Thursday, March 15, 2012

The High Price of Women's Political Apathy in the 2010 Elections

On March 12, NPR's Diane Rheum Show hosted a panel discussion about "The Battle for Women's Votes." I tuned in after the introductions were made and listened for quite a while before I knew who the three guests were. One of the panelists presented her points of view in a harsh and harridan-ish way, scolding and chastising the other guests and speaking very derisively of everyone whose comments she did not like. A picture arose in my mind as I listened to her: Sister Mary Scary, nine feet tall, six feet wide, wooden ruler in hand, ready to deliver retribution to anyone who looked like they might start trouble. (Is it obvious that I attended Catholic school during my formative years?)

When the host reintroduced everyone, it all became clear. The harridan-ish person was an actual, bonafide harridan, Phyllis Schlaffly. Younger people may not know who Phyllis is. Lucky you. She is an Catholic Illinoisan who became the extremely vocal and exceedingly nasty leader of the anti-choice movement beginning in the early 1970s. (A little history lesson: repressive anti-abortion laws in the USA were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1973.)

I lived in St. Louis, Missouri at the time and found it very difficult to escape Phyllis's harping and screeching anti-choice venom. She also espoused a very fundamentalist, anachronistic view of women's position in marriage and society. I could not stand Phyllis or her political and social agenda and I felt disappointed on Monday to discover that she hadn't gone the way of the dinosaur yet. Aside from her comments, I found the program very interesting.

The other two guests were Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization of Women, and Karen Tumulty, a national political reporter for the Washington Post. Terry O'Neill made a comment that riveted me. She said that the 2010 national and state legislature election outcomes were severely affected by an unusually low turnout of women voters. (O'Neill cited a study to support this, which I can't remember, so you'll have to listen to the program on Diane Rehm's podcast if you want those details.)

According to this study, O'Neill said, an extraordinary number of ultra-conservative and fundamentalist-leaning candidates gained office because women did not vote. O'Brien and Associates blog post of February 24, 2012, states, "However, according to O’Neill, the total number of women voters dropped in 2010, particularly unmarried women, who traditionally vote more progressively and Democratic. Married women tend to become more Republican."

So what difference did a little apathy on the part of women make? Just this. Over 1,000 anti-women bills (meaning anti-choice, anti-birth control, anti-equal rights, etc.) have been introduced at the state level since 2010 and over 100 of them have passed. And we've all seen what's been happening in Washington. Did you wonder why we suddenly had this spate of dangerous legislation like forcible sonogram bills? Now you have the answer.

Women got fed up and stayed home from the polls. The number of women in national elected office suffered, too. As quoted in the O'Brien and Associates blog I mentioned earlier, O'Neill states,  “In 1992, the number of women in Congress increased from 5 percent to 10 percent. And in 2010, we lost women in Congress largely in part because of women not voting.”

My contemporaries and I worked hard, really hard, in the 1960s and 1970s to overcome paternalistic and misogynistic laws and attitudes in the United States. I speak for many women when I say that, as members of the last generation that witnessed the horrors of illegal abortions first hand, pro-choice and pro-birth control legislation has the greatest significance for us. We are now the older generation. We still support these causes, although I, for one, admit to utter weariness with fighting the same battles again and again.

What do we do? Oddly enough, the answer appears to be quite simple. Vote. I'd like to say "Vote early and often," the old canard from Chicago's Daley-machine days, but that would be wrong. Just vote once, but do vote. Even if your vote is different from mine, even if you support things that I think are awful, vote. Women have the potential to powerfully affect election outcomes and we need to exercise that power this year. If the ultra-conservatives get a stronger grip on this country in November, it may be the last opportunity we have for quite a while.

Fight back with your vote.

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