Last week, a new crop of political ads produced by the College Republican National Committee appeared on television. They featured an imagined female voter, “Brittany,” as a participant on TLC’s reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.” Brittany tries on wedding frocks named for gubernatorial candidates, improbably kvelling “The Rick Scott is perfect” in reference to Florida’s incumbent Republican, over the objections of her fusty mother, a fan of the less-stylish Charlie Crist gown. The College Republicans made identical versions of the ads in six states, which would seem to make Brittany either a polygamist or chronic runaway bride, perhaps not the image Republicans were shooting for.
The spots were—as a stodgy mother-of-the-bride might say—a total hoot! In this age of plunging marriage rates and rising marriage ages, this vision of 20-something-female voters as veil-hounds only reaffirmed how out of touch even the youngest arm of the Republican Party is.
But the ads are notable for reasons that stretch beyond their trafficking in sexist stereotype and grim irony. They are also, critically, the latest iteration of a theme that has obsessed political strategists and commentators on both sides of the partisan divide in recent years: how to assess, and strategize around, the relationship between unmarried women and the elections that they now have the power to decide. And if there was anything fresh and important about those ridiculous “Say Yes to the Candidate” spots, it was that they marked one of the first instances in which conservatives have in any way embraced the idea that women now treat government as a stand-in for husbands.
It’s a move born of total desperation, as the power and partisan preferences of single women voters, an electoral bloc that skews both young and racially diverse, continues to grow.
In 2012, unmarried women made up 23 percent of the electorate; they voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a whopping 67 to 31 percent. This week, pollster Stan Greenberg offered Democrats a rare smidgen of midterm hope when he turned up a widening gap among unmarried women in 12 battleground states. Overall, according to the poll, Democrats remain behind Republicans by two points, but among single women, Democrats lead by more than 22 percentage points, a number that is twice what it was just two months ago. And while much has been made of unmarried women’s supposed reluctance to show up at polls in non-presidential elections (it’s as if all they care about are wedding dresses and Barack Obama!), in 2013’s tight off-year gubernatorial contest between Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe carried unmarried women by what The New York Times called “a staggering 42 percentage points,” and made up 18 percent of the electorate, a wallop that put McAuliffe over the edge.
This is the new political reality: Women without husbands decide elections. And it’s not surprising that they gravitate toward Democrats, who have more reliably fought for the social supports and rights that make unmarried life possible, over Republicans, who have reliably derided them as man-hating government mooches. Ronald Reagan rode into the White House on pejorative messages about poor, black single mothers embodied by his “Welfare Queen” figure; twelve years later, Dan Quayle lashed out at the television character Murphy Brown, who he claimed “mock[ed] the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Just two years ago, conservative host Rush Limbaugh labeled the unmarried law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” who just wanted the government to pay for all the sex she and her unmarried cohort of “co-eds” was having.
In fact, in the decades in which the number of America’s unmarried women have grown, the breadth and intensity—though not the overarching theme—of conservative attacks on them have grown in kind. In 2012, when the Obama campaign released a piece of propaganda—a kind of digital storybook—called “Life of Julia,” about a faceless, unmarried woman who earned a college degree, had a career and a child, and enjoyed reliable health care all thanks in part to the aid of government-sponsored programs, conservatives freaked out. One Washington Post op-ed writer called “Julia” “Mary Tyler Moore on the government’s dime,” and quipped that the United States was becoming a “hubby state” in which absent husbands were being replaced by Uncle Sam. In July, on FOX News, Jesse Watters referred to single ladies as “Beyoncé voters” and alleged that “they depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.”
It’s true! Where once American women were forced to depend on husbands for economic stability and social and sexual sanctification, they now rely, to some degree, on the American government to protect the rights and benefits that make independent citizenship possible.
But what too often goes unacknowledged is that women aren’t the only Americans who have relied on the government as a partner. Rather, it’s a model of support and dependence that has bolstered the fortunes of American men throughout the nation’s history.
It’s hard to remember that guys did not rise to the top of business and political worlds passively, by dint of their hard-wired inclinations and the gravitational pull of their penises alone. Men too, even the rich, white married ones who vote Republican as reliably as single women vote Democrat—in fact, especially those men—have benefitted terrifically from government policies and practices. Call it “The Wifey State,” and come to grips with the fact that white guys have been taking advantage of it since the founding.
The government, after all, has historically supported white men’s home and business ownership through grants, loans, incentives, and tax breaks (concessions that were not, until the second half of the twentieth century, made widely available to most women or to people of color). It has allowed them to accrue wealth and offered them shortcuts and bonuses for passing it down to their children.
But more than just goosing the economic and professional prospects of men, government has depressed the economic prospects of women by failing to offer equal pay protections, paid family leave, or subsidized day care. Until the 1960s, the government did not prohibit any form of gendered workplace discrimination; until less than a century ago, it did not allow women to vote. (And while I’m writing here about the specifically gendered government support that white men have enjoyed, it’s crucial to acknowledge the ways in which they also benefitted—in which they built the country and kicked off their cycle of power and profit within it—on the Constitutionally enforced enslavement and disenfranchisement of African-American women and men.)
The perks and protections afforded white men throughout the country’s history have meant that America’s women have earned less money and wielded less political and social influence over their lifetimes, which has made them more likely to have become dependent, often on husbands. In turn, the women who have historically been barred from policy-paved paths to economic flourishing have assumed most of the unpaid and low-paid domestic work—of raising the children, keeping the houses, cooking the meals—for the men who are too busy with their careers. (As a bonus, men have not had to worry about economic or professional competition from those women who have been systematically marginalized thanks to government policy!)
It’s just too easy to forget that the prioritization of shorter work-days and “flexibility” that allows women to ferry kids to dentist appointments (and in turn consigns them to lower-paying professions) is not a desire that arises in women with menarche. It is born of structural, systemic realities that support male economic dominance. Civic structures as seemingly benign as short school days and summer breaks, in combination with the lack of paid leave and affordable child care, hobble women’s professional ascension. In combination with a failure to address the gendered pay gap, this adds up to a nation in which it often makes more sense for a woman’s career to come second to a man’s.
Republicans do not seem eager to forsake the government help on which men have so long relied. On the contrary, many of them, including “the Rick Scott,” seem hell-bent on implementing restrictions—on women’s rights to control their reproduction, for instance—that would continue to keep women dependent. FOX’s Watters was being very honest in his derision of single female voters: Republicans would love it if women went back to being reliant on husbands, and men continued to benefit most from government’s largesse.
So by all means, let’s take the College Republicans up on their imaginative offer to cast candidates, elections, and governments as the mates that single women really want. Let’s consider the ways that America’s women might reasonably use the government to bolster their own power in the way that men have for generations.
Maybe politicians are the new hubbies, but don’t lose sight of the accompanying two-century-plus reality: there are a lot of people out there who want the government to keep us all wifeys.
This piece has been updated.