A strong message from women voters

What do women want? Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, famously asked.

I could give you the flip answer — something involving shoes, HGTV and guys sharing their feelings.

But let me give you a more scientific one.

What women wanted in this month’s midterm elections was a change of course in the war in Iraq, better health care and safeguards for Social Security, a good retirement and a strong economy. In each instance, women felt more strongly than men about those issues.

"Women drove the agenda," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who interviewed 1,000 voters across the country.

"Women early on in the year decided that the country needed to go in a new direction, especially around the Iraq war," said Lake, who conducted the poll for Ms. Magazine. "Women continued to believe that throughout the year and voted that way on Election Day."

This has been called the year of the woman in politics, and not just because Nancy Pelosi’s Armani suits have replaced the rumpled look of Dennis Hastert in the House speaker’s office.

Voters elected a record number of women to Congress — 70 in the House and 16 in the Senate — and to state legislatures.

Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina’s first female senator, is up for re-election, and no major Democratic figure has signaled any intention of challenging her.

And, of course, the candidate to beat in the Democratic presidential primary is New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

There is a reason women are doing well. In an age of growing cynicism about politics, women are seen as more honest.

"Women are perceived to be more trustworthy politicians," says Stacy Morrison, editor of REDBOOK Magazine, which recently commissioned a national post-election survey in partnership with Lifetime Television.

That survey found that female politicians are viewed as three times as trustworthy as their male counterparts.

Despite the greater acceptance of women as leaders, female politicians must overcome some negative perceptions. Women rate lower than men in traits such as charisma and toughness, Morrison said. Some of the strongest critics of female politicians are other women, polls show.

That has been a difficult line for female politicians to walk — being tough enough without being perceived as too tough.

The American public is becoming more open to women in powerful positions. More than half of those polled think the United States will have a female president within the next 10 years.

But the picture for women is not as bright when voters move to the specifics of the next election. Only 15 percent thought a woman would be elected president in 2008 — most likely reflecting reservations about Sen. Clinton.