What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live
by Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway with Catherine Whitney
Review by Susan Chenelle
Just after the 2004 presidential election, Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway, pollsters from opposite ends of the political spectrum, joined forces to conduct a new poll with a special purpose: to demonstrate how “a not-so-silent majority of women—from seniors to boomers to Generations X and Y—confront the singular challenge of recasting the nation in their image…shaking the culture to its core.”
It’s a commendable goal, but the authors get off to a rocky start by defining eight highly questionable “archetypes,” which they contend represent “the faces of American women.” These range from “Feminist Champion” and “Multicutural Maverick” to “Religious Crusader” and “Senior Survivor.” Many women will find it difficult to identify with any of these simplistic profiles, as the authors offer no indication of how they were teased out of the poll data, nor any criteria by which women were categorized. Instead, they offer puzzling statements like “You might find [the Multicultural Maverick] at the health club, coffee bar, or bistro, hanging out with friends, at a family barbecue, or attending and Earth Day concert”—without explaining why or how certain women are likely to exhibit any of the aforementioned very common behaviors. (Doesn’t the Senior Survivor also like going to the health club?)
While the authors highlight some very real concerns facing American women, such as lack of healthcare and having to tend to young children and aging parents simultaneously, there’s no question that their methodology is flawed. The substance of the book consists of responses to two polls, conducted over nine nights in early 2005, surveying a grand total of 1,604 women and 400 men. Furthermore, the two polls had entirely different sets of questions, and only a fraction of those polled (200 women) were asked all nine of the questions that comprise the heart of the book’s analysis.
Lake and Conway do demonstrate that very different women are making similar choices, and that those trends are causing significant shifts in our society—such as the increasing acceptance of more flexible work schedules and alternative career arcs. But they fail to offer any evidence that these convergences somehow erode the very real differences between them, due to factors like race and class, as well as perspectives on things like abortion, welfare, or same-sex marriage. And because the authors are pollsters and not sociologists or journalists, they don’t seek out or discuss any initiatives in which women organize across social divides toward common goals. Nor do they attempt to acknowledge the economic or political basis for divisions between women, the ones that result in what they somewhat condescendingly describe as the “underclass.” They insist that their poll sampling was demographically representative of the country’s population as whole, and they do make occasional efforts to address the realities of poor and minority women—particularly when it comes to healthcare issues—but overall the book’s perspective is skewed toward the concerns of and choices available to white, relatively affluent women.
It’s in the final chapter of the book—on women and politics—that its real audience is revealed, and it’s a disconcerting twist. Reversing the feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” the authors contend that, for women, “politics is personal.” Again, Lake and Conway can’t go too deep because they’re trying to keep things bipartisan, but they’re happy to reassure politicians that women don’t vote solely on abortion, and instead place priority on the “HERS agenda”; health, education, retirement, and security. Directly addressing their intended audience, they advise, “Women’s broad support of the HERS agenda creates a niche market for politicians. Speak to women in their language, and they may follow you to the ballot box.”
As the back-cover quotes from the likes of Jack Kemp and Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona might intimate, What Women Really Want is really just a handbook for politicians and marketing professionals. Highlighting the common goals women are striving for, it disingenuously tries to pretend that how we get there doesn’t matter: Just put the right buzzwords in your ads, and women will vote for you. —Susan Chenelle
Originally published in the Anniversary 2006 issue of Bitch Magazine.