In their denouncements of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats have been accused of pandering to single women — the so-called “Beyoncé voter” demographic, as one Fox News commentator sniggered.
But you know what? If you were running for office, you’d be wooing us single ladies, too. After all, we — unlike those democratic deadbeats known as men — show up to vote.
Maybe that’s a little harsh. But the truth is that women vote in higher numbers than men do. We have in every presidential election since 1980, and the gap has widened over time. In 2012, the difference in turnout was nearly 4 percentage points (63.7 percent of ladies voted vs. 59.8 percent of gents). The disparity was more than twice as large if you look just at those who have never been married. Girls, it seems, really do run this world.
Why do women exercise this most cherished right of citizenship more than men?
There’s no consensus, but political scientists have a few possible theories — including, as it turns out, the Ronald Reagan effect. I’ll get to him in a minute.
The first possibility is that women deal with government in their day-to-day lives more than men do. Thanks to the feminization of poverty, women are more dependent on safety-net services such as food stamps and child-care subsidies than men are. Even among Americans who aren’t poor, though, women are more likely than men to be primary caregivers, which means they spend more time with teachers, eldercare workers, health-care providers and other folks who are employed, reimbursed or tightly regulated by the government. This additional exposure to government could make the potential outcomes of elections more salient.
But none of this explains why women would outvote men today but not before 1980, given that women were even more likely to be full-time caregivers then.
So maybe changing social norms are the root cause.
“Older generations of women had been socialized pre-suffrage,” says Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Maybe it wasn’t proper for women to be involved in politics then,” before the personal had officially become political. Second-wave feminists reminded women that political involvement could improve their status in society; after the draft ended, men got no such persistent messaging.
Even today there is a sharp generational divide in voter turnout rates. While women outvote men overall, this is not true within all age groups. There’s a flip at Medicare age: For Americans under 65, turnout rates are higher among women. For those over 65, the reverse is true.
Feminists might not be the only ones who nudged women to vote in higher numbers. The Gipper may have had something to do with it, too.
Pre-1980, there was much less differentiation between the parties on what we now call “women’s issues,” partly because Republicans were in many ways more liberal then. Look at Republican Party platforms from the 1970s, and you’ll see that the GOP not only endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment but also bragged that it was the first national party to do so. The 1972 platform called for the federal government to develop more child-care services. The 1976 platform pledged to support “part-time and flexible-time work that enables men and women to combine employment and family responsibilities.” Even the party’s position on abortion was a little mealy-mouthed (“The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue”), despite ultimately calling for a constitutional ban.
Then, as it lined up behind Reagan in 1980, the GOP pivoted rightward. The platform dropped official support for the ERA, fretted about the destruction of the “traditional American family” and emphasized that the private sector should deal with child-care issues.
“In the past it could be said that there wasn’t a sort of winner or loser in terms of the positions you took on women’s issues. Gerald Ford was as supportive of women’s issues as Jimmy Carter was,” says Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. “It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans clearly showed women that there are sides.”
Efforts to mobilize the Christian right, too, may have had the unintended effect of also mobilizing women — not only to the polls, but away from the Republican ticket. Besides being the first year that women’s turnout exceed men’s, 1980 represented another gender-related electoral milestone: In that election and every one since, a greater share of women than men have voted for the Democratic candidate. Which is why today’s conservative commentators might do well to stop denigrating women’s political preferences and start embracing them.
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