Gap Politics

The famous gender gap is often described simply as good news for one party--women are moving to the Democrats. But it's a two-way gap--even more men have moved to the Republicans. Each party and its candidates now appear to represent, at least in part, the interests of one sex against the other
A "Women's New Deal"

Historians have observed that this country long defined its politics by sex far more than did other industrialized nations. Electoral politics in the nineteenth century—an all-male activity—was closely linked with cultural ideas about masculinity. With its rallies, shop talk, and fraternity, politics then was something akin to sports today. Manhood was frequently an issue. In 1840 the supporters of William Henry Harrison, a war hero, began an American tradition by attacking the incumbent Martin Van Buren as a fop. "Little Van—the used-up man" his enemies called him, noting that Van Buren favored ruffled shirts and had achieved a new level of effeminacy because he enjoyed taking baths. A victim of his own propaganda, the sixty-eight-year-old Harrison refused to wear a coat to his chilly inauguration in March, caught pneumonia, and died a manly death a month later.

donkey picture Voting often took place in saloons; men whose party loyalty was wavering were called "Miss-Nancys"; and reformers were depicted as politically impotent. Deborah Tannen, a linguist who has written several books about differences in how the sexes communicate, maintains that American politics retains the masculine perspective of its nineteenth-century origins. "It's still so clear that it was structured with a male audience in mind," she says. "There's all the sports analogies, the ritual opposition, the warlike debate formats, even the ways our leaders get points for being successful in military situations. The basic assumptions and rhetoric are still far more reflective of a male perspective." This was the framework within which women began to be politically active in the nineteenth century, long before they had the vote.

In Colonial times men had been viewed as "the fathers of the community," responsible for its morality. The Industrial Revolution, however, pulled men out of the home, so women assumed the role of civic custodians. Abolitionism had disproportionate support from women, and through missionary work and benevolent societies women led later morality-based movements to ban prostitution, discourage child labor, and encourage temperance. One of the earliest political surveys, in 1919, showed that women in Illinois were twice as supportive of Prohibition as men—the first recorded gender gap.

The promise of women's suffrage was that women would cleanse politics and American life of male excesses, and not simply by taking voting out of barber shops and saloons and moving it into schools. At the turn of the century the suffrage and Progressive movements were inextricably linked. As Rheta Childe Door wrote in What Eight Million Women Want (1910), "Woman's place is in the home. . . . But Home is not contained within the four walls of an individual home. Home is the community. The city full of people is the Family. The public school is the real Nursery." Women championed Progressive social-welfare programs, including the creation in 1912 of the Children's Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Infancy and Maternity Protection Act in 1921.

In a recent pathbreaking work of social science, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, Theda Skocpol traces how these and other efforts undertaken by women created an early patchwork system of social programs. Previous efforts, relating to the old system of Civil War veterans' pensions, had failed—in no small part because of middle-class opposition at the turn of the twentieth century to a strong central government. The result was that unlike most European states, America had a welfare state constructed not around the "paternal" notion of work (workers' pensions and the like) but around "maternal" programs defending mothers and families, deemed weaker and needing protection. "Most of these programs, which were the forebears of the New Deal and later welfare programs, were tied into the notion that motherhood was really a form of community service," Skocpol says.

For these reasons passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was widely expected to change American politics and voting patterns immediately, to the benefit of the more progressive Democrats. To almost everyone's surprise, however, it did not. For the first decade or so after women got the vote, turnout was low and conservative Republicans won most elections. By the time women did begin to vote in greater numbers, the Depression had changed American politics—in the words of Everett C. Ladd, the executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, at the University of Connecticut, reducing "the salience of moral questions and elevating a variety of economic recovery concerns" that masked the differences in the ways men and women approached politics. The Depression forced male voters to consider the benefits of a "maternal" welfare state and to change their allegiance—voting as women had been expected to vote and, in fact, now were voting. "This not only meant a New Deal for women as recipients," Sara Evans, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, wrote in her history of women in America, Born for Liberty (1989), "but . . . in many ways a women's New Deal." New Deal social programs, such as the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, were in part drafted and promoted by the old Progressive child-welfare establishment, dominated by women whose view of government reflected their maternal view of the state. For example, Aid to Families with Dependent Children—still the program most commonly identified by politicians and the public as "welfare"—was originally designed for children and mothers; it was passed in 1935.

Long after the Depression, both parties continued to favor the growth of the welfare state that economic crisis had spawned. It is assumed that with Americans entering a period of consumerism and conformity after the Second World War, men and women tended to define their interests mutually, in terms of their families, and to vote much the same. To be sure, the sexes approached certain political questions differently, with men more likely to favor the use of force than women, whether in military action or in the death penalty. When Dwight Eisenhower promised in 1952 to "go to Korea" to end the war there, Roper found that women preferred him to Adlai Stevenson by six percentage points more than men.

eleph picture Analysts also tended to find women voters almost everywhere to be risk-averse. Abroad, where the divisions between parties were more ideological, that meant that as women got the vote, they tended to align themselves with church-based conservative parties as opposed to labor parties. In this country, however, the differences in the ways the sexes approached political issues hadn't really led to differences in partisan allegiance yet. To the extent that differences existed in presidential voting from 1960 to 1980, women tended to slightly favor incumbents or candidates of the incumbent party. In 1960—despite the myth now prevailing that John Kennedy owed his victory over Richard Nixon to his appeal to women—Nixon actually carried women narrowly. Women in 1976 favored the Democrat Jimmy Carter less than men did, and women voted in greater percentages than men for Lyndon Johnson (1964) and Hubert Humphrey (1968). (In 1972 men supported the incumbent Richard Nixon by only one percentage point more than women did, as George McGovern attracted some women with a peace platform.)

Presented by

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. More

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. He is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and both the Boston Globe, where he was an op-ed columnist and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a world sports columnist.

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In