08 February 2008

A Closer "Look" at Women Voters

Did anyone catch the sad irony of the way the New York Times Magazine presented Linda Hirshman’s article, “16 Ways of Looking at a Female Voter” last Sunday (2/3/08)?

One of the most disturbing things about the piece—in the online and print versions, though it’s more stark in print—was that there was not one significant visual image of a woman voter alongside the text. While one could write a thesis and more about the absence, and misrepresentation, of women in the media, this was especially stunning given that the article was supposed to be a literal “look” at female voters.

For those who don’t have the article in front of them, the only visual markers throughout the piece were small photos of women’s disembodied hands placing a ballot in a box. I couldn’t help thinking that while Hirshman ostensibly sets out to address the motivations and thinking of women voters, the omission of photos of real women only perpetuates their invisibility as real political actors.

Unfortunately, the irony of the title also extends to the absence of a thoughtful and in-depth “look” at “what we know and don’t know about gender and politics.”

This is surely not all we know and don’t know about gender and politics. Hirshman’s reliance on disembodied data and minimal-to-no context—as well as her odd interpretation of some of the data—paints a pretty disparaging picture of women. After scanning the extremely short takes on how women think, readers can only conclude that women don’t think all that much. And that what they do think doesn’t really matter. According to the article’s sources, women on average have less knowledge and interest in our country’s political life than men; they read the news far less than men; they will decide whether or not to support Clinton solely on the basis of her gender; and when they do vote, their voting power won’t decide elections. As Hirshman writes, “with the possible exception of 1996, women have never voted a candidate into the White House when men thought the other guy should win.”

Then there’s the extraordinarily cursory mention of race and class—less than two short paragraphs under the heading, “Race Matters—and Class, Too”—with zero mention of the ways in which racial discrimination and economic inequality prevent women from fully participating in voting booths and at policy making tables.

As we are well aware at the Ms. Foundation, women—especially women of color and low-income women—continue to be marginalized in the political arena and widely excluded from centers of power and decision-making. How can an article about women voters ignore this fact? In any analysis of women’s political participation, the relationship of race and class to gender is key. And this speaks not just to Hirshman’s article, but to the majority of coverage of this year’s primaries which has consistently sought to analyze gender, race and class in isolation, or worse yet, to pit them against one another.

So, while giving a nod to women’s power by conceding that “when women do come forward they alter the political landscape,” the article’s less than one-dimensional picture of a “female voter” further marginalizes women’s participation in the political arena—particularly women of color and low income women—and undermines the crucial role women play in developing and implementing policy solutions on grassroots, state and national levels.

The Times, as is true for media nationwide, owes it to all its readers to provide a more in-depth, sophisticated and nuanced examination of gender, race, class, public policy and civic engagement. It must also commit to incorporating a full range of women’s voices and perspectives—throughout the election season and beyond.

And one more thought: If you read this issue of the Magazine cover to cover, aside from a couple of advertisements, the only images of women you’ll find are in a 14-page fashion spread of young, white women in surreal, nymph-like dress. Is this the only way we’re permitted to look at women—even if the title of an article on women voters suggests otherwise? Meanwhile, the same issue of the Magazine profiles Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, and includes no fewer than nine pictures of him in action, touring the world! What’s wrong with this, well, picture?

Sara K. Gould
President & CEO