“It became clear to me that, you know as a woman, you can’t just vote your vagina.” – Susan Sarandon, 2013
Declaring that she couldn’t “vote her vagina” in the recent New York City mayoral race, actress Susan Sarandon was referring to her decision not to vote for candidate and New York City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, the only female in the race and, initially, the front-runner. Sarandon preferred a male candidate, Bill DeBlasio, and wanted to emphasize that she wouldn’t vote for Quinn just because they shared sexual body parts. As surprising as her proclamation sounded, it wasn’t the first time the term “vagina voter” was used publicly.
The phrase dates back to the 2008 presidential election, when for the first time in American history a woman had a strong chance of being the Democratic nominee for president. In that same year a woman was picked as the vice presidential nominee for the Republican ticket – two women in one election cycle. It was a historical “first.” But it also was the birth of the phrase “Vagina Voter.”
“Vagina Voter” is an accusation used by women against other women. It insinuates that a woman is using her reproductive organs (emotional) instead of her brain (logical) when voting. It condescends to women who see the need for women in high political offices and implies they are illogical and primitive. Interestingly, there is no equivalent for a man if he chooses to vote for a man because he is a man.
The phrase also reduces a female candidate to a body part and reveals the accuser as someone who objectifies women. The issue of seeing women as body parts is examined in detail in a 2012 report by professors of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln titled, “Seeing Women as Objects: The Sexual Body Part Recognition Bias.” The report showed that participants, both women and men, more readily recognized men as whole beings and women as their sexual body parts.
If you see women as a part and not a person, then you would naturally be fearful of what would happen if that “body part” got into a high political office. Fears would conjure all sorts of scary things like women’s political power in the Oval Office. Just what would a vagina do in there? The other is fear of women’s political power as voters. Would vaginal solidarity herald a new world order?
There is a hint of Victorian madness emanating from “Vagina Voter.” In the 19th century uteruses were associated with emotions, and if you had a uterus, well, you were a victim to your biology and just didn’t think rationally (in other words, more like a man). If your uterus was removed through a hysterectomy, it was thought that you would calm down and not be so hysterical. Remove the offending female body part and think more like a man.
I think the term is also reminiscent of the anti-suffrage trope, “Women are too emotional to vote.” The anti-suffragists argued that because of biological differences between the sexes, women needed to be relegated to the domestic sphere and men should dominate the public sphere. This is the overt support of patriarchy. If one could successfully label women as “too emotional,” the anti-suffragists had a chance at quashing women’s quest for voting rights. One of the great fears of the anti-suffragists was that the result of handing women the right to vote could be an all-female government.
If one can label a woman who wants to vote for women as “irrational,” then there is a chance she won’t support women candidates. The term is a vehicle to maintain a majority male political system. It’s used as a weapon to help keep women out of high political offices because its purpose is to silence women.
Susan Sarandon’s use of the term was doubly offending because the candidate she was referring to as a ‘vagina,’ City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is a lesbian and married to her partner. Implication here: Not just one, but two vaginas in the New York City mayoral residence. Getting the vapors yet?
New York Magazine got it perfectly right when they reported on Sarandon’s choice of words right in the title: “Susan Sarandon Supports Bill de Blasio, Not Vagina”
“Vagina Voting” is a term that plunges women into the past by objectifying them. It is an anti-feminist phrase because women are not just parts of human beings but are whole persons, capable of leading big cities and whole countries. It’s time we are perceived that way and left our vaginas out of it.
Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker. She speaks publicly about girls and leadership. Her film Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation is about the feminists of the women’s liberation movement from 1963-1970. It is screening nationally. She is based in Los Angeles.