Two Funerals Play Dirge for Feminist Vote

Last week saw the funerals of two extraordinary women, Coretta Scott King and Betty Friedan.

Each had respectful obituaries in all the papers and on TV. The similarities end there.

King’s funeral was a major media and political event. Friedan’s wasn’t. Ten thousand people attended King’s funeral, 300 attended Friedan’s. King’s body lay in state and 100,000 mourners filed by and thousands more lined the streets to the church as her casket passed by. There was no lying in state for Friedan and no mourners lining the streets.

Different styles of mourning. Different religions. Different cultures.

Yes, but also different calculations behind the two very different political turnouts.

Four presidents, including our incumbent, President George W. Bush, and his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George H. Bush and Jimmy Carter, attended King’s funeral, as did other dignitaries from federal, state and local government.

The only politician reported at Friedan’s funeral was former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.

Three dozen speakers gave eulogies for King during the six-hour service. Only a few, including Friedan’s children, did at her hour-long service.

Television cameras were at King’s, not at Friedan’s.

Both Women Contributed

This is not an argument about whether Friedan or King contributed more to U.S. life. They both did in their own way.

Friedan’s 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” changed American culture. As the first of the Second Wave of feminists, she got America thinking about the problem that had no name: women’s difficulty finding identity outside of family life. Everything else that followed was built on her provocative book. King carried on her husband’s fight for justice, not just racial justice, but justice for everyone, including women. She was anti-war, like he was, when it was not popular. She advocated for women’s rights and served on the board of the National Organization for Women.

The turnout of politicians to one funeral and not another was not a measure of either woman. It was a matter of whose followings could do more for the politicians in the future.

The point is that the African American vote is perceived as being in play. Bill and Hillary Clinton are counting on it. George Bush and the Republican Party want a larger slice of it. In the last elections, African Americans went for Kerry 88 percent, Bush 11 percent.

GOP strategists think more African Americans (and Hispanics) can be swayed by the GOP’s conservative stance on social-value issues, such as keeping marriage a heterosexual institution. The African American commitment to improving the educational system for its children is also a natural match for the Republican passion for charter schools.

The women’s vote, however, is far more volatile.

Women went for Kerry over Bush by 51 percent versus 48 percent and the gender gap between Republican and Democratic candidates has fluctuated by up to 15 percentage points in the past presidential elections.

So the women’s vote is also in play.

But as Friedan’s funeral demonstrated, the feminist vote is quite another matter.

A Single-Issue Perception

The feminist vote has become detached from a broad set of interests—such as enhanced health care and child care—in which women, as a group, show particular interest. Instead, it has come to be seen as an isolated and controversial single-issue focus on abortion rights that does not translate reliably into votes.

In the 2004 election exit polls, 21 percent of voters said that abortion should always be legal, while 16 percent said abortion should never be legal. But that didn’t give pro-choice John Kerry the boost he needed. Among solidly pro-choice voters, 25 percent voted for Bush while a skimpier 22 percent of anti-choice people pulled the lever for Kerry. This works out to a swing of about 3 percent in Bush’s favor, roughly matching his margin of victory in the popular vote.

The swing in the groups that believed abortion should be “mostly legal” (34 percent) versus “mostly illegal” (26 percent) was even greater, with Kerry receiving 61 percent of the former group, while Bush received 73 percent of the latter.

Some Democrats may think the solution is to downplay the abortion issue, to run away from it, to make the party a big tent and recruit anti-choice candidates. This should be resisted at all costs.

Reframing the abortion debate, however, is mandatory, as is reframing the feminist agenda.

Swinging the Vote

To get back into political play, feminists should be looking at ways to swing the women’s vote—both in midterm elections and in 2008—by claiming the rubric of successful family life. They should represent parents’ desires to have children when it is best to have them, to raise their children safely to adulthood, to get them to adulthood in good health and educated for the jobs of tomorrow. And those jobs are just as much for daughters as for sons.

The anti-choice approach, by contrast, brings back the involuntary motherhood of old, with all the problems and suffering that entailed for women and children. Feminists should talk about abortion, as well as birth control, in terms of family formation, not just as a right or a matter of individual autonomy.

And feminists, even more than they presently do, should talk about child care, school quality, health care reform and national security in terms of the safety of families. Emphasizing these issues will get feminists out of the single-issue abortion pigeon hole and enable them to talk to U.S. women and men, on a broader set of issues about which every citizen has deep concern.

I am the third generation of a family that has been fighting for reproductive freedom, which is in peril now as never before.

Now is not the time to sweep support for abortion rights under a barrel. But new approaches must be found to persuade the American people that being pro-choice makes human sense. Since a one-dimensional approach to abortion rights has not worked, let’s try something new.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s