There was a moment during this election season when I honestly wondered whether women’s suffrage had been a good idea. This heretical thought came to me during the Republican convention, when a rape victim recalled her ordeal for the assembled delegates. Suddenly I felt as if I were watching a campus “Take Back the Night” rally rather than a political convention. Actually, it was worse than that. It was embarrassing, undignified, and wholly unrelated to the business at hand. The unspeakable crime that had been committed against this poor woman was now being used, with her active consent, for political purposes: to manipulate an audience into recognizing the “human side” of a political party.
Why did Republican organizers feel they needed this woman to convince us of this “human side”? Obviously because they had decided that their political survival depended upon closing the so-called gender gap. And closing this gap, it seems, means recognizing that for women not only is the personal political, but only the personal is political. Women, the Republicans evidently thought, are unable to distance their own immediate concerns from consideration of the common good; they cannot distinguish between their personal problems and society’s problems. Thus, women will not believe in a candidate’s compassion unless he can demonstrate personal weakness; they will not believe he can govern unless he claims to have experienced virtually every problem and pain a voter might complain of; they believe a man’s bravery in war is not diminished by his willingness to blubber on and on about it afterward; they believe that a candidate’s positions on issues — whether it is cutting taxes or welfare reform — are less important than whether he comes across as a man who can “connect” with people.
Depressingly, the organizers seemed to have got their audience right. The subsequent favorable polls showed that women do love this stuff. It’s hard to believe now that future planners of conventions won’t, in the name of capturing the female vote, imitate San Diego — whether it’s having the candidate’s wife stroll the audience with a hand mike, or artfully lighting the podiums in pink and lavender, or allowing children to crawl the floor. (Babies have, I noticed, replaced smelly cigars as the Republican delegate’s accessory of choice. At one point during the television coverage, Larry King upbraided Mary Matalin for the organizers’ failure to provide a daycare center. No one asked, What were babies doing at a political convention in the first place?)
Certainly the Democrats learned a few lessons in scoring with women from their Republican rivals. Their convention in Chicago offered up an even longer parade of victims and, if possible, even fuzzier sentimentality. Incredibly, the film that introduced President Clinton’s speech — a film meant to show off the accomplishments of his first term in office — went nowhere near the president’s policies. Instead, it dwelt at length upon the man’s feelings about what it’s like to be president and the incredible growing experience that the job has been for him. The film’s message appeared to be that we should support the president for his lovable self, not for anything he’s actually done. Maybe I’m alone in female company on this one, but as luridly interesting as I found the assurances of the president’s mother-in-law that she still held a good opinion of Bill Clinton, I’m more inclined to judge our leader by the opinion of others: Do our allies respect him? Do our enemies fear him?
In any case, what we should worry about — particularly as women — is the new political era the 1996 conventions ushered in. This era elevates emotions over reason, the private over the public. It is the product of thirty years of teaching women to mistrust men and masculinity. Strength, conviction, self-restraint, abstract appeals to liberty, justice, and the common good — these are qualities that clearly will no longer play in Peoria if a candidate hopes to be elected by women as well as men.
If that’s what 76 years of women’s suffrage has amounted to, well, you can take back my vote.