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 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT