In recent weeks, gender issues have come to the forefront of the 2016 election. Ever since Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was caught bragging about his ability to kiss and grope women without their consent, sexism has dominated the headlines to an unprecedented degree — even for an election that boasts the first female major-party nominee. Some Trump supporters have even started a Twitter campaign to repeal the 19th Amendment, calling for women to lose the right to vote so that Trump’s predominantly male support base could carry their candidate to victory.
The Trump campaign has clearly mobilized a portion of the population that holds strong views about women’s role in society. This may have important consequences for public views on women in the military. In December 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that all combat positions would be open to women. This was a contentious decision, one that received significant pushback from many of the service elements. This led us to ask how the rising wave of sexism led by Trump supporters might influence the integration of women into combat roles and affect public support for the use of force.
From Oct. 13 to 20, we conducted a Mechanical Turk survey of U.S. voters to understand how the inclusion of women in combat roles will affect the public’s support for the use of force. We presented a sample of 538 individuals with one of two randomly assigned scenarios. Mechanical Turk usually skews younger and more liberal, so we expected that any opposition to women in combat would be less pronounced than among Americans as a whole.
In the first scenario, we told survey-takers that the U.S. government was contemplating the deployment of a Marine unit to rescue American citizens trapped in a foreign embassy. In the second scenario, we presented the survey-takers with the exact same military scenario but told participants that it was a female-integrated combat unit. To make sure our survey-takers were aware of the women in the unit, we included pictures of female Marines from a combat exercise and a quote from a female officer. We then asked the survey-takers whether they supported or opposed the potential deployment.
When we analyzed the data, we found a statistically significant difference in the level of support for military force in the non-gender scenario vs. the scenario with the female-integrated combat unit. Individuals were less likely to support the use of force when females were integrated into the Marine infantry unit. We then ran a series of tests to figure out what was driving U.S. public preferences. Interestingly, the two strongest factors associated with opposition to deploying a female-integrated unit were support for Trump and identification with the Republican Party. In plain language, Trump supporters and Republicans were less likely to support the deployment of these units than the other people we asked in the survey.
This led to big differences in attitudes. In the non-gender scenario, in which people were not told that women were part of the unit, 90 percent of Trump voters wanted to send in the Marines. In contrast, when they were told that it was a female integrated unit, only about 60 percent of Trump voters supported intervention. In other words, Trump supporters were three times more likely to oppose the deployment of the unit (about 40 percent as against about 10 percent) when women were included in combat — a difference that is statistically significant.
In contrast, non-Trump voters (which included Clinton voters, independent voters, those who are undecided and those who intended not to vote), did not draw a big distinction between integrated and nonintegrated units. Only five percentage points separated support for the female-integrated unit from support for the non-gender unit.
To make sure that we were picking up on real differences, we also included a question at the end of the survey that simply asked participants whether they supported women in combat. These results also supported our findings that Trump voters were more likely to oppose women in combat. While approximately 80 percent of non-Trump voters supported women in combat (slightly more than in our scenarios — probably because some of the non-Trump supporters who responded to the scenarios opposed the use of force regardless of whether there were women in the units), only 63 percent of Trump voters supported women in combat.
What these findings tell us is that the current wave of sexism may affect military and foreign policy as well as domestic issues. If Trump is elected, his supporters may weigh in to the politically contentious fight over the integration of women into combat. If a Trump administration did not support this policy change — which has largely been imposed from the top down, further reforms may be stymied. Finally, even if Trump is not elected, we may see new partisan fights over whether a future president has a mandate to use military force when women are in combat roles.
Jacquelyn Schneider is an instructor at the U.S. Naval War College. The views represented here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the Naval War College or the Navy.
Julia Macdonald is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and an assistant professor in international relations at the University of Denver (on leave for 2016-2017).