A Triumph for Women

Female voters didn’t decide this election. But that’s a good thing.

Linda Pennywell, an Ohio supporter and volunteer for President Obama

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

In the end, the women’s vote did not decisively hand Obama a win last night, as Nate Silver and the Obama campaign had been hinting in the days before the election. After all the wooing and pleading, the emails in the style of a pining ex-lover, the specially tailored “Julia” slideshows that served as the campaign equivalent of a mix tape, women gave Obama almost exactly what they gave him four years ago and—according to many exit polls—even a little less. CNN had women at 55 percent for Obama and 44 percent for Romney, a smaller gap than Obama had posted against John McCain.

Instead women served as part of Obama’s big happy rainbow party. They joined up with an impressive coalition of Latinos, African-Americans, and young people to put Obama over the top. In different counties in battleground states, one or another member of this demographic alliance turned out to be critical—young people and Latinos in Nevada, for example, or women in northern Virginia. In that state, the Obama won by only about 100,000 votes, and the Democrats lost support among white men, so you could safely say women gave that state to the president.

Also, women, it turns out, is not all that meaningful as a demographic slice anymore. As had been predicted before the election, the most significant division within the electorate happened around marriage. Check out this Washington Post interactive about the exit polls, particularly the section labeled “sex by marital status.” Nonmarried women and men are solidly in the Obama camp, while married men and women are both solidly in Romney’s camp. What this says about the effects of marriage on voting decisions I’m not sure. Suburban anxiety? Lower libido? Sudden longing for men with better hair? Surely there will be many guesses, and surely many of them will be as bad as mine.

You might assume from this statistic that Democrats will have trouble down the road, since all those young singles will eventually transition into the married camp and desert them. But it’s not that simple, since so many fewer Americans are getting married at all. In fact the Democrats look right now like they own the future—singles, Latinos, everyone but the staid and aging.

Some women might lament a loss of influence at the voting booth. But—and bear with me here—the absence of a historic gender gap, a shouting-from-the-rooftops moment with women of all ages and types banding together, is an even sweeter victory for women. Those historic moments are generally reserved for the marginalized. And what women showed in this election is a coming into their own, a calm and steady accumulation of power that had no whiff of 1984 tokenism about it.

There are now a record number of women in the Senate. One of them is Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who exemplified the narrative of this election by moving from rejected outsider whistleblower to incumbent-defeating senator. Another is Missouri’s Claire McCaskill. She came up against a man who made a mockery of women with his condescending nonsense about “legitimate rape.” McCaskill turned around and made a mockery of him by crushing him in the race. The “war on women” turned out not to be a fair fight, although not in the way we expected. The people waging war were exposed by the election results to be fringe and marginalized, and the women on the other side handily won. As Jezebel put it, “Team Rape Lost Big Last Night.” Plus we have our first all-female delegation—senators, House members, and a governor—in New Hampshire.

The larger narrative is a nation becoming gradually acclimated to female power. We are starting to see women in command as less of a novelty, less of a curious phenomenon to be dissected in all of its fascinating manifestations—Will she cry? Can she wage wars? Can she bake cookies and wage wars at the same time?—and more as a normal part of our political landscape.

Most of these newly elected women will vote Democratic, but plenty won’t. Many of them will protect women’s reproductive rights but by no means all of them. (Akin and McCaskill split the white women’s vote. Michele Bachmann just won re-election in Minnesota.) But they will seem less like newcomers to the process, which is exactly what we want.