Last week’s election produced a long list of losers. Put the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Feminist Majority at the top of that list. The electoral gender gap–”discovered” in 1980 by then-NOW president Eleanor Smeal–has been trumpeted as evidence that women vote en mass and take their cues from the Grand Dames of feminism. Yet exit polls last week showed that women gave Senator Kerry just a three-percentage point edge–less than a third of the margin Al Gore enjoyed in 2000.
This week, the Democratic coalition will begin a serious autopsy to determine what went wrong. Feminist groups assessing their roles would be wise to not focus on Election Day but instead consider how, from the very beginning of the campaign, they marched away from mainstream America.
The election season began with NOW endorsing a presidential candidate for the first time in 20 years: Carol Mosley Braun–a candidate who made Howard Dean look moderate. Braun advocated a complete government take-over of the healthcare system, the creation of a “living wage,” and a massive expansion of federal involvement in K-12 education. Even the New York Times called NOW’s endorsement of the fringe candidate “silly.”
In April, feminist groups joined forces for “The March for Women’s Lives.” The event successfully drew more than one million progressive footsoldiers to Washington, D.C. To outsiders, however, the march was less a celebration of choice and more a celebration of abortion. Signs that used the word “abortion” as a synonym for murder–like “abort Ashcroft” or “Barbara made the wrong choice”–peppered the national mall.
In the months that followed, Planned Parenthood sold (and then later pulled) t-shirts proclaiming “I had an abortion” on their website. The feminist movement refused to acknowledge that Conner–Laci Peterson’s son who was just a few weeks from reaching full term–was also a victim of murder. These actions left the impression that feminist groups were either coldhearted or completely oblivious to the moral issues that even most pro-choice women recognize as complicated.
Throughout the campaign, the feminist movement belittled the progress of women in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the United States ought to have toppled Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. But only blind partisans would focus only on the challenges ahead and fail to celebrate that young girls are now free to attend school in Afghanistan, and that Iraqi women no longer live in fear of a sadistic, bloodthirsty dictator.
While American women focused on the critical issues on the day, like terrorism, feminists fixated on illusory problems like the “wage gap.” But women are not a special-interest group; like men, they were most concerned about their security, the situation in Iraq, and a growing U.S. economy.
Exit polls also showed that the issue foremost in the mind of most voters was moral values. Nearly one in four said this was their top priority, and those voters went overwhelming for President Bush.
This should worry the old-school feminists. Senator Kerry, who had done their bidding during his 20 years in the Senate, seemed to realize late in race that the feminist parade had left mainstream America far behind. He minimized his pro-choice voting record and instead emphasized his personal opposition to abortion. Republicans toppled Senator Daschle because he had strayed so far from his constituents on social issues. And now the Democrats are elevating Harry Reid of Nevada to the post of Minority Leader. Reid voted to ban partial-birth abortion and has one of the most pro-life ratings of all Senate Democrats. This is bad news for the women’s groups that have made unfettered abortion rights the centerpiece of their agenda.
What will these leftist feminist groups do now? As they ponder their next steps, conservatives should recognize the opportunity at hand. Women are open to conservative messages. While women still lean left on key economic issues, the Bush administration has an opportunity to talk directly to them about the benefits of free-market reforms such as tax simplification, school choice, and private accounts in Social Security. If the president can persuade women to support conservative economic principles, we may soon be able to bury the gender gap once and for all.
–Carrie Lukas is the director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum.