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TRINITY Magazine 2006 | What Women Really Want

How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live

by Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway ’89 and Celinda Lake with Catherine Whitney


The day after the 2004 election, Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake spoke on the phone.  Even though the contest between President Bush and Senator Kerry had been the most contentions in recent history, their conversation was collegial, and they were eager to shake off their red and blue cloaks as they returned to a project that had engaged them for two years—an unprecedented collaboration to track the real trends in the lives of American Women.

The two women couldn’t have been more different. Lake, 52, was a member of the baby boom generation, single, and liberal. Conway, 37, was on the front end of Generation X, married in her thirties, a new mom of twins born sixteen days before the election.  Over the years, they had found themselves on opposite sides of some of the country’s most polarizing debates.  Lake and her firm, Lake Nell Perry Mermin & Associates, represented organizations like Planned Parenthood, the AFL-CIO, and the National Democratic Committee.  Conway and her firm, the polling company, represented organizations like the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, and the Republican National Committee.  Many people would find it mind-boggling, if not impossible, that these two could be colleagues rather than combatants—especially in November 2004.…

As the most prominent female pollsters and analysts in the country, Lake and Conway spend much of their time traveling the nation listening to the views of ordinary people from all walks of life.  Political polling is only a piece of it.  They are in the business of measuring attitudes and behaviors in many arenas—to discover what people buy, what they believe, how they work, how they live, what they care about, what they fear, and what they want.  They aren’t natural collaborators on a political stage, although they’ve occasionally been part of bipartisan projects.

As often happens with women, however, they stumbled unexpectedly on a point of commonality.  As they surveyed the nation’s women in the years after 9/11, they independently reached a surprising conclusion: Even though the political rhetoric was more heated and polarizing than ever, the divisions didn’t seem to be there in many other areas.  In the very places they expected disagreement they found agreement.  Even when they viewed the results through the prisms of their different political leanings, they saw the same big trend: The emergence of a new vital center—a united power base among women that was reshaping America more than politics.  Women were acting in ways that blurred, and in some cases, erased all the usual lines of division—politics, race, religion, age, and class.…

One of the first things they realized was that in order to authentically examine the question of what women really want, they had to make a distinction between politics and other arenas of life.…  As pollsters for vying political interests, Conway and Lake each hold very strong views—and client stakeholders to match—on the hot-button issues.  But life is about much more than politics.  While the media likes to focus on dissent because it is dramatic, the daily operation of society is all about commonality, with everyone striving to minimize the differences.  A million silent agreements form the etiquette of society that keeps commerce humming, that allows neighborhoods to function, that maintains an orderly flow on highways.  This etiquette isn’t political, but its cultural weight is heavier and more lasting than the shifting winds of political opinion.

Once Lake and Conway had examined women’s trends in a broader terrain than the political, they found that women were increasingly operating as trend-shapers and not just trend-responders.  The feminist movement had matured, and a wider array of choices and opportunities had become available to women.  They were no longer pursuing models of success that didn’t enrich their lives.  Women from all walks of life and political persuasions were saying, by their words and actions, that they were no longer content to let the old (primarily male) norms shape their choices.  They had become the norm, and they wanted an America that reflected their needs and values.…

Lake and Conway understand that women are not homogenous.  They are complex.  And they share gut-level consensus that exists under the radar of conventional polls.  Tracking polls, which blanket the national consciousness on a weekly basis, often fail to measure the intensity of beliefs and commitments, and they aren’t always sensitive to the distinctions women want to make about their lives.  Even voting behaviors
don’t necessarily reflect on the most important values.  Two women can vote for different candidates but want the same result—for example, an improvement in health care or secure retirement benefits.

As they continued to collect data showing that the most important national trends are driven by women and transcend political differences, Lake and Conway decided to launch a major independent study that would answer the seemingly trite but somewhat elusive question of what women really want.  During the early months of 2005, they conducted two national polls, using sampling controls to ensure that a proportional and representative number of female adults were interviewed from such demographic groups as age, race and ethnicity, and geographic region.  The margin of error was calculated at plus or minus 3.5%, meaning that in 19 out of 20 cases, the results obtained would differ by no more than 3.5 percentage points in either direction if the entire female population nationwide were to be surveyed.…

One of the first opinion polls ever conducted was used by Warren Harding in 1920 to find out how American women would cast their first vote ever.  Smart move; he won the election.  In the 85 years since, people have never stopped wanting to know what women think, how they feel, where they’re going, and what they want.

At a recent focus group composed of working women and men, a male executive stated, “A successful day for me is when I don’t have to talk to anyone.”  As several men in the room nodded in agreement, the women stared at him incredulously.  They just didn’t get it.

If men feel more in control when they are left alone, women thrive on collaboration within a collection of interconnecting networks.  “For me a successful day is when all my relationships are clicking,” countered a woman in the focus group.

It’s not exactly news that men tend to isolate while women communicate. The news is the way this one simple reality has sparked a movement.  Cubicle by cubicle, neighborhood by neighborhood, on playgrounds, in coffee bars, on commuter trains, at community and school functions, in shops and health clubs, at conferences and retreats, informal female networks are relaying information, offering support, solving problems, and making a difference.…

Even the most traditional of the women we surveyed recognized that they are living in a time when the cultural plates are shifting, opening up options that never existed before.  As we interviewed them, we detected 10 major trends that are being driven by women in the categories of family life, work life, home life, aging and public engagement.  In these profound ways women are defining the terms of their lives—and the nation’s life—according to what they want, what they believe, and what feels right.  They are dispelling myths, not with loud words but through quiet action:

  • The rapidly growing population of single women demonstrates that they’re not ladies-in-waiting, but living fully.  They’re buying homes, building retirement portfolios, enjoying sex, and even having children.  They are debunking the glum notion that being single is an anxious state that leads to panic as they approach 40.  For the first time in memory, a woman’s status in the world does not accrue solely with marriage and children.
  • Women are looking at the culture of work in America and saying, “We can do better.”  Instead of rushing to join the rat race and elbowing their way to the top of the frenzied pack, women are engineering a new work mode in entrepreneurial ventures and nontraditional environments.
  • Women are orchestrating their home and work lives in ways that improve their satisfaction and lower their stress.  They are refusing to buy into the effort to have it all—at least, not all at once.  The Mommy Entrepreneur or Mommy Telecommuter tracks are increasingly common examples of women redefining their place in the world and at home.
  • Women are unmasking the lies in the culture that are repeated so often that most people have come to believe them without question.  For example, the reality of the beleaguered mid-life woman “sandwiched” between the burdens of child care and parent care is not as common as we’ve been led to believe.  The majority of seniors—especially senior women—are caregivers, not caretakers.  Mixed-generational families most often live in homes owned and operated by the senior generation.
  • Women are compressing the generation gap, negotiating the best of both youth and aging.  They are first-time moms at 50, entrepreneurs at 65.  They are replacing linear notions of age with stage of life, a fluid, borderless definition that reflects the way we really live.
  • Generational compression has unified the fractured trends that once separated women by age.  For the first time in history, women of different generations find they are more alike than not…

Conclusion: What Do Women Really Want?
Where do these vigorous trends take us as we look ahead?  Let’s step back and envision an eclectic bouquet of implications for family, the workplace, politics, and the culture.

In The Family…

  • As the cost of delayed marriage and childbearing begin to have economic consequences, with parents juggling retirement needs with their children’s college funds, watch for families to increase the pressure for affordable higher education…
  • Committed partners, both gay and heterosexual, will achieve more domestic benefits—if not by law, then as a corporate recruiting tool…
  • Women will exert their role as family warriors in the courts, pressing for tighter laws to protect communities against pedophiles, lobbying for a cleaner environment, and insisting that public schools feed their children healthful foods.

In The Workplace…

  • Expect more businesses to get in line behind flexible workplaces, including shared hours, family leave, and other family-first  policies.…
  • Success at work will be measured by how task-oriented workers are—how effectively they accomplish the most in the least amount of time, not by how many hours they slave away.  Failure to take vacation or staying wired to the office during vacation, will be viewed as pathetic, not committed.…

In Politics…

  • “Moms Mobilization” will be one of the most potent forms of grass-roots activism.
  • Small-business women, who feel the pinch most directly when they try to provide health benefits to their workers and themselves, will increase the pressure on politicians to produce parity with larger companies and with the benefits enjoyed by the politicians themselves.
  • For the first time, the issue of benefits and/or tax breaks for family caregivers (who account for up to 25% of health-care services) will appear on political platforms.…

In The Culture…

  • More youthful junior seniors will shift the focus of retirement from retreat to “third age,” especially women, who return to school and start new careers after 50 at much higher rates than men.
  • Women will reclaim face-time in their families, workplaces, and communities, pushing for techno-etiquette (no iPods at the dinner table, no cell phones at cocktail parties and weddings, no BlackBerries on vacation).
  • In higher education, spiraling costs, murky job prospects, and technological learning alternatives will force a long overdue reassessment of the Ivy League versus practical, flexible, affordable training environments….  The focus will be on life and work skills, not amorphous life experience, and the top schools will be those with the most graduates placed in their chosen jobs….

In every area of our lives we can anticipate a positive outcome.  Indeed, it’s already happening.  In our polls, women told us, “It’s a great time to be a woman.”




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