On June 5, 1996, President Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, of The Polling Company addressed the audience of an Independent Women’s Forum Speaker Series event held on Capitol Hill. Her topic, “Women and the Economy,” emphasized the fact that women care deeply about the economy because of their varied responsibilities at home and in the workplace. Fitzpatrick challenged the conventional assumption that women are not as concerned about the economy as men by pointing out that many traditionally “women’s” issues are, in a broader sense, economic issues that effect everyone, men and women alike. Accordingly, she challenged the idea that women are a single, united voting bloc and stated that, “Women want to be talked to, not targeted.”
I don’t pretend to know what and how the nation’s 100 million eligible female voters think. The theory that you can squeeze 100 million women in a box and call it the women’s vote is flawed. But the economy is always a women’s issue. I’m flabbergasted that in 1996 we actually have to sit down and have a panel called, “The Economy: THE Women’s Issue.” To me, that’s like having a panel to determine that the sky is blue and the grass is green.
Whenever I lecture about what women want, the economy is always at the top of the list. Try telling any one of the now 8 million female small business owners in our country that they should be most concerned about reviving the Equal Rights Amendment or affirmative action. You can’t convince them of things that just don’t fit into the choices they’ve made in reaction to the system.
Of course women are concerned about the economy. For a long time, responsibility for the family budget has fallen on the shoulders of women, by and large. So our concern with balancing the family budget is nothing new. The conventional belief that women don’t care about the economy very much relies on the premise that we are stupid. It absolutely has to bank on the theory that women just don’t get math and science. And it completely overlooks the fact that our concerns are more immediate. They are more local.
There’s a wonderful study that just came out that Kate O’Bierne has touched upon in a piece this week in the National Review, talking about political knowledge between the sexes. For a long time, the assumption has been that women just don’t do our political homework. I think a more accurate way of saying that is that we are arguably the busiest people in our society; many of us have two workplaces, the office and the home. But as Kate O’Bierne points out in that piece, the study shows that, yes, men tend to be interested in the big picture and detailed economic data. But this is not to say that women sit at home eating bon-bons and watching “Oprah.” The point is that we get our information through local sources. And, as the study reveals, over the last fifty years, women tend to be more in tune with, and a lot more knowledgeable about what’s been in the local papers. And that’s because it’s local concerns that most touch the economic interest of women. Where the children go to school, what the crime rate is in the neighborhood, these are all ultimately economic issues.
During a session in a focus group in McCone County, Michigan, I went around and asked them to identify what, as a woman, they are most concerned about. I even put it in leftist phraseology: “As a woman, what are you most concerned about?” All of the women except one said taxes. Women talking about taxes! Who would have known? And the one woman who didn’t say taxes gave the answer, “Taxes and social security.” And she means pretty much the same thing concerning economic issues and preparing for the future.
Women are tired of being targeted in a political sense. They want to be talked to and to be talkers, not targeted. A women’s outreach program, by definition, almost sounds like it’s pandering to women based on their gender. We did a national poll last February in which we asked an open-ended question: “What important problem facing the country right now are you personally most concerned about?” Those answering could say anything from a local school ordinance that was just passed to something national like balancing the federal budget. We saw that women came out with 14 percent saying crime, decline in moral values at 8 percent, recession and the economy at 7 percent, unemployment, which is another economic issue, at 7 percent, tax cuts at 5 percent.
If you combine recession, unemployment, tax issues, and balancing the budget with the economy, you get closer to 17 or 18 percent because the economy is such a large umbrella issue. But, I should mention, men approach crime from a punitive approach. They talk about back-end solutions like abolishing parole, strengthening access to the death penalty, protecting the second amendment. Women are much more preventative in nature. Crime is an issue of personal safety and security for them and their families. They’re more prone to ask a landlord to improve the lighting in the parking lot, or to ask an employer to install an after-hours security system. Very, very local. Very personal concerns. And a lot of this stems from economics. When I started polling in 1988, we used to have crime in the social issues category. Years later, it was put in the economic category. It’s actually a hybrid of both.
I will tell you from traveling this country and talking with focus groups, the era of wearing “Super Mom” as a badge of honor is over. Women believe they are in the work force under economic necessity first. It’s not that they don’t like their jobs. It’s not that they don’t think that they are professional women. Of course they do. But they wish they had a little bit more control over being able to come and go as they please in the work force. And that is actually an opposite result, I think, of what was promised to women through the women’s movement.
This is to make the point that, of course women are concerned about the economy. Older women tell us in focus groups they care about having three things: means to outlive them, quality and available health care, and something monetary left over to leave to their loved ones. These are economic issues. This is exactly why it is difficult to get through a conversation with a woman in a focus group without the economy dominating 85 or 90 percent of it. This is no surprise. What’s most significant in dealing with the economy and women is understanding two things. Number one, the way to appeal to women politically is first, understand and appreciate them culturally. And the economy is a cultural issue. I wouldn’t say that all of our economic woes or concerns should be addressed at the federal government level. If anything, I agree with the opposite. I do think, as the phrase went in 1979, that a century of government is the problem, not the solution.
But putting partisan politics and ideology aside, I will say this: Women’s idea of the role of government has shifted over time. Initially, the government was regarded by many women as a direct provider of security. And that’s because, particularly for single women, the government was thought to ensure institutionalist security where that security was lacking in their lives. If you are single, you have a one-income household. So perhaps if the government was there as a so-called safety net, you would feel more secure about your personal economic state. And so, for a long time, the role of the government was to provide security. That has really transformed because women now are regarding the federal government’s role as an insurer of security, not a provider. If something unexpected happens to you, if you fall, it’s there for you. But it’s not the provider, it’s the insurer. What has replaced security as the primary role of government, in the minds of women? Opportunity. Women want opportunity from the federal government, which means, to many of them, the government steps aside altogether. It’s a combination of opportunity and security peppered with that elusive, yet yearned-for component, compassion. That is not a myth. Women really do want some type of caring from the government.
Communicating the issue of the economy to women must be approached differently than how it is communicated to men. That’s because, going back to the family budget analysis, many women want to know the results ahead of time. Men are more likely to say ,”This economic policy will stimulate growth and production and the GNP.” etc. And women are saying, “Can we afford that this year? Can we put a little away for retirement?” We want to know dollars and sense because we are the ones marshaling that in the work place of the home. Therefore, I will leave you with the thought that the economy is the burning issue to women.