Missouri's Female Trouble
Single women voters, we've been repeatedly told over the past year, sat out the last election in disproportionate numbers and are now ripe for political engagement. As with NASCAR dads, soccer moms (and now, security moms), stereotypes about this potential voting bloc can be frustratingly reductive. Despite press attention to an elusive "Sex and the City voter," presumably a trendy young thing who is too busy shopping to vote, the 22 million single women who didn't participate in 2000 include divorced, widowed and never-married women of all ages and classes, many of them parents. In Missouri, the category includes everyone from the moderate single moms of Crane to Diane Pell, the proprietor of Middle Class Values, a knickknack shop in Kansas City, Missouri. Pell, who has repeatedly sold out of Smoosh Bush dolls and "National Embarrassmints," tins of candy with Bush and Cheney on the cover, plainly says she "despises Bush big time."
On the ground in Missouri, the practical reality of reaching the alienated single women who might not otherwise vote--while also winning over "security moms" and other undecided women who span the ideological spectrum--is proving complicated for Democrats. Consider the amorphous issue that is the single biggest concern of unmarried women in Missouri: that children learn values and respect. Single women here place this goal above worries about healthcare, the rise in prices relative to income, affordable retirement and prescription drug costs, which, in that order, also matter to them, according to "Women's Voices. Women Vote," a group organized around single women's political potential in the coming election. But how can Democrats reach out to women on an issue that escapes conventional campaign language, not to mention the purview of government (an issue, it should be noted, that is thought of as a winner for conservatives)? And how can anyone convince Missouri's single women--59 percent of whom voted in 2000, as opposed to 67 percent of the state's overall voting-age population--that it's worth their while to go to the polls, when the stuff of their lives clearly eludes politics as we know it? Concerned with matters far from Swift Boats, many of these potential voters have been simply off the political map.
Since three-quarters of single women who didn't vote in 2000 weren't registered, at least the first step was clear. In Missouri, several organizations rose to the task of registering female voters. "Women's Voices. Women Vote" aimed a mail-based voter registration campaign at 118,000 single women here. Meanwhile, the combined efforts of such groups as America Coming Together (ACT), Voting Is Power and Project Vote added some 120,000 new voters to the rolls before the close of the registration period (not an insignificant number, considering that Gore lost Missouri by 78,676 votes in 2000), an estimated 65,000 of whom were women, according to Grant Williams, state director for Missouri ACT.
Getting through to the angry, apathetic or simply overwhelmed woman to convince her to register is itself difficult. Take it from Jo Ann King, a single woman who works for Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, which conducts voter registration among African-Americans. King, who was recently registering women in the waiting room of a local free clinic on weekly "maternity day," said many of the women she approaches are not registered because they are so "oppressed, depressed, and disillusioned, they don't believe their votes matter."
Overcoming such alienation takes persistence. "I was talking to this one woman, she said she didn't vote, she didn't want to vote," King recalled. "But I just kept on talking. I said, 'Did she have kids? And did she know that this election would affect money for schools?'" After listening to King at some length, the woman decided to register. "She told me it was like she was coming out of a coma and mine was the first voice she heard. And we ended up hugging and crying right there in the parking lot."
Still, registration might be the easy part. More complicated is insuring that voters actually get to the polls. Lisa Christian, a political consultant in Kansas City, Missouri, insists that the best way to get women to vote is to have female friends or trusted acquaintances reach out to them one on one. Thus she recently invited her yoga instructor to a Kerry rally, and the instructor in turn has begun talking to her classes about the importance of supporting him in the election. She is hoping for a similar payoff from her massage therapist. "I suggested that she say a little something before she begins the massage, like 'Wouldn't it be a shame if women didn't get health benefits because you didn't vote?'" (Though such a tactic could be bad for business, Christian points out that it could also heighten the need for a relaxing massage.) And Jill Dunlap, who works at the women's center at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has begun her own one-woman campaign, placing notes in the stalls of the women's bathroom urging students to vote.
The Missouri Democratic Party is trying to take this woman-to-woman approach statewide. At an August "Women for Kerry" luncheon held at the Salad Bowl restaurant in St. Louis, Stacey Newman proposed that each of the sixty or so women in attendance adopt five single female registered voters who had been identified as undecided. Newman, who is the only full-time Democratic Party staff person devoted to coordinating the women's vote in the state, culled these single women's names and telephone numbers from voter registration records and asked volunteers to call their five adoptees and explain their personal reasons for voting for Kerry.
"You can do it in your bathrobe!" enthused Newman, who suggested that the callers acquaint themselves with a handout on why John Kerry is "Strong on Women" and then "speak from the heart" to the politically alienated women they need to reach. A former flight attendant who was apolitical herself not so many years ago, Newman thinks such personalized outreach campaigns, which are happening in twenty counties throughout Missouri, are key to a Kerry victory here.
But the "adopt 5" strategy is slow going. Making her way alphabetically through the undecided single women in the St. Louis area, Newman had reached the K's at press time. Although the undecided female voters she's targeting tend to agree with Democrats on issues like promoting jobs, fiscal responsibility and making healthcare more affordable and available, Republicans tend to win their support on defense and national security, according to a July study by the prochoice group Emily's List. Especially in Missouri, their votes can be crucial. Estimates of the nationwide number of undecided voters are as low as 2 percent, but as many as 5 percent of Missouri voters have yet to make up their minds, and 55 percent of those still on the fence are women.