Women's votes were the difference

November 24, 2006|By Ellen Goodman | Ellen Goodman,Boston Globe

BOSTON -- Allow me to use my grandmother-of-two voice. This is a bit more low-key and benign than Nancy Pelosi's famous "mother-of-five voice." Toddlers and tryptophan tend to mellow me out.

Nevertheless, during this holiday interregnum between the election and the installation of a new Congress, a grand-maternal word or two to the Democrats may be in order.

There's already been a surfeit of talk about the role of women in this election. Alas, this was not The Year of the Women Redux, although Speaker-elect Pelosi has broken the "marble ceiling" and has the bruises to show for it. Yes, there will be more women in Congress than ever before, but so far the percentage has only gone up from 15.4 to 16.4485981. Hold the applause.

This was, however, the year women provided the Democratic margin of victory. If men had been the only voters in Missouri, Montana or Virginia, we'd have a Republican Senate. This is also the year in which women drove the agenda.

Pollster Celinda Lake, who coined the terms "soccer mom" and "security mom," hasn't found the right moniker yet for women in 2006. She settles for an explanation, "Women solidified around change a year ago and didn't budge."

They were the first to think the war was going sour and first to believe the economy was going downhill. And, at the family heart of the matter, a majority of women unhappily concurred that their children were going to be worse off than they are.

What most triggered men to get out and vote Democratic? A desire to "send a message to Bush." The top vote-getting message for women was, "Let's make things better for the next generation." In less grandmotherly words, Ms. Lake says, "Men wanted to punch him in the nose, and women wanted to make things better."

So if women drove the agenda, what will make things "better"?

At the top of everyone's mind is Iraq. But the commander is still in chief and Washington seems to be waiting for Godot - excuse me, James Baker - to come up with a magical solution.

Beyond that, women voters aren't asking for a debate about gays in the military or reinstituting a draft.

Women worrying about a diminished future for the next generation are looking for a broad, overlapping domestic agenda. Some pieces can be found in the to-do list assembled for the Democrats' "First 100 Hours": Raise the minimum wage, fix the Medicare prescription drug program, halve interest rates for student loans and bury the dead horse of Social Security privatization.

If the new leaders make the deadline, they will offer something we haven't had in a long time: hope. The post-election survey done by Ms. magazine and the Women Donors Network showed, surprisingly, that a majority of women listed rebuilding after Katrina as a top priority for the next Congress. Katrina was a turning point for women who saw the government's reaction as cold indifference.

Women are more united than divided. They tend to see connections between people not unlike those who assemble around their own family tables. Women also concur on the need for help balancing work and family.

So for many, the biggest concern still is health care. As Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, one of the new breed of young moms in Congress, says, "I don't want the next generation of moms hand-wringing over how to deal with the sniffles and waiting until it turns into pneumonia." It's past time to make health care available to all kids.

As for education, especially early education and child care? The desire to truly "leave no child behind" tops terrorism on the female list. And for women who share a family-table view of the world, economic security includes the increasingly elusive retirement security.

Democrats won't have much time to prove that the "sea change" on Capitol Hill changes enough. Nor does Speaker-elect Pelosi.

It's been a long time since Americans have looked to the government with expectations. Now, we're making a list. And checking it twice.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column usually appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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