For some women, gender will be decisive factor; for others, it's irrelevant
Both sides pursuing support, votes from women
April 6, 2008 4:00 AM
Sarah Bell, left, and Elizabeth Baribeau, campaign volunteers from San Francisco, work at Hillary for President headquarters on Smithfield Street yesterday as part of the "All Voices Count" women's tour, which is spending two days going from Pittsburgh to Carlisle.
By Tracie Mauriello Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
Her Web page is a calculated mix of hard and soft, strong and sensitive.
In one photo, folded hands and a beaming smile. In another, an authoritative pose, determined eyes and a pointing finger. An online store offers an "I'm Your Girl" photo button.
His site features a warm family portrait, policy papers aimed at women and streaming video of mothers, grandmothers and college co-eds gushing about him.
Both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are keenly aware that women are a major voting block in Pennsylvania and could decide the April 22 primary election. Women make up 51 percent of the state's population, and history shows they are more likely to vote than their husbands, fathers and brothers.
So, what do they want in the next president?
The answer is mixed.
"One of the challenges this primary season has been to not think of women as one monolithic, homogenous group," said Allyson Lowe, director of the PA Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University. "When you have one African-American candidate and one woman candidate, it's easy to assume the election breaks down neatly along race and gender."
It does and it doesn't.
"If you're a strategist for a campaign and you need to target resources, you're going to look for things in demographic data to help you do that," Ms. Lowe said. "The candidates are trying to do whatever they can to turn out their voters. This is an incredibly competitive election and every vote counts."
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said there is a clear difference in the way men and women vote. Research at her center has revealed a gender gap in every election since 1980. Women voters were the deciding factor in the 1996 election giving President Clinton a second term. Only 44 percent of male voters cast ballots for him, but female voters pushed him over the top, with 54 percent choosing him over Bob Dole and Ross Perot.
In a recent Quinnipiac University poll of Pennsylvania voters, 59 percent of the women backed Mrs. Clinton, compared to 45 percent of men. Meanwhile, 35 percent of women and 48 percent of men backed Mr. Obama.
The Quinnipiac poll and others like it consistently show that the economy, the war in Iraq and health care are the top three issues for women. They are also the top issues for men, although men place greater importance on the economy than on health care.
"There's not a massive difference. What people are surprised about is that abortion isn't high on the list [for women]... it's kitchen-table issues, survival issues," Ms. Walsh said. "Women want to know how candidates are going to take care of these issues in specific ways. Men are looking at the same issues, but I'm not sure their anxiety level is the same."
A lot of women feel economically vulnerable, she said. They earn less, are more likely to be single parents and are more likely to need social welfare programs.
Both candidates have addressed economic issues through proposals to reduce reliance on foreign oil, to stimulate job growth, to increase the minimum wage and to invest in manufacturing.
In a primary in which the candidates' positions on key issues are as closely aligned as Mrs. Clinton's and Mr. Obama's, it could come down to personality and gender differences.
"I'm having a difficult time deciding between them," because their policies are so similar, said elementary school teacher Molly Carr, 31, of Indiana County. "You don't want it to come down to just the male-female thing being the difference, but it's easy to get caught up in gender.
There are a lot of older women who know where we've come from and want to see a woman succeed and be the most powerful person in the world, but I don't know if guys are ready for that."
Younger women such as 19-year-old Mihaela Silva of suburban Harrisburg tend to favor Mr. Obama because, she says, he appears genuine and energetic.
"He talks about getting troops out of Iraq. They both do, but Hillary sounds a little fake. It seems like she says what people want to hear," said Miss Silva, a student at Harrisburg Area Community College who gets most of her campaign news from MTV.
Meanwhile, older women are siding with Mrs. Clinton in greater numbers.
"She represents the changes and struggles they've had in their lives, overcoming barriers, finding career success and holding families together. She is a product of their generation and there is some real support there," Ms. Lowe said.
That rings true for Lois Schaaf, 65, of Bucks County.
"What women have to do is break the barriers that people don't think women can break," said Mrs. Schaaf. That doesn't mean trying to act like a man, she said.
"Hillary should be herself and let the world know her softer side. We already know she's intelligent," Mrs. Schaff said. "The world only knows her strength. She needs to let the world know she is a feeling woman."
Jeannette Maitin, 80, of Montgomery County, said the New York senator's strength could be a detriment.
"People are afraid of strong women. Men don't want a strong woman," she said. "Think about even when you're in a car with a man. Does he like a woman giving him directions? He doesn't."
If she is elected, Mrs. Clinton's challenge will be to surround herself with Cabinet members and other advisers who will listen to a woman, Mrs. Maitin said.
In Chester County, retired nurse Lorraine Stanish, 64, said she wants someone who will use intuition to solve problems. Women are better than men at that, she said. Women also have more empathy and aren't so hard-headed, said Mrs. Schaaf, good qualities for a president.
Others say women are more sensitive, thoughtful, honest and detail-oriented.
"Women want things to be just right. We're perfectionists in a lot of ways," said Liz Tinsman, 45, of suburban Harrisburg. Still, she plans to vote for John McCain in the general election. "Clinton is too aggressive," she said.
Clinton supporters, meanwhile, say women respond differently in crises than men, and that is appealing to them. "Women resolve problems differently. ... They look for different types of solutions, and we need that now," Ms. Stanish said.
While there is a part of the electorate that believes it takes a man to run a nation, another group holds the view that the assertive, pantsuit-wearing New York senator may be too much like a man. Even some of her supporters say so.
"Feminine energy is what we need, and Hillary has to work on that," said Barbara Flanagan, 66, who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., and attended a Women for Hillary rally last month outside Philadelphia. "She's doing better. Her hair is better," Ms. Flanagan said. "It's a funny thing, but it matters."
Appearance counts, more for women than men, Ms. Lowe said from her office at Chatham.
"Women continue to be judged on the three H's: hair, husbands and hemlines. Hillary has worked very hard to minimize those variables, but it's difficult," Ms. Lowe said.
Appearance and personality aren't factors for Melinda Peffall, 27, of Montgomery County, who also attended the rally. She is more interested in policy positions and says her friends -- of both genders -- are, too.
"I hope women are looking for the same thing as men: a good, strong candidate, someone who can keep a female perspective. For so long it has been a man's world," she said. "As a man, you can understand women's issues, but being a woman probably helps with understanding things like the right to choose. If you can't get pregnant, it's kind of hard to put yourself in that situation."
That doesn't mean a man can't understand, others say.
Mr. Obama "has been around strong women in his life who influence him to make good decisions on behalf of women," said Jessica Byrd, 21, who is organizing the Obama effort at Chatham University.
Chatham women are torn between the candidates, and that surprises a lot of campus outsiders, Miss Byrd said.
"As a student at a women's college, I am expected to vote for a woman, and I don't feel an allegiance to that. Feminism doesn't call for us to only support women, but to fight for women's issues," she said.
Some people, though, have a hard time separating the two, Miss Byrd said.
"For some people there's almost a guilt feeling that [Mrs. Clinton] really came out on the issues we were eager to hear about, and now they don't want to abandon her on the path," she said.
The same could be said of African-Americans who can relate to the struggles of Mr. Obama, said Miss Byrd, who is black.
"The intersection of race and gender is real to me. How I choose my candidate is not based on race or gender because it is an extremely layered issue for me," she said.