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 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT