Today I was talking to my half-brother about his class elections. He and two other kids were running for a spot on the school’s environmental issues committee, and he won the spot. He’s ten years old, and the elections aren’t very serious, as you can imagine.
Him: I was actually surprised I won. There was only one girl running and two boys, so I thought all the girls would vote for the girl.
Me: …would you automatically vote for a boy just because he was a boy?
Him: No… but it’s different with girls.
Me: Why do you say that?
Me: We vote for the people we think are best, just like you.
At his age, the way voting works, he could have had a point. His class friendship groups are, to a great extent, segregated into boys and girls; all his best friends are boys. And since kids’ elections are often popularity contests, sometimes friends will just vote for friends, and if all the girls were closer to the girl candidate and none of them are close to either of the boy candidates, well, the election could have been a shoe-in for her.
Perhaps she was unpopular, or the classes aren’t as segregated as they seem to be; either’s pretty plausible. I would, just quietly, be surprised if my half-brother were the most popular kid in the category, though he has plenty of friends, but it’s possible. Or perhaps the kids listened to the speeches and voted for the best speech or the kid they consider smartest or most responsible. I don’t think we give kids enough credit that way; I know that’s what my class tended to do when I was at school, but I have no idea whether we were unusual in that respect, because we were unusual in plenty of other ways.
It scared me, though, that he’d just sort of accepted this – girls vote for girls, full stop, no idea why, they just do, even though he’s never really seen any evidence of it. It also reminded me a great deal of the coverage of our last federal election, where every battle of the sexes cliche was trotted out and whipped long past demise by the Australian media. Maybe that’s where he got the idea?
There are some excellent reasons, in the real world, for women to want women representing them in government and advisory bodies – women are more likely to understand the pressures and needs of women, having been more likely to live in the world as a woman, in the same way that in Australia it makes sense to have rural residents representing the needs of rural residents, or people who have experienced poverty, or people from an Indigenous background. Government is meant to represent the needs of the people, and therefore it must contain people who understand those needs intimately – and since we have an abundance of straight white men from a wealthy background in every branch of government, many people feel the need to vote for someone who doesn’t fit that description, just to ensure that diverse needs are being represented.
However, it also needs people who are intelligent, skilled, empathetic and generally suited to the job, and I think most clever voters of both genders recognise this. If you’re a thinking voter, every election is about weighing what you know about each candidate, deciding which is going to be a better representative for the things you feel need representing in your local area, or state, or country. Sometimes – often – people will weigh their options and decide that the candidate who is most similar to them is not the most equipped to do the job and represent the things they want represented. Sometimes – often – people will vote for other reasons, like finding one candidate charming or repugnant on the basis of appearance (I heard someone announce that they’d vote Abbott because they didn’t much care for politics but thought he looked cute in a Speedo) or mannerism, or because they always vote according to a particular party with policies that most appeal to them. It seems that a lot of reporters thought that when women voted, their thought process stopped short of considering any factor other than gender if there was a woman on the ballot ticket.
If women always voted for women, every free election with one male and one female candidate would go to the woman, presuming a roughly equal population of voting men and women (not necessarily a fair assumption, and this does get more complex as the matter of electorates is examined – topic for another post, hopefully), and presuming that not every man voted for the male candidate (and given the number of my male friends who would rather have polkaed with Pauline Hanson than give Tony Abbott their vote just recently, I know that some men do vote for women when they consider the woman to be the better option). I know that at least one woman in Australia didn’t vote for Gillard, because I heard her call up a talk-back radio show to announce that women just weren’t suited to leadership, and her vote would be going to Abbott accordingly. I know that when the American Democrats were selecting a presidential candidate, plenty of women publicly announced their intention to support Obama rather than Clinton. And I would be very surprised if every woman in Thatcher-era England thought Maggie was the right choice just because she happened to be female.
My half-brother, being ten and inexperienced and raised in a culture that supports the statement he made, has an excellent excuse for not knowing any better than to presume that girls vote for girls. What excuse do the experienced, adult reporters who covered the Australian 2010 Federal Election have?