Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« This Week on Drugs | Seattle Parties »

Friday, February 2, 2007

Are Women “Rational” Political Actors?

posted by on February 2 at 11:35 AM

You’ll need TimesSelect to follow this debate between two smarty-pants female writers, but it’s pretty interesting. For starters, both writers agree that women could be more of a force in national elections if only they didn’t tend to vote irrationally.

First there’s Linda Hirshman, who, apropos of Hillary Clinton’s run for president, wrote in the Washington Post:

In every election, there’s a chance that women will be the decisive force that will elect someone who embraces their views. Yet they seem never to have done so, and I’ve never seen a satisfactory answer as to why. My own theory is that women don’t decide elections because they’re not rational political actors — they don’t make firm policy commitments and back the candidates who will move society in the direction they want it to go. Instead, they vote on impulse, and on elusive factors such as personality.

And in response comes Judith Warner, who writes today behind the TimesSelect firewall:

The ever-controversial Linda Hirshman had an article in the Washington Post this past week, in which she depicted American women voters – and suburban stay-at-home moms in particular – as politically ignorant, disinterested and ultimately self-defeating.

Citing studies and anecdotes culled from a few conversations with Washington-area suburban moms who appear to spend a fair amount of their time sitting around on their living room sofas and reading People magazine, she painted a rather damning portrait of women who don’t read newspapers, don’t read up on policy, and very often get their information on the outside world from their more tuned-in working husbands. Ignorant of the issues, they cast their votes based on such slippery stuff as “character,” and then, in election after election, blow their chances of being “the decisive force that will elect someone who embraces their views.”

Women are not “rational political actors,” Hirshman writes. “Instead, they vote on impulse, and on elusive factors such as personality.”

Some of what Hirshman has to say is, unfortunately, true. Survey after survey shows the consumers of news today to be disproportionately male. In my own anecdotal forays through the living rooms of America’s suburbs, I’ve often been struck by the degree to which women – particularly mothers of young children – don’t keep up with world events.

The reasons are quite obvious – for stay-at-home moms in particular, who don’t have the excuse of in-office dead time to read the paper or browse the Internet, there are just no free moments in the day. But, however understandable the phenomenon, the results can be worrisome. Hirshman cites a recent Pew Research Center study showing that nearly half the women surveyed said they “sometimes do not follow international news because of excessive coverage of wars and violence”; a New York Times/CBS poll last year found that nearly 10 percent more women than men still believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In an age when Americans are showing a troublesome tendency toward irrational belief (There were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark), keeping up, at least minimally, with the news probably ought to be a prerequisite for the job of childrearing.

That said, while Hirshman’s statistics on female ignorance of the news are worth note, her conclusions about women’s particular irrationality as voters truly miss the mark. These days, all voters vote “irrationally” – if such factors as personal appeal and character can be said to be irrational…

RSS icon Comments


Oh, puh-leeze. I'd be less inclined to dismiss this whole discussion as horseshit if it weren't so blatantly obvious that the overwhelming majority of males don't show the slightest sign of being "rational" voters either. There's a small segment of the electorate that pays attention and has at least something approaching a coherent political philosophy, and then there's the remaining majority, who vote for candidate A because they like his name, or perhaps because candidate B has a dumb haircut or said something that made him sound gay to them.

Posted by tsm | February 2, 2007 11:42 AM

"These days, all voters vote 'irrationally' – if such factors as personal appeal and character can be said to be irrational…


Truer words have yet to be spoken. I can see the interviews with Ma and Pa Cul-de-Sac in the supermarket parking lot now:

"I don't like ever-thing that Bush fella does, but I wouldn't mind having a beer with him."

Posted by Original Andrew | February 2, 2007 11:52 AM

Wait, are you telling me there weren't any dinosaurs on Noah's ark?

Posted by Mike in MO | February 2, 2007 12:00 PM

This is exactly why the founding fathers were not in favor of universal suffrage (male or female).

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | February 2, 2007 12:12 PM

Forgive me, but I think it would be rather irrational of voters to favor or disfavor Clinton because of her position on Iraq. There are far clearer (and by that I mean more meaningful) distinctions between the candidates on domestic issues.

Posted by annie | February 2, 2007 12:19 PM

The fact is that the vast majority of voters don't make decisions rationally.

This is a *great* (but depressing) article about what political scientists know about how people vote.

"Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system....
"Non-ideologues may use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs)...
"In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system."

Posted by Ben | February 2, 2007 12:23 PM

Women are generally poorer and busier than men. Mainstream news media is made by men for men. The news media mostly covers men. Who cares if 10% more women than men think Saddam caused 9/11? That's a question about whether a man was involved in a plot by men to kill mostly men, and whether a group of men in the federal government were justified in going to war with another group of men in another government.

I'm sure black people in the US would score lower than white people on questions of CNN's take on current events. Imagine a headline: "BLACK PEOPLE MAKE IRRATIONAL DECISIONS." It wouldn't be tolerated for a second. Heck, I'm sure gay men would score lower than heterosexual men on questions of current events. "GAY MEN ARE IRRATIONAL."

Why is it that women are the social group most denigrated by people in power?

Posted by jamier | February 2, 2007 2:38 PM

Personally, I've been of the opinion for some years that everyone should have to pass a basic civics exam before getting a voters' card. Naturalized citizens have to pass a pretty challenging test before they can vote the first time, but if you're born here, you can be dumber than a bag of hair and still cast a ballot every election cycle.

If you can't name the three branches of government and explain their functions, off to voter re-education camp with you!

Posted by Geni | February 2, 2007 3:11 PM


That is awesome, thank you.

Posted by Original Andrew | February 2, 2007 3:20 PM

"Who cares if 10% more women than men think Saddam caused 9/11? That's a question about whether a man was involved in a plot by men to kill mostly men"

You win Troll of the Day.

Posted by tsm | February 2, 2007 3:21 PM


That New Yorker article is the most insane, damning expose ever.

We are so fucked.

“Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman. Forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution.”

“The fraction of the electorate that responds to substantive political arguments is hugely outweighed by the fraction that responds to slogans, misinformation, “fire alarms” (sensational news), “October surprises” (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and “gotchas.”

“This helps make sense of the fact that the world’s greatest democracy has an electorate that continually “chooses” to transfer more and more wealth to a smaller and smaller fraction of itself.”

I repeat, fucked.

Posted by Original Andrew | February 2, 2007 3:43 PM

The article makes no claims about why women may act irrational, nor does it say that men act rational. It simply says that women on average act less rational than men, hence the 10% margin quoted above. Now that is statistically significant--assuming the study was done correctly--and it does raise some interesting questions, the foremost being: why?

Posted by Matt | February 3, 2007 12:55 AM

The Iraq war and the coming war with Iran are the defining issues or our lives. This country is destroying itself with deficits, the patriot act, not to mention the human costs on our soldiers. Seattle can not afford mass transit, gee why is that? Seattle can not find a cheap way to fix the viaduct, gee why is that? Because the feds care more about the War then our country, and fund accordingly. Clinton voted for this war. She does not deserve to be president. By the by, f...k Newsweek and Time and any other mainstream news media in this country, it is all Propaganda. Women are better off without.

Posted by Gary | February 4, 2007 4:55 AM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).