The Chat Room

What Women Want

Emily Bazelon and Melinda Henneberger discuss Slate’s XX Factor and the female perspective on politics.

Slate “XX Factor” bloggers Emily Bazelon and Melinda Henneberger were online at on Thursday, Nov. 15, to take readers’ questions about women and politics. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Emily Bazelon: Hi Everyone,

Melinda and I are here and looking forward to your questions.


Melinda Henneberger: Hi, I’m Melinda Henneberger, in the room and ready to be called on. I see that John McCain is actually trying to capitalize on his ho-ho-ho response to the Hillary-hating woman who asked him, “How do we beat the bitch?” Which IS good for business—if you’re Hillary, that is. I guess he figures that red meat to the base is his only shot, and that you can never underestimate the American voter.


Worcester, Mass.: Hi Emily and Melinda! I love the “XX Factor” blog. Emily, my question is about your breastfeeding article. (I’ll claim new mommy brain if you talked about this in the article and I forgot). In addition to education and class as factors why some women breastfeed and some don’t, would you say there’s also an experience/generation gap? I’m 39, and just had my baby a year ago. No older woman in my family—mother, aunt, stepmother, mother-in-law—nursed, and so had no experience or meaningful support to offer when my baby had trouble latching in her first days. Both my mother and MIL said that their babies did just fine with formula, look how well we turned out, that there was no shame in formula, etc. I know they were trying to make it okay for me if I ended up not being able to nurse, but their remarks really hit me the wrong way, as if they were trying to convince me not to nurse. My husband was supportive of nursing, we got help from a lactation consultant, and all was well in time. But for women who are close with their mothers who never nursed, might this also play a substantial role for today’s new moms when making decisions about nursing in those crazy days after birth?

Emily Bazelon: Thanks, that’s great that you’re enjoying “XX Factor.” Yes, I think you’re right about age. In the CDC stats, this usually comes up in terms of younger women, because mothers under the age of 20 are less likely to breastfeed. But you’re talking about a different phenomenon: being a mother who’se own mother (and mother in law) were of a generation that was much less likely to nurse. That’s certainly true: When my mother decided to breastfeed, in 1971, she hardly knew anyone else who was doing it, and the statistics bear out that impression. So yes, what you’re experiencing has a more general truth. And I think that these questions about what mothers pass on to their daughters, about breastfeeding v. formula, must be a significant reason that rates of nursing remain lower among certain groups, like African Americans (though that rate is rising).


Femanon: I resent the fact that as a woman, I’m encouraged to vote for Hillary simply because SHE’s a woman…as if I don’t have a brain and can’t evaluate the candidates based on merit. Isn’t this reverse discrimination and sexism? No offense, but I don’t care about the historical aspect—electing a woman to the presidency is the last thing on my mind. I’m in my late 40s and have seen successful women all around me—I don’t need to elect a woman president to make me feel better, like “we’ve arrived.” People, this election is SERIOUS!!

Melinda Henneberger: I have heard a lot of women say that same thing—and your feeling also lines up with polling that suggests that gender-based campaign appeals tend to backfire, especially with women under 40, who don’t want to be guilted into voting for the woman in the race.

The strong feeling I got talking to women across the country for my book, “If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear,’ is that we’re more than ready for a woman in the White House, but that does not mean that any woman in the race automatically has our vote, any more than African-Americans take one look at Barack Obama and assume he’s their guy. It’s a plus, but it’s not a given.


Dupont Circle: Is this particular chat supposed to be about breastfeeding, or politics?

Emily Bazelon: politics, really, but hey, breastfeeding can have its moment.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I often hear commentators and bystanders looking at the candidates, especially during the debates, and concluding that Hillary Clinton came across as more presidential, whereas the others came across as candidates. I wonder if acting this way deflects from the issue of her being a woman and, if so, if you think she is successfully doing so, and, if so, is this the right move for her?

Emily Bazelon: Yes, I think Hillary’s “presidential” qualities are helping her, and that they do take something away from the sense that a woman just can’t be president. What makes a candidate presidential? In Hillary’s case, it’s a combination of experience and gravitas and substance and discipline and polish, I think. You may not agree with her, and she hasn’t been on her best game in the last week or two, but she generally sounds just more ready for prime time than the others. She’s the one, after all, who has already been in the White House.


Washington, D.C.: So, does Sen. Clinton need to be a flight attendant?

Emily Bazelon: No! I mean, yikes, I hope not. This is where gender roles just have to go, right? We have to be able to evaluate Hillary’s candidacy in the same way we would if she were male, in the sense of assessing her relevant experience. That’s not to say that her persona isn’t tied to her gender, because of course it is. But in thinking about what candidates have actually done in the world, enough already. No soft and fuzzy credentials.


Boston: Will the electorate distill down all the personality quirks and political polish to pick someone at the end of the day they are confident has the ability to make the right decision on critical issues instead of relying reflexively on ideology? Can we afford not to for another four years?

Melinda Henneberger: One thing I’ve been surprised by is how little we vote on ideology, and how much depends on what you describe as the quirks and the political polish. I can’t tell you the number of voters who’ve told me their number-one issue was the environment or health care or education—and then went on to explain why they voted against the candidate who agreed with them on their own top issue. Huh? Yes, like the president we ended up with, we are inclined to go with our gut, to value instinct over information.


Chicago: I am a 41-year-old single woman. Apparently, from what I read, this category of voters will determine the ‘08 election. What do I, as a woman, need out of a presidential candidate? Pretty much the same things I’d want if I were a man, I’m guessing. First and foremost, someone who will flip 180 degrees from George W. Bush and respect and obey the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Someone who understands that Congress is a legitimate branch of government. Someone who won’t ignore laws Congress just passed by sneaking on a signing statement in the dark of night. Someone who understands that waterboarding (and lots of other stuff) is torture and we MUST abide by the Geneva Conventions. Someone who will unpoliticize the Justice Department. These things are so much more important to me than health care, Social Security, even the war. This is going to sound really corny, but I want America back. I want to be proud to say “I’m an American.” I’m not right now.

Emily Bazelon: You are touching on the major issues, for sure, and you also sound like you’re someone who is not going to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, or for a male candidate who tries to reach out to women specially. I also find myself curiously unmoved by Hillary’s candidacy as a first-ever for women—I mean, of course it would be amazing if she was elected. But I’m not going to vote for her because of that. I’m not even really tempted.


Washington: What is your take on how Clinton has been pummeled in the press after her blunder in the last debate? I watched the debate and felt that she didn’t perform any differently than she has in the past—nor did her competitors. In other words, I felt it was a draw and, therefore, she won. It has since seemed to me that the press wanted something to talk about because her supposed inevitability was getting boring. Thus, the constant punditry about how she’s slipping.

A friend recently said that “they” (the male establishment) saw her getting too close and have finally decided it’s time to take her out. Thoughts?

For the record, I’m still undecided, but I am a Democrat and I would sell my kidneys for the chance to get my country back on track and out of the hands of the Republicans.

Melinda Henneberger: Both of Senator Clinton’s closest rivals have become more aggressive lately, and Obama in particular has waited until fairly late in the game to take her on in a more direct way. As she has said, that’s not because she’s a woman; it’s because she’s ahead. In fact, I don’t think they would have waited so long if she had been a man, because they do not want to risk looking ungentlemanly!

Emily Bazelon: Now, I think, they’ve concluded they have to take her on. Which is esp tricky for Obama, since he is supposed to be the New Way to Peace candidate.


Richmond, Va.: Is there any chance that if Hillary doesn’t win the presidency, the media WON’T come to the conclusion that it was because “America wasn’t prepared to elect a female president?” I mean, there could be other reasons why we wouldn’t vote for her, right?

Emily Bazelon: Yes, lots of other reasons. And you’re right, that explanation could get awfully tedious awfully fast. It depends somewhat on how events unfold on the campaign trail, but for now at least Hillary’s gender is only helping her, if it accounts for her huge lead over the other Democrats among women.

Melinda Henneberger: I guess that’s what I object to about the current assumption that those who oppose Hillary Clinton must be doing so because she’s a woman; of course mysoceny is alive and well, but it does not account for the negative response of many left-leaning, women-appreciating voters. But to answer your question, no, there is no chance that we will come to any other conclusion; if she loses, we will all know that it was on account of her gender.


Washington, D.C.: I am not remotely tempted to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman. I am voting for Hillary because she’s smart and shares my democratic values and because I think she will surround herself with the best and brightest the party has to offer when she’s elected!

Emily Bazelon: Democracy at work!


Troy, N.Y.: What do you think of Anne Coulter’s assertion that women who cannot get husbands want the government to be their husband and take care of them? Additionally she advocates ending women’s suffrage.

Emily Bazelon: I don’t think much of Ann Coulter’s assertions about just about everything. Questions of individual responsibility v. the role of government are a lot more complex than that, aren’t they?


Alexandria, Va.: It would be interesting if your question, “What do women need out of a political candidate?” was changed to “What does a woman candidate need out of women?” Hillary Clinton needs support from other women. When I have voiced my support for Hillary while collecting petition signatures to get her name on the February primary ballot in Virginia, I have received, among others, the following reactions: “I’ll support a woman for president, but not her,” “No!” and “I don’t know who HE is.”

Emily Bazelon: Hmm. Your experience touches on one of Hillary’s big problems: People seem to not like her, intensely, for all kinds of reasons. Melinda and I disagree about why. I think the Hillary hating is often gender related. My evidence is that often the reasons people give me for not liking Hillary—she screwed up health care as First Lady, she’s a phony triangulator—seem to me reasons for disliking Bill with equal fervor. And yet these same people like Bill. Which makes me wonder. But hey Melinda, weigh in here about why I’m wrong.

Melinda Henneberger: Wrong is such an unfriendly word. Of course some people would find a reason to hate any female candidate—and oh, that scary woman who called Clinton the B word at a John McCain event the other day was one of them; she was aglow with rage. My dissent that this is THE reason mainly comes from the many women I talked to for my book who just seemed so sorry not to like her better, for reasons that genuinely seemed to have nothing to do with gender.


Chicago: I just want to make a couple comments on whether Hillary is playing “the gender card.” I noticed Jake Tapper did a segment on this on “Nightline” last night. Just because Hillary made a speech at a women’s only college, Wellesley, after the debate doesn’t mean she’s playing the gender card. Duh, she is going to make speeches at her alma mater. Just because she accused the other candidates of “piling on” doesn’t mean she’s playing the gender card. (Is “piling on” supposed to have some kind of gendered, or sexual connotation I’m unaware of?) The other candidates, and Tim Russert, DID pile on Hillary Clinton in the debate. There is no question about it. I don’t think they did it because she’s a woman, but because she is the front runner. And pundits like Chris Matthews and Maureen Dowd make everything about gender, because they’re obsessed with it and can’t get beyond their bizarre 1960s Catholic mindsets. Matthews and Dowd loathe Hillary Clinton and will do whatever it takes to bring her down.

Emily Bazelon: We had an interesting debate about this on “XX Factor,” and Meghan O’Rourke, one of our Slate colleagues, saw this precisely the way you do. My own feeling is that Hillary walked right up to the line of making the “pile on” about gender, and then Bill crossed it, by talking about “the boys” ganging up on her.

Here’s the link to Meghan’s post:


Arlington, Va.: My wife is a moderate Republican who dislikes the Republican candidates and supports Hillary because this is the first legitimate chance to have a woman president. HRC’s moderate positions are a factor of the support. Is she a statistical outlier, or is this a trend?

Emily Bazelon: Your wife isn’t an outlier. Something like 58 percent of Republican women say they might support Hillary. Her numbers are dreadful, though, among Republican men.

Emily Bazelon: make that 62 percent of MODERATE Republican women, according to an August poll.


Washington, D.C.: Yes, I understand the sentiment that “we won’t vote for Hillary just because she’s a woman!” but… well, I am sometimes frustrated how issues that disproportionately affect women (access to birth control, family leave, fair pay) are often considered “special interest” issues or not very central. They’re central to my life! And I hate the idea that women are a special interest, when we make up more than half the population.

I’m not going to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, but the fact she is a woman is most definitely not irrelevant to my evaluation of her candidacy. I can’t be positive that she’ll be less likely to push off these issues as “pet causes” or unimportant, but I think it’s a heck of a lot less likely.

Emily Bazelon: I am completely with you on both of those points. One of the reasons I write a family column for Slate, as well as wite about legal issues, is that I think the issues that are traditionally labeled for women or or for mothers really affect everybody, in ways that matter, a lot.


Prescott, Ariz.: I’ve seen a lot of the punditry react harshly to a poll that women were more inclined to vote for Clinton because she is a woman. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson even went so far as to declare that any woman who based her vote on gender should lose the right to vote.

Why aren’t these same pundits outraged that married men seem less likely to vote for Clinton because of gender (I think they said she wouldn’t be very fun to go duck hunting or “have a beer with”)?

Emily Bazelon: Good point! White men have been able to be identity voters forever, and invisibly. Now women get suspicion for their resaons for being Hillary supporters and African-Americans have to put up with the same for supporting Obama. Not fair.


Portland: Hi Melinda -

I cannot figure out why Sen. Clinton has these high “negatives.” Her positions are not out of the mainstream and are pretty close to those of other democratic candidates. It seems to me that this dislike for her precedes her run for the presidency.

Is there any valid polling data that points to the reason(s) for her high negatives?

I’m missing it.


Emily Bazelon: There’s no good polling data on this that I know of. And it’s complicated. There is some evidnece that to the extent people have trouble with Hillary, it’s bec they don’t find her honest and trustworthy. Which, my colleague John Dickerson points out, is why Obama and Edwards are hitting her on precisely those points. I agree with you: I think that impression of Hillary predates her candidacy, and in fact predates her tenure as NY senator. It’s her time at the White House. Some of it is self-inflicted—her defensiveness and secrecy—and some of it manufactured—Whitewater.

Melinda Henneberger:

Clinton-hating is an industry that goes back to 1991; there are shelves of books on how she sent lamps flying and lined her pockets with the White House silver. But as Emily says, what stands out in the polling is that her biggest liability is the perception that she is a phony. In my conversations with women voters, too, that’s what stood out: “I just don’t feel the realness from her,” one young woman in Florida said. I don’t see that as gender-related because that was also her husband’s greatest liability. And even more to the point, because voters generally consider women candidates more trustworthy.


Hillary as the “first woman President”: Ladies: As a man, it may be dangerous to say this, but I think Hillary has lost much of her ability to leverage her opportunity to be the first woman president. By claiming she already has experience in the White House from helping Bill do the job, the only obvious conclusion is the same thing will happen if she wins: we get another co-Presidency. How does that make her a strong, independent woman ready to claim a role only held before by men?

Emily Bazelon: This is the legacy question, I think. I agree that it complicates Hillary’s candidacy. They are a package deal, to some inevitable degree. To some voters, that’s a strength: This is the closest they can get to voting for Bill a third time. For others, it’s anathema, because the whole Team Clinton thing certainly had its flaws.

I don’t really think this issue detracts from Hillary’s would-be status as the first women president. President is a v. different title from First Lady, or perhaps I should say First Spouse. But I do think that the psychodrama that the Clintons put the country through, and the possibility of a return to all of that, has a dynamic all its own.


Vancouver, B.C.: There’s a pretty big spread between the number of men and the number of women supporting Hillary in national polls.

I’ve read people around the Web saying that women are only voting for Hillary because she’s a woman, but there was a study reported in Slate last week that found a strong gender effect in coffee shop service.

The study demonstrated that women wait an average of 20 seconds longer for their drinks than men do when men are serving them, but there was no difference observed when women were serving.

The researchers concluded that the reason for the difference in service is that men generally feel some contempt for women. I’d interpret it as more of a demonstration of hierarchy.

If a difference in coffee shop service is only observed when men are serving women, and not when women are serving women or men, doesn’t it lend credence to the argument that it’s not that women are more inclined to vote for Hillary because she’s a woman, it’s that men are inclined NOT to vote for her because she’s a woman?

Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

Emily Bazelon: One reason we’re not hearing more about the idea that men won’t vote for Hillary is that her numbers with Democratic men aren’t bad compared to the other candidates. That is to say, Hillary has a huge lead among Democratic women—30 points over Obama the last time I checked—but she’s not way behind Obama and Edwards in the male vote. Those figures may change among general election voters, ie when the Republicans and Independents get added in. And if it does, then the issue you raise becomes v. salient and interesting.


Pittsburgh: First we had “soccer moms,” then after 9/11 it was “security moms.” What descriptor (category) for moms do you foresee being most influential in the 2008 election?

Melinda Henneberger: If there were any “security moms,” they disappeared into a well-stocked bunker somewhere within minutes of the 2004 election; it was catchy, but not the reason Democratic defectors went for Bush. The hip supposed swing group now is single women. But the truth is that the group that matters this time is the same as always: people who show up at the polls on election day.


Emily Bazelon: Thanks, everyone. It was great to chat. These issues will be with us until next November, and I appreciate the opportunity to puzzle through them with all of you.

All best,



Melinda Henneberger: Thanks, Emily and all of you who wrote in, Melinda