Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What really matters to women in this election

By Kirsten Swinth, Special to CNN
updated 12:28 PM EDT, Wed October 24, 2012
Women attend a career fair in New York. Kirsten Swinth says women's biggest concern is getting fairly paid, family-friendly jobs.
Women attend a career fair in New York. Kirsten Swinth says women's biggest concern is getting fairly paid, family-friendly jobs.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kirsten Swinth: Time to go beyond catchphrases "war on women" and "having it all"
  • Women's votes are crucial for both candidates, she says, but they need to talk about jobs
  • Swinth: Women bring home all or a share of household income and family is top concern
  • She says pay equity, sick leave and workplace flexibility are priorities in the real world

Editor's note: Kirsten Swinth is chairwoman and associate professor of history at Fordham University. Her work focuses on women, work and culture. She is writing a book, "Care and Competition in Postindustrial America: The Making of the Working Family."

(CNN) -- Two catchphrases have dominated stories about women in the election cycle this year: "the war on women" and "having it all." It is time to change the conversation.

Women are the voters most likely to matter on November 6 -- they make up the majority of undecided voters and they outvote men.

But to win women's votes, Mitt Romney and President Obama must talk about what really matters to them. I know something about that from my students. The young women in my classes look to the future and want to know how to create workable lives for their families. They know about the pay gap. They know their earnings will matter to their families. They know their mothers are often starved for time. "How are we supposed to do it?" they ask, over and over.

Kirsten Swinth
Kirsten Swinth
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



We have not been giving them good answers. Undoubtedly, the issues raised in claims about a "war on women" and the difficulty of "having it all" are important. But those arguments don't fully address my students' questions. In order for the candidates to speak directly to women, they need to talk about jobs, but not just any jobs.  What matters are good jobs that make family lives sustainable.

Pay equity is the tip of the iceberg. Consider this from the Center for American Progress: Including all workers, the median full-time female worker earned $10,784 less in 2010 than the median full-time male worker. Over a 40-year career, that wage gap adds up to more than $400,000.

This pay discrepancy affects the economic well-being of American households. Women comprise two-thirds of American family breadwinners and co-breadwinners. Inequality in pay means families have less money for quality child care, less education, fewer doctor visits and more scrambling to make ends meet, year in and year out. It's not just households and family life that suffer. So does the economy. Studies confirm that stretched workers mean lower productivity.

But pay alone won't make the difference. All workers have family responsibilities. When women ask about fair pay, they are also asking about how to get jobs that make it possible to take a sick child to the doctor. They are asking about how to make sure fathers can get away from work early enough to make dinner, too. Flexibility is a universal concern for American workers, not simply a women's issue. As President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers reported in 2009, workplace flexibility increases productivity and reduces turnover and absenteeism. It's good for the economy, and good for families.

Romney, Obama court women in final weeks
Mentoring tomorrow's leading women

A Reuters poll this month showed that women make up 54% of the undecided voters and their No.1 concern is family well-being. Contraception and reproductive rights, of course, matter a great deal to female voters. But if that's the only issue the candidates talk about, they ignore the worries that women wake up to every morning as they hustle children through bowls of cereal and pile out the door to work.

Here is what the candidates can do:

First, fight for the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would expand 1963's Equal Pay Act and make it easier for women to compare their pay with that of fellow workers. Paycheck Fairness was blocked this year in Congress; it needs to be reintroduced. In our service economy, women still dominate in the lowest-paid jobs. Because women's pay has become more and more essential to their families, those historic inequities matter more and more.

Second, fight for workplace flexibility. Family responsibilities burden all workers, men as well as women, regardless of pay. This is a social and economic reality that the nation must face. America needs leaders who will drag our workplaces out of the 1950s and into the 21st century.

Finally, support paid sick days nationwide. Forty percent of the people in the work force do not have paid sick days, which puts them in danger of losing their jobs when they are sick; millions more cannot take sick days to care for their children. Support for the Healthy Families Act before Congress is critical. This legislation would grant workers up to seven job-protected paid sick days each year, to use not just when they are ill, but for helping sick family members and preventive care.

There is still time, but not much, for me to tell my students that the candidates have some answers to their questions.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kirsten Swinth.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT