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Published: Sunday, 10/23/2005

Paying attention to what women want

WASHINGTON - Suddenly, it seems, politics is all about what women want.

Do they want Hillary Clinton to run for president? Do they want Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court? Do they want jobs and husbands and babies and power? Do they want more risk? Less change?

Many pollsters suggest that women, more than men, are in a kind of collective bad mood right now, made worse by Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, spiraling health care costs, and frightening gasoline and home heating bills.

Bill McInturff, a respected Republican pollster, said 63 percent of all Americans now think the country has "seriously gotten off on the wrong track" and only 30 percent think it's "headed in the right direction."

Consumer confidence has taken the largest one-month drop in about 15 years - a 12.2 percent fall, compared with a 9.7 drop after Sept. 11, 2001.

Celinda Lake, a single, liberal Protestant baby boomer who owns her own Democratic polling firm, and Kellyanne Conway, a Generation X, Catholic married mother of twins and Republican pollster with her own company, have collaborated on a new book, What Women Really Want. They agree that in recent years a majority of women feel neither Republican (red states) nor Democrat (blue states). Instead, they are "purple," said Ms. Lake.

From national polling done this year, they say they found that women are seeing themselves more clearly "as the nonpolitical creatures they really are," said Ms. Conway.

Women want more flexibility in their lives - a fourth of women want to own their own businesses.

In a new book by Martha Stewart, The Martha Rules: Ten Essentials for Achieving Success as You Start, Build, or Manage a Business, the diva of domesticity says that while she was in prison she found many of the women she met there are eager to start their own businesses. Entrepreneurship, she wrote, is alive and flourishing throughout America. That suggests that women are not spurning change or opportunity.

Ms. Lake and Ms. Conway found unmarried women are less likely to put their lives on hold waiting for Mr. Right and more eager to buy homes and work at their careers. Seventy percent of the divorces involving couples older than 50 are initiated by the women, most of whom don't get remarried.

Democrat Lake says Democrats foolishly have ignored female business owners. Republican Conway says her party has been "courting blue-haired octogenarians who have dinner at 3:30" and has been missing the bulk of unmarried women. "If the Republican Party doesn't learn to understand unmarried women, we risk becoming a minority party over the next few (election) cycles," she insists.

In short, say Ms. Lake and Ms. Conway, women are increasingly refusing to abide by old stereotypes dictating who they are and how they must act based on politics, race, religion, age, and class. Whether a woman is, in their words, a feminist champion, a suburban caregiver, an alpha-striver, a religious crusader, a waitress mom, a senior survivor, or an alienated single, she understands the country is changing, just not fast enough.

In general, women increasingly have less patience for the status quo than men do and are trying to reinvent their lives to make them less stressful. They are staying in the work force longer but on their own terms. They are switching careers after age 50 or going back to school. They are trying to make their family lives more compatible with their work lives - if they can do the job in half the time and go home early, they want the freedom to do that. They are quickly mastering technology, especially the Internet. They are working to stay young in spirit, good-looking, and healthy. They are financially much more savvy than they used to be.

All this argues for political leaders dumping business as usual and working harder to think what it is that women - more than half of their constituents - really want.

Women want hand ups, not handouts. They want government to help, not hinder. They want to get ahead on merit, not seniority. They want good, affordable education and health care for their children and are angry that's not happening. They want their leaders to be civil, compassionate, competent, and qualified. It's not yet clear whether more of them will work and spend money to elect people they think are worthy.

As for Hillary as president and Harriet on the Supreme Court, there is no consensus. Women want a female president - if she's qualified. They want women on the Supreme Court - if they're top-notch. They want to know more about both women.

Overall, American women are not satisfied with how their country is doing. But Ms. Lake and Ms. Conway found 72 percent of women believe there has never been a better time to be a woman in the United States.



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