Conway’s "What Women Really Want" claims to know the scientific answers to what women crave in their day-to-day lives, delivering results that could be perceived as feminist. What happened?
Illustration by Gabby Bess
Everything is coming up Kellyanne Conway. Ever since she signed on to become Donald Trump's campaign manager (and now counselor to the president), she has bloomed into one of America's most polarizing political figures. Conway is the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign, but her infamy stems from cable news appearances, where she spins her boss's controversies into what she deems "alternative facts" while flaunting blond split-ends and fruit-colored dresses. (Conway's style is best described as what would happen if one of Cinderella's step sisters grew up to join the cast of Real Housewives of New Jersey.)
Conway would be the most hilarious White House staffer of all time, maybe even a gay icon (Valerie Jarrett sure never allegedly punched anyone at an inaugural ball), if she weren't also somehow good at her job. Conway terrifies because she managed to lead Trump past the "grab her by the pussy" video to victory. Her success shocked America, especially given 53 percent of white women voted for Trump.
Conway spent decades studying American women as a pollster. After founding the Polling Company in 1995, she spent years conducting studies about women, both as consumers and as voters, and appearing on cable news spouting her findings to the public, though her work was often criticized by her male counterparts for being too female-focused. Together with Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, she became part of a trio known as the "pundettes"; Conway was the only one with a day job involving political campaigns.
In 2004, Conway teamed up with another marginalized female-focused pollster, the liberal Celinda Lake. They wrote a book called What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live, in which the duo reviewed national poll results to break down women's desires and how they affect their political views. (They also make some more or less accurate predictions for the years 2004 to 2014, like "The new phone call will be the video chat." And "Women love their cell phones, but this may conflict with the greater desire to have more peace, time, and space in their lives.") The result is a confounding book that presents a contradictory view of women as both powerful and baby-obsessed—as well as, briefly, superior business brains to Donald Trump.
In contrast to Conway's endless spiels about "real Americans" today, the book disagrees with the notion that a quintessential American woman exists. Instead, the authors describe the intersections of gender and race, class, education, and geography, and then divide women into eight groups: Feminist Champions, Suburban Caretakers, Multicultural Mavericks, Religious Crusaders, Waitress Mom, Senior Survivors, Alienated Singles, and Alpha-Strivers. Throughout the book, they make declarations about the groups based on poll findings. ("Waitress Moms feel they have the least control over health.")
That readers should take the results with a massive—maybe even yuge—grain of salt you might have suspected when you clicked on this article. Polling experts have criticized the Polling Company for its flawed procedures, and as Broadly reported last month, the Center for Security Policy considered last year's Polling Company poll about Muslim American views on Sharia law misleading. Also last year, the Polling Company presented anti-abortion extremist David Daleiden's Planned Parenthood videos to a focus group as though they were objective fact, without informing participants that the clips had been debunked.
Nevertheless, Conway and Lake's 2004 findings, for at least half the book, go against the instincts of the Daleiden crowd: They push a sex-positive, women-first narrative. When it comes to sex, they write, "she is in control." Elsewhere, they use Emily Dickinson as an example of how "quirkyalones," or eccentric single women, can find solace in solitude. To support their private lives, Conway and Lake argue, modern women don't need "a man or marriage." They can support themselves.
In a chapter dedicated to working women, "Open-Collar Workplaces," they claim that one in 11 woman is a business owner, and they describe this as a positive phenomenon to which they both belong; Conway describes how she commutes from New York to Washington DC for business, her "twin babies, mother, aunt, and handicapped dog in tow." Women, they find, are also more ethical entrepreneurs than men. They prioritize affordable health care for employees where men "have tax cuts as their number one agenda item." To illustrate this point, the authors bring out the definitive antithesis to egalitarian female bosses: Conway's current boss, Donald Trump.
"The American business model was built on the idea of personal achievement, emphasizing lone 'superheroes' like Ross Perot and Donald Trump as the ideal of success," Lake and Conway write. "Women are gradually introducing a different, more egalitarian, model—one that relies on cooperation, team productivity, and a healthy work-life balance. This emerging trend is a powerful demonstration that women do not have to be cutthroat to prosper. They can do it their way." Women, they propose, are breaking the toxic work cultures men like Trump have cultivated.
Besides the striking juxtaposition between Conway's position back then and her job today—surely, she did not know in 2004 that she would work as a senior aide to the then-host of The Apprentice—most of the book is aggressively boring, consisting mainly of statistic after statistic, so much so that I almost think fondly of the insanity Conway displays on cable news shows.
Most of the book is aggressively boring, so much so that I almost think fondly of the insanity Conway displays on cable news shows.
The rare entertainment of What Women Want only comes when the authors make unintentionally humorous, anachronistic allusions to fashion, like "The stereotype of the free-wheeling single party girl who spends $500 on Manolo Blahniks doesn't sum up [single women] any more than the widowed blue-haired granny who ventures out on a solo weekly drive." There is also Conway and Lake's lengthy summation of the relationship dynamics of Sex and the City:
Miranda, the hard-charging lawyer, agonized over being with the sensitive, financially middling bartender, but finally overcame her fears for the sake of a baby she had not planned to have. Carrie, on the other hand ultimately could not endure life with her Birkenstocks-clad furniture builder, or even the Russian artist. She ended up with Mr. Big (the aptly-named successful man whose appetites match his bank accounts) after all. The desperately seeking twice-divorced Charlotte who, though financially successful, is short and bald and doesn't fit her picture of Prince Charming. As for saucy Samantha, after a lifetime working her way through corporate boardrooms and countless bedrooms, she finally found love with a much younger, less established man. Four women, four choices that converge into a cultural reality.
The paragraph simultaneously imagines different options for women while suggesting that career- or sex-focused women—those who defy traditional roles—end up with inferior men. (Carrie's career, though also successful, is not mentioned alongside her romantic destiny—though perhaps it's because she's a member of the "dishonest media.") The authors suggest argue that women typically marry up where men marry down, and that it's harder for women to find a socially superior man when they're climbing in their own careers. And when they do succeed in the office and at home, Conway and Lake argue, women are stressed. In a survey where they asked, "In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing mothers who work outside the home full time?", most women listed concerns related to "family stability" such as missing out on firsts with children and lack of time, not "fear about job security."
What Women Really Want offers an inconsistent view of American women. On one hand, the book praises female business owners and espouses what sound like feminist views, but it also reaffirms persistent stereotypes. Career women are destined to personal sacrifice; most women prioritize children, even as they delay motherhood to "finish their educations and start careers." Conway and Lake also find that most women perceive motherhood as woman's greatest role. "There are fewer babies being born than ever, but kid-centricity is on the rise," Conway and Lake write. "We are a child-obsessed nation, but where are the children?" According to their polling, single women are more likely to talk about having children than to long for husbands, and the women with babies lavish "time, attention, and material goods on our offspring, even as we are less than enthusiastic about having them around." They acknowledge the problems motherhood poses for 21st-century women, but also position babies as almost holy objects in American women's lives.
Nevertheless, Conway and Lake find a wide variety of women and present their findings as data, not opinion, and as I struggled through the endless statistics and questionable pop culture allusions, I couldn't help but wonder if Conway was able to lead Trump to victory because she understood (and manipulated) the nuance of American women. On cable news, she pushes a far more simplistic portrait of Americans, liberal and conservative, knowing full well as she does so that they're more complicated than she pretends. It's almost too bad that the book presents a world of women far more complicated than the "real Americans" Conway describes today.