Attention, Democrats

 

In If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, veteran reporter Melinda Henneberger concludes that women-particularly Catholic women who are Democrats like her-want (ta dah!) “everything.” But she also discovers that women will settle for “respect, a willing ear, and a comfort level with the [religious] faith that is a big part of life for a lot of us. Maybe more than anything, we want to be heard, and ultimately, of course, it is up to us to make sure that we are.” To reach these conclusions, Henneberger, who writes for Slate and for Commonweal, tries a somewhat risky journalistic experiment: “I have never been a big believer in the magic of clever questioning, and have long agreed with what Janet Malcolm wrote years ago in The Journalist and the Murderer about her discovery that people will, for their own reasons, tell their stories pretty much the same way whether in response to a brilliant question or a half-formed one.” In other words, Henneberger will not ask a lot of questions as she covers twenty states in eighteen months talking with scores of Thalias, Jeannies, Pams, Cathies, Jackies, Kitties (including Dukakis) in female hangouts (coffee shops, living rooms, dermatologists’ offices, minivans, offices, and kitchens) about myriad topics (abortion, the Iraq war, poverty, Hurricane Katrina, immigration, the environment, and more). Henneberger will just listen and report conversations in what she describes as a “nonlinear” and “not scientific” way. Henneberger’s project may sound similar to the one behind Studs Terkel’s classic, Working, a book that gives working stiffs a crack at Studs’s tape recorder as they are led along by Studs’s gentle questioning. But Henneberger’s book is a chatty, catty, giddy whirl. Reading the book is almost exactly like arriving late for one of those women-from-the-office lunches where they have to shove in an extra chair to make room for you after everybody has started eating and several conversations are in full swing. Studs looks pretty staid by comparison, but that’s because Studs was after relatively static portraits of workers, while Henneberger hopes to get more women talking and more politicians (especially Democrats) listening. Henneberger must be congratulated for getting the listening part right. It’s harder than it sounds-silence is a vow ranked right up there with poverty, chastity, and obedience. But Henneberger makes up for her silence in the field with copious commentary throughout the book. And while this is lively and sincere, it leaves less room for her interview¬ees, whose comments are too often cut down to sound bites or partial quotes. One wonders if this makes the women sound sillier than they actually are. The mothers from Marlborough, Massachusetts, appear particularly ditzy: “Being Jewish I always have concerns about the Christian mindset creeping in” (like the “love thy neighbor” mindset?). Or: “I’m in lots of mom’s groups, and a lot of us feel there should be less sexualization of kids” (are there some who feel there should be more “sexualization,” whatever that is?). Another factor in the ditzy-quotient is that women are talking in casual groups-often in groups formed on the spot, as Henneberger interviews one woman who asks others to join in. In group interviews, women interrupt, leave sentences hanging, and rely on gestures and facial expressions that make their comments more eloquent “live” than they are in print. Henneberger acknowledges that women sometimes avoid talking politics in order not to strain their friendships. So does her book capture real opinions? Or comments that, while they have not been rehearsed in advance for a reporter, are still less than candid because other women are listening? Nevertheless, the book offers many worthwhile insights. One of the best chapters describes an emotionally charged meeting in Denver between then-gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter, a prolife Democrat, and some prochoice women with money and clout. Despite the heat in the room, Ritter won the election, the prochoice women apparently deciding a prolife governor with whom they mostly agreed was better than a prolife governor with whom they mostly disagreed (Ritter’s opponent, Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez). In other words, the prochoice women settled for something less than “everything,” as so many prolife women had done until they despaired of the Democrats and started voting Republican. The chapter on John Edwards (my favorite) offers Henneberger’s commentary as both the reporter on the stump with Edwards and as a recorder of women’s conversations about him. She reveals what it’s like to be a reporter, privy to a politician’s tics and tricks-and Edwards is candid about them-and then to hear women gushing over the candidate and his message for the first time. One yearns to tell these women to wise up. Henneberger also says-and she’s right about this-that the first thing women say is not always the most important thing. Pegg, a woman in a Sacramento homeless shelter, is a Green Party member. She says her priorities are “clean air, Mother Nature, and not drilling for oil.” But Pegg the environmentalist says John Kerry was “too slick,” and she likes President George W. Bush, who’s “doing something about the border.” What’s really bugging Pegg is trying to get disability benefits and seeing “people of different nationalities with better shoes and driving a Mercedes” at the Social Services office. This prompts other women at the shelter to criticize President Bill Clinton, who pushed hard for and won the welfare reform that made life harder for these women. A careful reader will see that this begins to explain how Kerry the Democrat got slimed with part of Clinton’s “Slick Willie” reputation-and why the Democrats, once the party of the poor, have surprisingly low currency among poor women. Across the spectrum, Henneberger says women were eager to talk about politics. I know I am. I receive several calls each year inviting me to participate in opinion polls by party apparatchiks, usually wind-ups for donation pitches. I frequently chide pollsters for not asking me the “right” questions, which I then proceed to answer. But it never seems to make much difference. See? They don’t listen. Just like Henneberger says. And that’s too bad because if my party workers did listen, their candidates would be saying-and doing-the right things. Or at least the things I could settle for.

Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: 
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Jean Hughes Raber teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

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