Why you should care

If Democrats can get enough young, unmarried women to the polls in November, they have a shot at keeping control of the Senate. But they’re going to have to ramp up their outreach strategy.

Hey, single ladies, have you heard? We’re hot!

At least that’s what the Washington, D.C., echo chamber has decided.

With congressional elections looming and Senate control in play, the young, unmarried woman cohort is the demographic of the moment. But this Democratic-leaning constituency is not your traditional swing vote; rather, it’s important because it doesn’t always turn out, particularly in midterm elections. Dems are desperate to rally these ladies; Republicans hope to reassure them that they’re not waging a war on women.

The barriers that concern us tend to be more subtle than illegal pay discrimination.

How each party can succeed has been the subject of endless Beltway chatter this spring. Because surely a bunch of 60- and 70-something affluent, married men (and a few older, married women for good measure) have a direct line to what the 20-to-35 ovulating set is thinking.

Washington Post columnist George Will (73, married) has it figured out: It’s as simple as Republicans running more women candidates.

And then there’s Sen. Harry Reid (74, married) and his fellow Senate Dems, who are outraged — outraged! at Republicans who they suggest want their own sisters and daughters to be paid less than men. The subtext: “Ladies, put the GOP in power and it’s back to the 1950s!”

Sigh.

As an actual young(ish), unmarried female, let me try and break down some of what This Town is missing, at least from my admittedly white-collar vantage point.

Let’s start with Republicans, who are really excited about the fact that they have some female politicians on the ticket this year. Going to have to break it to them: Having a candidate with a vagina is not enough to win the women’s vote.

If it were, Christine Quinn would be the mayor of New York City right now, and Hillary Clinton would be president.

Little asian girl standing in front of a sign that says EMILY FOR PRESIDENT on a pink wall

Source Corbis

So the “Hey, look at me, I’m a woman!” ad Michigan GOP Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land ran this spring that had Will and others in Washington swooning? Didn’t move me.

On the other hand, if Democrats play into GOP hands with artless attacks on female candidates, à la Oregon Democrats’ mudslinging at Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby, that definitely won’t motivate women like me to turn out for them.

Also, guys: Second-wave feminism happened before people like me were even born.

So while we owe a debt of gratitude to Lilly Ledbetter and our mothers’ generation for pushing its way into the workforce, Democrats’ equal-pay appeals sound so, so dated. This is the Sheryl Sandberg era, after all, not Gen Mary Tyler Moore. And then there’s the small issue of Dems mixing up their facts in terms of what the pay gap actually is.

The U.S. is one of three countries that doesn’t require or cover compensation for maternity leave.

The reality is my girlfriends and I don’t spend a lot of time worrying that our employers are discriminating against us because we’re women. Neither do most women of our generation, according to this 2013 Pew poll. It’s not that sexism in the workplace has disappeared — as erstwhile New York Times editor Jill Abramson could surely tell you — but the barriers that concern us tend to be more subtle than illegal pay discrimination.

When it comes to our careers, what we spend time discussing is losing out to men because we’re not agressive enough in demanding recognition or raises. But we’re also kind of pissed off that to promote ourselves, we seem to have to engage in what the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell recently dubbed “an arms race in B.S.ing.” Bleh.

We struggle with how to achieve a healthy work-life balance. And we question whether a high-powered career is even worth the trade-offs.

Color headshot of Sheryl Sandberg

Source Corbis

A growing number of American mothers are unmarried, and even for someone like me, who doesn’t have kids, the thought of future offspring shapes how I think about relationships, work and life choices now. The time required to be a parent, the expense of paying someone else to help parent, the disproportionate responsibility that women still bear for parenting — they all weigh on my female friends and me as we plot out how to fit babies into our busy lives. Granted, there’s only so much that government can do about this. But there is one issue policymakers can influence that affects young, unmarried women regardless of their economic circumstances, social outlooks and ethnic backgrounds: child care.

Until my girlfriends started having kids, for example, I had no idea that there are no federal laws requiring companies to offer paid maternity leave, leaving many new mothers reliant on disability benefiits. I mean, what? Our country equates childbirth with disability?

Indeed, as the U.N. pointed out earlier this month, the United States remains one of just three countries in the world — along with Oman and Papua New Guinea — that doesn’t require or cover compensation for new mothers who have taken maternity leaves from their work.

And that’s just the first six months of parenthood. What am I going to do when the kid gets out of diapers?

It seems like the sort of policy area that the social safety net set and the family values coalition could come together on. The Senate passed a bill in March that nibbles around the edges of existing child care policy, and there’s been some abstract chatter in Washington about universal pre-K. But a meaningful discussion on parental leave policies, child care, primary school and other issues on the minds of young parents? Crickets.

So D.C. political brain trust, listen up: If you really want us excited about voting this fall, it’s going to take more than a pair of X chromosomes and a dose of demagoguery. In practical terms, tell us how your policies will make it easier for us to lean in, close the confidence gap or any other working woman’s empowerment mantra you choose. Then you’ll have our attention.

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