Single Women More Powerful Voting Demographic than Ever


February 29, 2016 by demtillidie

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Single women are one of the fastest growing voter demographics in the United States today. There are myriad reasons why women are delaying marriage and children, including the well-founded possibility of deleterious effects on personal economics and career.

Whether or not single women are looking for government to create a “hubby state” for them, what is certainly true is that their (white) male counterparts have long enjoyed the fruits of a related “wifey state,” in which the government has supported (white) male independence in a variety of ways. It’s hard for us to recognize this, since it has been the norm for so long — and here, it’s useful to recall Elizabeth Warren’s stirring “You didn’t build that” speech, in which she pointed out that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.”

Men, especially married wealthy white men, have for generations relied on government assistance. It’s the government that has historically supported white men’s home and business ownership through grants, loans, incentives, and tax breaks. It has allowed them to accrue wealth and offered them shortcuts and bonuses for passing it down to their children. Government established white men’s right to vote, and thus exert control over the government, at the nation’s founding and has protected their enfranchisement since. It has also bolstered the economic and professional prospects of men by depressing the economic prospects of women. In other words, by failing to offer women equivalent economic and civic protections, thus helping to create conditions whereby they were forced to be dependent on those men, the government established a gendered class of laborers who took low-paying or unpaid jobs doing the domestic and child-care work that further enabled men to dominate public spheres. Our civic institutions both reinforce and ­determine these historic assumptions: ­Consider that school days end in the mid-afternoon and let out for protracted summer vacations. Who is meant to care for those children if we do not subsidize child care? Women. Women who our institutions presume do not have jobs that extend till five, till six, or into overnight double shifts. Women the nation still assumes to be ­married, even though they are not and even though ­marriage itself continues — contra the ­conservative dogma that it is a cure for ­poverty — to hobble women’s chances at equality in lingering ways.

This is why the expansion of the population of unmarried women across classes signals a social and political rupture as profound as the invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women’s suffrage, and as the women’s-rights, civil-rights, gay-rights, and labor movements that made this reordering of society possible. By their very growing presence, single women are asking for a new deal from their government. The Democratic platform, suddenly more liberal than it has been in a generation, is more liberal largely in response to this new segment of the American population.

Raising the minimum wage? Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women. Forty percent of working single mothers would benefit directly from an increase in the minimum wage, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Paid family leave, a third-rail issue for decades, now back in conversation? Well, it would benefit all families, but especially struggling single mothers; so would the government-­subsidized early-education programs touted by both Clinton and Sanders. Paid-sick-day legislation is fundamental to a world in which women are primary earners and no one is home to care for sick children or elderly family members. Promises of free college and lowered student debt likely appeal to the women who now outnumber men on ­college campuses.

The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for those women seeking abortion, has gone largely un­challenged by mainstream Democrats for decades. But in Congress, California representative Barbara Lee has proposed a bill that would reverse it, and Hillary ­Clinton recently became the first mainstream Democratic presidential candidate in history to campaign vocally for its reversal on the grounds that it is a restriction that ­disproportionately limits the ability of poor women of color to exercise their reproductive rights and make decisions about whether and when to have children.

Even criminal-justice reform and jobs programs intersect with changed ­marriage patterns in the U.S., since low-income men of color are far more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated than their white peers, which makes it difficult for them to provide stability as marital partners.

In the context of the presidential primary, it’s Sanders who has become emblematic of the leftward inclinations of a changing party and especially its younger members. But the movement that has undergirded much of what we now perceive on the presidential stage as a leftward lurch has been building for more than a decade. “If you were to take a step back and look at what’s going on in American social and labor policy over the past decade where we’ve actually moved forward and made on-the-ground wins, it’s with stuff that addresses changing marriage patterns and attendant work-life conflicts,” says Heather Boushey, chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict. But what’s stunning, she adds, is how little we talk about unmarried women as the driving force behind these changes.

Boushey, who has advised Clinton, points to California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, states that now mandate paid family leave for (nearly) every citizen, legislation that could soon pass in New York State and that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is pushing federally as the FAMILY Act. She also notes significant progress at the city level on paid-sick-day programs, universal pre-K, and anti-caregiver-discrimination policies. “What this community of ­advocates has achieved is remarkable,” says Boushey of those activists and politicians — including Gillibrand, Rosa DeLauro, ­Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Patty Murray, Clinton — who’ve been pressing these issues for more than a decade. “But the reason they’re able to do it is that they address what’s really going on in America: a change in families and in women’s labor participation. The activists fighting for those women are leading. Sanders is following them.”

To some feminists, there is bitter irony in the fact that Sanders, a 74-year-old white man from Vermont who has committed himself for decades to fighting economic inequality but who has not put himself at the center of fights for things like paid sick days or family leave, has become the symbol of a move toward a social-democratic model of government that would better serve America’s independent women. That unmarried women are not rallying around Clinton, who not so long ago was one of the most visible symbols of threateningly powerful womanhood in America and who has devoted a significant chunk of her career to issues of early-childhood education and health-care reform, is somewhat baffling. But remember, this is not a symbolically motivated movement. Single women may not be looking for a feminist hero; they may just want their affordable college, higher wages, and paid sick days. A January poll released by National Partnership for Women & Families revealed that 68 percent of unmarried women (compared with 52 percent of all likely voters) believed an elected official who supported new paid-leave laws would be more likely to understand their needs. While Clinton and Sanders both support this legislation, and Clinton has talked about it more often, those who have voted so far have heard Bernie making more robustly progressive economic promises. And they seem to believe him more.

The apparent lack of trust in Clinton reflects that there is perhaps no politician who has suffered more for having been a wife. Yes, by many measures, Clinton’s role as First Lady launched her political career. But could there be any grimmer emblem of the tolls of the traditional marriage than the fact that Hillary is now picking up the tab for a decade of her party’s policies during which she was not an elected official but a spouse? The 1990s, after all, was the decade in which women began altering marriage patterns dramatically, threateningly. (Remember Dan Quayle berating Murphy Brown?) So much of the compromised legislation enacted in that period was overdetermined by anxieties about changing gender roles, including the odious reform of welfare, which on the one hand treatedall women as workers yet failed to provide them with support and sent many of them deeper into poverty. And then there was the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which, as Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow, worked to create a criminal-justice system that relegates black men “to a permanent undercaste.” The blame for the fates of black men has also long been laid at the feet of single mothers, whom politicians from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Mitt Romney to Jeb Bush have singled out as having upended the American family, creating social chaos and lawlessness. Yet the men who wrote, signed, and voted for this legislation — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Joe Biden, even Sanders, who voted for the crime bill — have not been made to pay for it politically. The ­person who is currently being asked to answer for it all is the woman who spent those years as a (too) supportive wife, who spoke volubly and troublingly in defense of her husband’s legislation, but played no ­official role in enacting it.

Beyond Clinton, there is another generation of women politicians whose own lives have played out along new models. There’s Gillibrand, married in her mid-30s, who sat through a 13-hour Armed Services Committee hearing hours before delivering her son at age 41; Donna Edwards, a single mother currently running for the Senate in Maryland; Kamala Harris, married for the first time at 49 and running to fill Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in California;Lucy Flores, running for the House in Nevada, single at 36 and open about the abortion she had as a teenager; Nanette Barragán, running for Congress in California, single; Zephyr Teachout, running for Congress in New York, single; two of EMILY’s List’s rising political stars, Georgia legislator Stacey Abrams, single, and Boston city councilwoman Ayanna Pressley, married at age 40. It doesn’t necessarily take a woman to push legislation that benefits single women, but these women, by sheer dint of personal experience, will have a better perspective on the new approaches to social policy that this new population of women requires.

Whether Sanders or Clinton is the Democratic nominee this year, single women are likely to overwhelmingly vote for either one of them over any Republican candidate, according to pollsters. Republicans have made wan attempts to appeal to unmarried women — remember the gubernatorial “Say Yes to the Candidate” ads that featured young voters engaging in electoral choices as if they were on a reality-show wedding-dress-shopping spree? But they have mostly retreated to shaming and attempting to punish single women, as when Rand Paul suggested in 2014 capping welfare benefits for women who have children out of wedlock, or Rush Limbaugh referred to unmarried law student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute” after her testimony in support of mandating birth-control coverage.

But how much of an impact single women will have on this election and on public policy in the years to come depends, in large part, on whether they begin to recognize their growing political power. Part of this is simply a matter of getting out the vote. According to Page Gardner, in 2016, “for the first time in history, a majority of women voters are projected to be unmarried,” but going into the previous presidential-election season, nearly 40 percent of them had not registered to vote. This is partly because of the very obstacles that single women need social policy to account for: Many are low-earning single parents with erratic schedules, low wages, few child-care options, and no time to wait in lines at polling places where conservative lawmakers have made voting difficult and time consuming.

There is also the question of whether this vastly disparate group that runs the gamut of race and class and has largely defied the pull of identity politics can be unified and politically activated around its remarkably common needs. The independent woman, both high earning and low earning, looks into her future and sees decades, or even a lifetime, lived outside marriage, in which she will be responsible for both earning wages and doing her own domestic labor. This is the new social compact that she requires: stronger equal-pay protections that guarantee women’s labor will not be discounted because of leftover assumptions that they are likely to be supported by husbands; a higher federally mandated minimum wage, which would help to alleviate the burdens of poverty on America’s hardest and least-well-remunerated workers; a national health-care system that covers reproductive intervention, so that those who want to terminate pregnancies or have babies on their own or wait until they are older to do so are able to avail themselves of the best medical technologies; more affordable housing for single people, perhaps subsidized and with attendant tax breaks for single dwellers who choose to live in smaller, environmentally friendly spaces; criminal-justice reforms that address and correct the injustices of our contemporary carceral state; government-subsidized day-care programs; federally mandated paid family leave for both women and men who have new children or who need to take time off to care for ailing family members; universal paid-sick-day compensation, regardless of gender, circumstance, or profession; increases rather than continual decreases in welfare benefits; reduced college costs and quality early-education programs. Come to think of it, these policies would benefit lots of people who are not single women as well.

None of this is easy, or likely to happen quickly, especially not with a Republican-led Congress. But it is the beginning of a new kind of relationship between American women and their government. Single women are taking up space in a world that was not designed for them. They make up a new republic, a new category of citizen. If the country is to flourish, we must make room for free women, and let go of the economic and social systems built around the presumption that no woman really counts unless she is married.

Adapted from All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister, to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Traister.

*This article appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

This article has been updated to clarify that around 20 percent of Americans ages 18–29 are wed, not 20 percent of all Americans under 29.

2 thoughts on “Single Women More Powerful Voting Demographic than Ever

  1. Michael Johnson says:

    “Far from signaling women’s triumph over a patriarchal establishment, Clinton’s election to the presidency would symbolize that a woman can only win the general election by compromising her integrity in compliance with a rigged campaign finance system that serves the same corrupt political forces that have subordinated women and people of color for generations.

    Perhaps women and society in general are skeptical of the glass-ceiling argument for electing Clinton because we have seen how that worked out with the first African-American president. The election of Barack Obama did not magically elevate the status of blacks in this country. It did not result in better education in black neighborhoods or end mass incarceration or keep the lead out of the water in Flint, Mich. The appeal of symbolic victories just does not hold up against reality.

    By supporting Sanders, many young women are seizing an opportunity to dismantle a racist, sexist, classist political establishment that until recently may have seemed unalterable.”

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