Meeting in the Middle

Left, Right Confer on ‘What Women Want’

Posted October 17, 2005 at 3:05pm

One woman is a single, short, brunette, liberal Protestant. The other, a tall, blonde, conservative mother of twins, whose devotion to her Catholic faith led her to have no fewer than five priests on the altar during her April 2001 wedding.

“It is an odd-couple pairing,” concedes Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, the left-of-center variable in this equation, of her new literary partnership with GOPer Kellyanne Conway, president and CEO of The Polling Co. Inc. “She is such a funny person. I’m kind of the anal pollster type.”

Together, these two prominent female pollsters recently penned (along with Catherine Whitney) the book “What Women Really Want: How American Women are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live,” a statistical overview of the female landscape, from sex to work to family to consumerism. It’s presented in breezy, Bridget Jones-meets-pollster vernacular and replete with bar graphs, factoid boxes and pop-culture references. (For the record, the requisite “Sex and the City” allusion comes on page 16.)

The question of what women want is a conundrum the 38-year-old Conway and Lake, 52, have been navigating for their parties for years now — helping them turn data on female demographics into votes. Based on polls conducted by their respective firms (Lake is president of Lake Snell Perry Mermin/Decision Research), the tome is organized around 10 woman-driven societal trends, ranging from the rise of unmarried women as a major political force to more flexible working environments to the emergence of the home as “electric hive.”

Overall, the composite picture for women is encouraging. Women attend college and vote in greater numbers than men, and outpace them in purchases of automobiles and electronics (they also use them more). And single women far surpass their male counterparts as first-time home buyers. On the whole, women make up 80 percent of all consumer purchases.

“Women’s power and influence has been so vastly understated,” Lake says matter-of-factly.

And ever-expanding choice is a driving force behind the increasingly less linear lives women are leading. American women are doing things on their own terms — even if it means choosing single parenthood rather than forgoing mommydom if the right man doesn’t come along during peak child-bearing years.

“Women are reversing the acquisition of the “four magic M’s,” Conway says, referring to “marriage, munchkins, mortgages and mutual funds.” Conway herself had the mortgage and the mutual fund part long before she married husband George Conway at age 34 and gave birth last year at 37.

But Conway disagrees that the numbers — which show women remaining single longer (sometimes permanently) and outpacing men in many indicators of well-being — marks a triumph for liberal feminism.

Rather, women are “making choices in a quiet revolution without burning bras and flags on college campuses, without screaming their way to the top,” asserts Conway, who calls this a victory for “post-feminist culture.” Their continual under-representation in some domains, such as boardrooms and science labs, Conway chalks up to being more a matter of “choice, not circumstances.”

Meanwhile, Conway notes that “politics is about 10 percent of the book,” adding: “That’s probably overstating its importance in the average woman’s life.”

As for how these trends will affect the 2006 elections, Lake and Conway predict a shift from 2004’s WE (war and economy) agenda to the HERS (health, education, retirement and security) agenda of 2006. Unmarried women, they write, will be the new “Soccer Moms.”

That doesn’t mean they agree on the candidates, however. Lake counts Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Democratic New Mexico Attorney General Patsy Madrid (who is entering the race against Republican Rep. Heather Wilson in the Land of Enchantment this week) on her client list. Conway is doing work for Rep. Katherine Harris’ (R-Fla.) Senate race and Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) re-election bid, among others. On Thursday, she’ll confer with Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R-Ga.) “Theme Team,” which is responsible for communicating the House legislative agenda, in an off-the-record session to discuss the book’s findings and what it means for the GOP.

“Both of us are very committed to bringing women’s voices to the table in our respective parties,” Lake says. “Any three women can agree on more than Congress does.” (Irrespective of their political differences, Lake and Conway express a genuine affection for one another. After Conway gave birth in October 2004, one of the first people she heard from was Lake, who Conway says took time out from the heat of the campaign season to send her a rose bush.)

And while there may be no female norm, per se, in Conway and Lake’s view the gender can be broadly classified into eight archetypes: “feminist champion,” “suburban caretaker,” “alpha-striver,” “multicultural maverick,” “religious crusader,” “waitress mom,” “senior survivor” and “alienated single.”

Asked where they fit into their own model, the authors concede that no single archetype defines them.

Lake, who places herself somewhere between “feminist champion and alpha-striver,” is a former Republican (a one-time baton twirler and Goldwater girl who, as a student at Smith College, headed Students for Nixon in 1972). She was raised in a traditional home with a stay-at-home mom but never married or had children herself. “My family is all Republican,” she admits, pointing to the women’s movement and the Vietnam War as key to changing her party ID.

Meanwhile, Conway, a former “world champion blueberry packer” in Hammonton, N.J., the “Blueberry Capital of the World,” grew up in a solidly Democratic household under the watchful eyes of her single mother — “She subscribed to Ms. magazine,” Conway recalls — two aunts and a grandmother. She dubs them “the South Jersey version of the Golden Girls.”

But Ronald Reagan won Conway’s heart in 1984, and she remembers attending his second inaugural ball with a group of her fellow College Republicans from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. “We were mini-conservative Cinderellas with big ’80s hair,” she says.

Despite her high-profile career, Conway places herself somewhere between “religious crusader, hold the crusader” and “suburban caretaker.”

Aside from its catchy classifications, the book, with its red state-blue state authors — ironically, Lake is from Montana and Conway from New Jersey — seems tailor-made for the talk-show circuit. Bolded sentences, to highlight the authors’ key points, only add to its interview-friendly format.

All of which has meant that Conway and Lake are in high demand for media appearances — they kicked off the book’s release last week on NBC’s “Today” show with Katie Couric and have also appeared on CNN’s “Live Today,” Fox’s “Hannity & Colmes” and MSNBC’s “The Situation with Tucker Carlson.”

Last week, the bubbly Conway, who works seven days a week and raises her children with the help of her mother and an aunt, was also gearing up for a lavish birthday party for her twins, who turned 1 on Monday.

In the year since giving birth, “I’m happy to report I have killed neither the rose bush nor the children,” she laughs.

Talk about successful multi-tasking.

Conway will discuss the book at a “Conservative Women’s Network Luncheon” at noon Friday at the Heritage Foundation. The event is co-hosted by the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and The Heritage Foundation. Reservations are required. Contact Lisa De Pasquale at (703) 318-0730.