Abortion rights won big at the ballot box, and it’s a huge shock to certain opinion makers, who are wracking their brains to understand the results. “Joe Biden and Democrats have managed to resist the normal pattern of heavy midterm losses for a first-term President without a New Deal (1934), Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) or national solidarity after the 9/11 attack (2002). Shows the magnitude of this achievement,” Michael Beschloss tweeted to his 800,000 followers. A prominent presidential historian with many fancy affiliations who appears regularly on PBS, Beschloss somehow didn’t register the 50-year rollback of half the population’s human rights as a major event.
This is the problem of the pink ghetto of ideas, that niche category of human affairs known as “women’s issues,” whereby anything that women in particular (but not exclusively) might care about gets downgraded to “not serious” compared with important matters of state. (The term “pink ghetto” was originally coined to describe lower-paying jobs held primarily by women.) Rhetorically, invoking “women’s issues” is reminiscent of the pre-civil-rights use of the “Negro question”: It problematizes the group it’s supposed to define. Gender, like race, is a relational category that exists within a broader social context. But the nomenclature has a siloing effect that both marginalizes over 50 percent of the country and turns it into a monolith, while excluding men entirely. This also makes it low-status and therefore unworthy of meaningful recognition—consider the historical dearth of medical research on female bodies or the devaluing of women-dominated professions like teaching and nursing. Research even shows that when women enter male-dominated fields, the average pay goes down for everyone. Obviously, if women care about it, or if it pertains primarily to women, it must not matter that much. The pink ghetto phenomenon often manifests in political campaigns as “women for X candidate” events or efforts to capture the “women’s vote”—oversimplifications that ignore racial, class, and geographic differences.
But the fact is that women all over the nation understood the Dobbs decision as a nuclear event and reacted by registering to vote in record numbers, far outstripping new male voters. The CEO of TargetSmart, Tom Bonier—one of the few to publicly value this astonishing development—published detailed data about registration surges. In Pennsylvania, where voters just elected Democrats for governor and the US Senate and flipped the state House of Representatives, 56 percent of newly registered voters were women. In states as varied as Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, and Wisconsin, newly registered voters were more likely to be young and/or female. Much of the news coverage qualified these surges with statements about how registration rates aren’t generally indicative of who actually votes or with conventional polling that showed economic issues outpacing “social” ones. That’s likely because newly registered and younger voters tend not to show up in the data that becomes the basis for public discussion, since they don’t yet have a voting history.
Pollsters typically target likely, or “prime,” voters, defined as people who reliably turn out for elections. Aside from the problems of sampling bias, the pink ghetto undercuts the cogent hard data that’s screaming for attention, like registration rates and actual results: Six weeks after Dobbs, Kansas voters killed a ballot referendum that would have banned abortion, thanks in part to newly registered voters, 70 percent of whom were women. It was a blowout victory, with 59 percent voting no, and for a time there was chatter about its being a bellwether for November. Then the hand-wringing started, and not just among the centrist punditry. Bernie Sanders piped up in an October op-ed in The Guardian titled “Democrats Shouldn’t Focus Only on Abortion in the Midterms. That’s a Mistake.” Countering a straw man hypothesis that party consultants were advising candidates to campaign on abortion to the exclusion of all else, Sanders advised a heightened focus on the economy: “I believe that if Democrats do not fight back on economic issues and present a strong pro-worker agenda, they could well be in the minority in both the House and the Senate next year.” Never mind that abortion is an economic issue and that the Democrats kept the Senate and only barely lost the House, mostly because of unrelated failures in deep-blue New York.
The pink ghetto popped up again when Donald Trump made his announcement for president. In a huge improvement over the last cycle, news outlets like NPR and The Washington Post provided context about Trump’s crimes and corruption. The Post even concluded its story with a laundry list of his offenses: “He has frequently made racist and antisemitic remarks, mocked people with disabilities and denigrated developing countries, bragged about sexual assault and paid hush money to a porn star, praised dictators, declined to disavow extremists, inspired his supporters to resort to violence and defended white supremacists and Jan. 6 rioters.”
In the six years since the Access Hollywood tape came out, more than two dozen women have detailed various sexual abuses by the former president, including E. Jean Carroll, who is suing him for rape under New York’s Adult Survivors Act. Carroll is a longtime advice columnist for Elle, a women’s magazine that covers fashion and beauty—i.e., “not serious” issues. Although some of these women’s stories have been discussed widely in stand-alone articles, general political coverage has routinely failed to note the sheer number of them. I’ve written extensively about these issues over the years, and I didn’t notice the omission until Jill Filipovic pointed it out on Twitter.
The postelection message is clear, though: Democrats should work to put abortion on the ballot in more states. Republicans have revealed their whole brutal plan to strip women of their humanity, and voters from Kentucky to Michigan to Montana to Vermont rejected it. News outlets have a critical role to play in examining why, much the same way they dispatched reporters to diners to interview white people about why they voted for Trump. Or we can keep treating women like a special-interest group stuck in the pink ghetto.