As highlighted by post-election analysis, Barack Obama’s return to office was accompanied by a record number of elected female governors and growing recognition of the power of female voters. Social issues once considered ‘women’s issues’ and confined to the periphery of American politics, came to the fore and shaped the presidential election. From the Lily Ledbetter Act for equal pay to controversies regarding contraception, women’s issues were pivotal on the campaign trail and it was women (alongside ethnic groups) who were crucial in re-electing the president.
Whilst the next general election in Britain is not until 2015, now is the time for parties to establish meaningful and sustained engagement with women if they want to secure their future votes and effectively meet their needs.
Two of the most contentious issues in the US election were women’s reproductive rights and the issue of rape. Whilst Senatorial candidate Todd Aiken’s comments on women’s biological capabilities in cases of ‘legitimate rape’ were simply dumbfounding, discussions of rape classification and issues of consent shared parallels with recent furores in the UK, most notably the comments of George Galloway MP.
Although abortion and contraception are often considered as controversial political debates reserved for American politics, during British party conferences cabinet ministers offered their personal views regarding abortion term limits, signalling women’s bodies as a battleground for future debates.
Whilst in the US election women were often related to in terms of the motherhood, in future campaigning British political parties must relate women in a broader way. Following on from the 2010 ‘Mum’sNet’ general election, which used the parenting website as a political battlefield, efforts must be made to act upon and move beyond, the issue of childcare and not silo women into the role of motherhood.
More attention needs to be paid to the needs of different demographics of women, most notably older women whose needs are often overlooked (and who are susceptible to current changes in social care) and ‘Generation Y’, which includes a population of young women hard hit by the recession. Their diverging needs serve as a reminder of the importance of not treating women as a homogenous group and examining how broader economic and social policies meet their needs.
Whilst the issue of women’s equality is in ascendance in the US, gender equality has failed to become a political priority in the UK. Alleged successes by the Coalition Government have primarily focused on women in the boardroom but have failed to transcend to the woman on the street.
Emphasis on women’s leadership has overlooked crucial problems for ‘ordinary women’ such as women’s under-employment, which poses damaging impacts for individuals and prospects for economic growth. When paired with the disproportionate impact of public spending cuts on women and the highest level of female unemployment in over 24 years, the need for action is paramount.
Whilst international development policy widely recognises the role of women as agents of social change, British political parties similarly need to present pro-active policies and solutions on women’s issues rather than being prompted by ‘new reports’ or institutional failings. New government plans to introduce flexible parental leave and Labour’s Commission on Women’s Safety signal important steps in the right direction, however, it is crucial that such initiatives are continuously promoted and actively expanded upon.
Whilst winning women’s confidence and votes might be a work in progress, the US election illustrates that their voices can no longer be ignored.
Rebecca Veazey FRSA, is a policy officer at the Women’s Resource Centre, a national women’s charity that supports women’s organisations across Britain.