Bush as our legitimately elected president, she said, and the other two blanched. "Are you a Democrat, Miss?" Cathy asked, calling me by my childhood nickname. There was something I had never heard before in her voice, though, and I doubted she liked it any more than I did. Was it possible that in all our hours of heavy talk, we'd never really gone there?

In Washington, political discussion is the preferred elevator music, and even children go around humming the tune. When my son, who was eight by then, learned early in 2004 that a relation of ours would be supporting neither John Kerry nor John Edwards in that year's presidential contest, he assumed this could mean only one thing, and was incredulous: "She likes Dennis Kucinich?" In '06, at the height of Plamegate, he burst into my room early one Saturday morning shouting, "Karl Rove has been indicted!" Then, after I snapped to consciousness: "Not really. Could you get up and make me breakfast?" My friends have alerted me to the fact that most of America does not live like this -- and wouldn't want to.

We survived the contretemps, of course, and retreated to our respective bubbles. In my suburban Maryland village of aggressive recyclers, a Bush-Cheney yard sign was the talk of the town in the fall of '04, and at my polling place, John Kerry received 76 percent of the vote. Back in Mount Carmel, the smattering of "other candidates, mostly" who turned out for a campaign speech by the Democratic Party's brightest star had a hard time hearing Obama, Pam reported, over the sound of workers putting up the carnival rides for Ag Products Days. And on Election Day, 70 percent of Wabash County went for Bush. Had Kerry won the White House, I would have said that proved we'd take back the last four years if we could -- that Americans do not condone torture as a tool of interrogation, or consider the Geneva Conventions even remotely "quaint." I would have said we know a mess when we see one. When he lost, however, I had nothing but questions: What did that outcome say about us? What did that result prove? For therapeutic as much as journalistic reasons, I really wanted to know.

True, I'd never met a single person thrilled beyond reason by Kerry's candidacy, including his own wife, whose underawed staff sometimes referred to him as "the husband." Yet until the very end of his timid campaign, I thought he had an even shot -- because Gore did win the popular vote, and I had a hard time imagining that too many Gore supporters would look back over the last four years and conclude that Bush sure had proved them wrong.

Some did, though. Both parties improved their turnout, and "Values Voters: Myth or Must-Have" became the favorite post-election chew toy of political analysts. Another factor in Bush's win went virtually unnoticed: a small but consequential shift among women voters, who have long preferred Democrats as more reluctant to make war and more willing to fund schools and social programs. Women still favored Kerry, but the gender gap narrowed to seven points from the ten-point advantage Gore had in 2000. And in a contest this close, it mattered. As the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University put it in a post-election report, "Despite the gender gap, President Bush succeeded in increasing his overall share of the women's vote this year...a major reason why he took the popular vote this time around." A look at exactly who defected made the slippage look a little more ominous; Kerry not only lost ground with blue-collar women, he did worse than Gore had with the college-educated women the party counts on. He lost support with every female demographic, in fact, except women under thirty. Black women still voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, but the margin there also narrowed, by four points. Of the total increase in Bush's support from women, "two thirds came from black women," says David Bositis, a senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies. "The shift had the most to do with moral values, and this is something that the Republicans are using to win elections." For those defectors, what had changed? Were American women becoming more conservative?

We are not some monolith, of course, politically or in any other way, and campaign season efforts to appeal to us as such -- "W. Is for Women" was surely the most overt -- can seem patronizing. As the Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says, with some irritation, "We're fifty-two percent, not a minority special interest group." Still, Kerry had made the bluntest, most straightforward appeal -- on pay equity, affordable health care, early childhood education and a Supreme Court dedicated to upholding Roe v. Wade. Yet we were not sufficiently won over. Why was that? The pat answer during the campaign was that "security moms" focusing on terror threats saw Bush as the better protector. But was that the case? What do women want from their president?

After George W. Bush was returned to the White House, I could not wait to ask them. And for answers, as usual, I turned first to my oldest friends. As 2008 approaches, the Democrats ought to be turning to them, too. They need to know how Kerry's pitch on fairness in the workplace could fail to resonate with Kim, despite the long years she put in as a secretary, making male bosses look good in a company that only recently began considering women for executive positions like the one she now holds. They need to understand how Cathy, a nurse who cares for the elderly and cites health care as her number one priority, could possibly blame the Democrats for "broken promises" on that issue -- even in the years they were in charge of nothing. Like Kim, she went with Bush, which made about as much sense to me as the fact that Pam and I -- Catholics who voted for Kerry without a twitch or a blink -- must have made to them. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.

So, soon after the '04 election, I set out just to listen -- respectfully, I hoped -- to women all over the country, on the major questions of our time. I wanted to hear what draws women to the Democratic Party and what sends them off screaming into the night. What were those who voted for Gore in 2000 but Bush in '04 focusing on? Were they gone for good? And if not, what would it take to get them back in '08? I didn't want to limit the discussion to "women's issues," or for that matter, to limit it at all.

I am neither a pollster nor a political strategist. I am not a polemicist with a tidy theory to prove, and did not imagine that at the finish line, I would be able to hand either party an easy six-step plan for How to Get the Girl in '08; if it were that easy, there wouldn't be so many such books. I am a big fan of women and their stories, though, and in listening to a couple hundred of them -- 234 in all, in twenty states, from Massachusetts to Arizona and Oregon to Florida -- I did learn some things that both parties might like to know.

When I began, I knew only that I would start in the Midwest, where national elections are so often decided. I knew only that I would start with the women I know best, so there were a fair number of surprises along the way. But given how busy people are, one of the first and most basic was how eager women were to share their thoughts; total strangers called and cooked and then sent thank-you notes, saying they hadn't talked that much in years or felt so politically exhilarated ever. Pretty early on, I realized how starved we all are to be listened to, and how alienated from the wave upon nauseating wave of insider chitchat that is not in any real sense a national conversation. The shout culture exists in part to discourage precisely the kind of give-and-take and I-see-what-you-mean discussion that would help us work through what we think about and want from our government, in lieu of watching people who smile at inappropriate moments pretend to debate nonissues on cable. And wealthy or homeless, in college or retired, women said they felt disregarded by both parties. "Why would you want to talk to me?" they often wanted to know. Or they assumed I was hoping they would refer me to some designated "expert" or the most officially important person they knew, because that was surely who I really wanted to hear from.

While polling takes snapshots, listening takes time, and many of the interviews for this book went on for hours. They needed to, because the first thing we might blurt out about our political lives -- a fragment of a campaign ad, maybe, or something our grandmother used to say -- is rarely any more than a starting point. Unlike sex or religion, politics remains surprisingly private and unexamined terrain for many of us. When I began my travels, I often asked women whether their friends felt the same way they did, and frequently, the answer I got back was, "Oh, I wouldn't know; I never talk to anyone about this stuff." When they did begin to talk about it, they had blessedly few prepared answers to fall back on, but needed a minute to sort through the complicated and sometimes paradoxical motivations underneath their political choices, the lifetime of impressions behind even their most "last-minute" decisions in the ballot box.

These conversations were not exactly like the journalistic interviews I'd been doing for twenty years, either, in that I tried hard not to push, prod, provoke, or even seek answers to specific questions. I have never been a big believer in the magic of clever questioning, and have long agreed with what Janet Malcolm wrote years ago in The Journalist and the Murderer about her discovery that people will, for their own reasons, tell their stories pretty much the same way whether in response to a brilliant question or a half-formed one. Now, I began to see that I sometimes learned the most by asking no questions at all.

I came away convinced, for one thing, that if there ever were any security moms, they must have gone into hiding in a well-stocked bunker somewhere within moments of the '04 election. All but one of the women I met who switched parties over the war on terror went the other way, abandoning Bush for Kerry. The women who found Bush a more reliable general in that war were already Republicans and would have voted for him in any case.

Another surprise was how little loved Bush was even among women who had voted for him, only weeks after the election. In fact, so many women said they voted for the president despite minivanloads of misgivings, solely because they found Kerry's personality so off-putting, that I began to feel protective of the senator after a while. Was it his fault if his party didn't know better than to nominate someone who windsurfs?

Which is not to say that with no Kerry on the ticket, there will be no problem for the Democrats; on the contrary, what women could not abide in Kerry was the same thing they dislike about his party. Many said they felt he in particular and Democrats in general tend to look down on middle-class Middle Americans -- yes, the very people their policies are intended to lift up. How can that be? Partly, it's that "God talk" does make a lot of Democrats squirm, and that discomfort comes across to believers as condescension. As does their wholly self-destructive habit of mocking Bush and other conservatives as none too bright.

Even now, as I'm writing this in 2006, nearly two years into Kerry's purgatorio of coulda-shoulda-woulda, he's just suggested five ways to "get the war on terror right." Before he even got to number one, he remarked that, "Five years after 9/11, the administration still hasn't figured out how to count to five." Mild stuff, right? Harmless enough, if maybe a tad insecure? Not at all. I hope the senator is cracking himself up, because such comments alienate people who assume he and his party probably think the same of them -- and how smart is that?

I expected to hear a lot from the women I interviewed about abortion, and I did, but I'm not sure the Democrats realize how many otherwise quite liberal pro-life women, Catholics in particular, have switched parties over this issue but continue to look for a way back to the Democrats, with whom they agree with on almost every other matter. These women are not just gettable, they are all but desperate to find a way home -- to the point that if the party does not send a car for them, with a really respectful driver, it will have only itself to blame.

Yes, it was abortion that women who were first-time defectors from the Democrats mentioned most often. Why would that be, when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973? Those who oppose abortion rights saw 2004 as the chance of a lifetime to overturn that decision, with a movement favorite already in the Oval Office and several spots on the Supreme Court likely to open up during the next term. A handful of Catholic bishops spoke out more plainly than in any previous election season and moved the crucial Catholic swing voters that Gore won in '00 to Bush in '04. Yet anyone who assumes such voters have found a comfy permanent home in the GOP ought to meet Kelly Dore, a former social worker and stay-at-home mom in Denver: "I'm with the Democrats on ninety percent of the issues," she says. "But if you're pro-life, they don't even want you."

I was even more taken aback, though, by the strength of opposition to gay marriage among black women; to say that the fairness argument often falls flat in the African-American community is an understatement. As Teresa Thomas-Boyd, a longtime civil rights activist in Milwaukee, puts it, "I may be discriminated against as a homosexual if I choose to say that about myself. But in a situation of color, I'm discriminated against every day.... When people want to make it the same, it's not, and it makes people angry."

And in discussions of the presidential race coming up in '08, I never would have expected so many women who are furious at Bush to say they see no reason to hold his party accountable for anything that has gone on during his two terms. The one question I do ask, always, of those enraged at the current administration is: "So, does that mean you're any more likely to vote Democratic in '08?" Most often, the response is not just no but "Of course not." Yes, women did come home for the '06 midterm elections, but the bags are still in the front hall, unpacked. In '06, 51 percent of all those who cast ballots were women, and 55 percent of all women voters favored a Democrat for Congress. This time, they really were voting over the war on terror -- and against how it's being waged in Iraq. But congressional Republicans were determined in their self-destruction this year, too.

The presidential election is different -- not least because so many more women on the right than on the left seem to see it as a rolling referendum on abortion rights.

Even now, despite deep unhappiness over the war, there is still so much Democrat-on-Democrat rage out there that it's not at all unusual to hear women who have never voted for a Republican in their lives declare themselves so fed up with the home team that they are thinking seriously about Chuck Hagel -- or, until he became one of the president's closest allies on Iraq, John McCain. Why? Because they've seen these men as the most effective critics Bush had, and given them extra credit for bucking their own party.

One longtime Democratic donor told me she was shocked by her own reaction to a couple of fund-raising calls she'd received. First, she heard from some poor guy from the Friends of John Kerry, to whom she responded that if he had any real friends, they would sit him down and tell him to forget about running again. Next, the Democratic National Committee rang and asked her to contribute to "help get our message out." "What message would that be?" she wanted to know. Alas, the poor kid on the phone had no idea. "But you've always given before," he begged. "And you've always wasted it!" she answered, enjoying herself a little by this point. "When you find out what the message is, you can call me back, and we'll see if I like it." Until she let loose on those two unfortunates, "I hadn't even realized how angry I was" over her party's inability to provide a straightforward alternative to the disaster of the Bush years.

So many of us feel politically antagonized, for a variety of reasons, that we sometimes seem to be the new "angry white males," throwing ourselves into the scream first, ask questions later political culture with an enthusiasm I have a hard time construing as a victory for our power base. But I also wonder if much of that frustration doesn't come from feeling we need to yell to be heard at all. Increasingly, it seems, we behave as though the proper resolution of all matters facing the nation were not only obvious but OBVIOUS, so why should we ever open an ear to anything or anyone who might contradict us? We are so sure we have nothing to learn from anyone who might feel differently that we keep to our own politically -- and find that the more we vent, the more we are polarized and seething.

Not long ago, a friend of mine who is an architect in L.A. told me about a trip she'd taken to Italy, where she had spent some time as a student. She had not been back to Rome in many years and was astonished when at last she did return. It was not the Eternal City that had changed. But "there was so much I didn't see before, and that I couldn't see, because I had such strong opinions about everything." We are all like that, maybe more so all the time. And I am convinced that we will never get where we need to go as a country until we can put down our shoulders for a minute and allow ourselves to be -- not won over, even, but just able to hear one another again. Whatever your own politics, you will meet some women in this book with whom you agree on nothing. Yet my hope is that you will listen to them, too, and try to see why they might feel as they do.

When I first called my old pals to tell them about this completely nonlinear plan I had to get out and listen to what women were thinking about, Kim called back almost right away to say that she already had lined up more women in Fairfield, Illinois, where she lives, than I'd ever have time to talk to. "What you've got to understand," she said, "is that nobody ever asks us what we think." Upscale professional women wondering how to stay on partnership track without missing soccer practice, yes, have been heard from rather extensively. But most women in most of America, no. And that is part of the problem.

Copyright © 2007 by Melinda Henneberger


Excerpted from If They Only Listened to Us by Melinda Henneberger Copyright © 2007 by Melinda Henneberger. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Melinda Henneberger is a former reporter for The New York Times and a former contributing editor for Newsweek magazine. She lives with her husband and their two children outside Washington, D.C.

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