When we watched the first debate this past Wednesday evening, many of us anticipated there would be talk of what matters to women -- and a diverse group of women at that. This would include women of all ages and stages of their lives; mothers, daughters, wives, widows, divorcées, straight women, gay women, working women, non-working women... After all, according to The Reuters Center for American Women and Politics, in the last thirty years, four to seven million more votes have come in from female voters than male voters. That's why it's so baffling to think that the female vote seemed dismissed or forgotten in the first round of debates when it could have been a natural kick-off. Surely, both candidates know that women in America have more agency than ever before and that according to Bloomberg News, President Obama is ahead because of the female vote. No wonder so many women are waiting to see when their issues -- equal pay for equal work, abortion, birth control, gay rights, education, college scholarships -- will be addressed.
Among this varied group of women, of particular interest to me is 'the wife vote.' As I read in the New York Times on October 6th of Linda E. McMahon's second bid for the U.S. Senate, "For Woman in Senate Race, Uphill Fight for Female Votes," it became apparent that McMahon would appeal more to a contingency of women by highlighting the fact that she met her husband at church and that she is a mother and grandmother and pro-choice, rather than bragging about her career as a 'tough CEO' in the wrestling industry. This underscores how significant it is that women are relatable to other women. While social issues might be secondary to the economy for some, in the category of wives (time-honored and less conventional wives, stay-at-home and working wives), there is a premium placed on leaders who understand their causes.
This brings us back to our two male presidential candidates. Not only do women voters look to Michelle Obama and Ann Romney as a way to identify with the candidates themselves, but both campaigns endorse this. Bravo to them for their awareness of how women feel and the value of woman-to-woman messaging. If we make it more specific, wives are sometimes frustrated by how their husbands do not understand them and the idea that an outsider, a man known publicly, not privately, could understand them remains somewhat unconvincing. To this end, Ann Romney, as wife, mother and grandmother, spoke to women voters in Nevada about her family life and values in an effort to win their vote for her husband. One might predict that more traditional women will find Ann Romney's world soothing and familiar. In contrast, Michelle Obama's romantic zeal for her husband, as stated at the Democratic convention, along with her 'Mom in Chief' commitment, is fresh and enduring. This attracts women of all ages, hip women, mothers with younger children, who strongly identify with Michelle Obama. Beyond their two distinct styles is the platform they present for their husbands. This is the ultimate test because the women's vote is a defined and large part of the population -- and the half of the electorate that often feels marginalized.
As we look to the next leader for fair treatment and better opportunities, why not pay close attention to their wives? Michelle Obama and Ann Romney offer women hope.
Susan Shapiro Barash is the author of The Nine Phases of Marriage and teaches gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College.