By Jayette Bolinski
Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — As the country’s two main political parties continue to duke it out in the so-called “war on women,” women voters in Illinois say they believe the hubbub is merely a tool to distract from the bread-and-butter issues they care about.
Jobs. The economy. College affordability. Education cuts. Those are the women’s issues of 2012, women on both sides of the political aisle say. They describe recent proposals to regulate abortion rights and birth control as insulting, divisive, regressive and over the top.
“I really think, especially in Illinois, people have taken that and run with it as a diversion,” said Laurel Bault, a 54-year-old suburban Chicago married mother of two grown children. “So, while we’re standing on the corner with signs saying, ‘I’m not livestock,’ they’re selling our state out. It’s kind of a divide-and-conquer tactic to distract from things that are really going on.”
Jan Dorner, president of the nonpartisan Illinois League of Women Voters, which represents about 3,000 women and men voters in the state by hosting political debates and other educational opportunities, said members are sensitive to the “war on women,” mainly because many of them battled issues of birth control and abortion rights decades ago.
“It’s not our priority,” Dorner, 60, said about reproductive-rights issues. “I have a 31-year-old daughter. I’m sure it’s not on her radar. Our members are older, and they fought this fight, what, 30, 40 years ago. When they see this stuff come up again, it makes them nuts.”
Carrie Stark, 33, of rural Smithton, comes from a long line of small business owners in the Metro East region of Illinois. The issues important to her family when she was growing up — job creation and economic growth, particularly — remain key political issues for her today.
She said she sees candidates pandering to women’s votes or to men’s votes and drawing political lines — women believe in this, while men believe in that.
“I see it as, ‘Hey, I’m a woman and my big issue is small business, the economy, jobs.’ And I would say those are probably the issues for the majority of voters right now,” she said.
Indeed. Women are worried about finding a job, putting food on the table, paying for their children’s college tuition and trying to secure their family’s financial future. The “bedroom issues” of gay marriage, birth control and abortion are on women’s radar but aren’t priorities.
A survey in early April by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan research organization, indicated the top issues for voters — women and men — are the economy, jobs, the budget deficit, health care and education. Issues identified as least important are gay marriage, birth control and abortion.
“I firmly believe that with the state our country is in that the social issues are not the issues people should be making their decisions on,” said Ginny Kronsted, 50, and a small-business owner in the Chicago suburb Aurora.
Kronsted has watched as her four children, ranging in age from 27 to 16, struggle with the job market. Her oldest graduated from college a few years ago with a radio broadcast degree and hasn’t found a job in the industry. Her younger children vie for summer jobs with adults who are searching for work.
“I found it rather insulting that some believe reproductive rights and social issues are all that women care about. For me, it’s secondary, and for any women I know it’s secondary. We want our children better off than we are,” she said.
So, is there a war on women?
“I think it’s a war for women. I think people want women’s votes, and everybody is pointing fingers at each other, saying, ‘You’re not for women.’ ‘No, you’re not for women,’” Kronsted said. “You know what? Women vote on issues just like men vote on issues. If someone said, ‘I want the men’s vote,’ people would look at them like, ‘What?’”
Mikal Sutherlin, 37 and born and raised in Chicago, is married, stays home with her three young daughters and is working on an advanced college degree. She said she thinks there is a war on minorities in general — whether they are women, black, gay, unemployed or something else.
“I feel like we’re all stumbling and trying to fight our way through this recession, and I think it’s easier to blame people who aren’t really in the workforce. It’s convenient to look at us and say, ‘You don’t deserve to have your employer pay for birth control,’” Sutherlin said. “It also felt like forced morality on people who can think for themselves.
“I was just really incensed about most of it. I hope most people in general have common sense and realize this is so mean-spirited. It’s a huge distraction from what people need. It felt like a huge step backward into the 1940s or something.”
Sutherlin, who worked in journalism and public relations before deciding to stay home with her children while they are young, said she voted for President Barack Obama (D) in 2008, and she intends to vote for him again. She said her priorities as a voter — the economy, job creation and health care — have stayed the same since the last presidential election.
“The last time I voted, I was pregnant and I was worried about my job. I was worried about being laid off. Houses all around us were being shuttered and foreclosed upon. That was just the beginning,” she said.
“I guess I’m a post-1970 baby, and I vote,” Sutherlin said. “And I’m sorry if it’s going to make some people mad. I’m going to raise my daughters here to be the same way — if you don’t like something, be vocal about it.”
Hannah Neukomm, of Cissna Park, a rural community of just more than 800 in east-central Illinois, is considered a “millenial voter” — between the ages 18 and 29. She is 21, has a son and is in a relationship with her child’s father. She is taking courses for an associate’s degree and works in a quilt shop in her hometown.
She votes Republican and intends to support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) if he wins the GOP nomination in November. She said she feels the Republican Party’s views are most closely aligned with her own views. Social issues are important to her.
“I think the biggest is abortion. I do not believe in it, and I honestly don’t think we should be able to do it,” she said. “Another thing I take notice of is education. Who will make it easier to access higher education and whatnot?”
She said she has felt frustration as a voter.
“I honestly don’t think some of the issues people campaigned on last year, such as jobs and the economy, were ever addressed. They try to mix it up and talk about something new, and they’ll make a big deal about that, and you forget whether or not the last subject was fixed,” Neukomm said, adding that she thinks women voters’ priorities are taken seriously, but only to an extent.
“That can be seen in all aspects of life. Look at wage differences. A woman still makes less than a man,” she said. “They think we do not pay attention to what is going on, but, realistically, we probably do more than (men) do, we listen to the news and we have a sense of what is going on.”
Frustration among young voters like Neukomm is a concern for people like Bault, who is active in the Tri-County Civic Leadership Project in the collar counties of Chicago. The organization tries to rally voters to become engaged and maybe run for office some day.
“I am so hopeful when I talk to young voters because I think they have such a firm grasp on a much fairer and better world,” Bault said.
“One of the saddest things to me is when the powers-that-be are successful at getting people to throw up their hands and say, ‘I’m done with the whole process.’ I know women are smarter than that. Instead of turning away and throwing our hands up, we need to go organize and turn out at the polls,” Bault said.
Illinois Statehouse News Staff Writer Stephanie Fryer contributed to this report. Jayette Bolinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted May 15, 2012