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
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Women and the Rights Revolution

During this period the Great Society programs of the mid-1960s were extending the social-welfare state of the New Deal while for the first time on the federal level (in the Civil Rights Act of 1964) broadly endorsing the notion of sexual equality. In the wake of the civil-rights movement many Great Society programs were aimed at the needs of the poor. Fifteen years later many were disproportionately helping women, if only for demographic reasons: with divorce rates and the number of single-parent households climbing, more women were poor, and they lived longer than men. Thus by 1982, 61 percent of Medicaid enrollees, 60 percent of Medicare recipients, 69 percent of those who received food stamps, and 67 percent of the clients of the Legal Services Corporation were women. Two thirds of the families living in federally subsidized housing were headed by women. The welfare state was more maternal than ever.

Moreover, the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s and early 1970s that was intended to benefit women directly breezed through Congress. "We put sex-discrimination provisions into everything," Representative Bella Abzug once recalled about the 1971-1972 congressional session. "There was no opposition. Who'd be against equal rights for women? So we just kept passing women's-rights legislation." Yet the very speed with which these measures passed —and the fact that many of them depended on courts to enforce or create new "rights"—meant that they lacked the popular legitimacy of laws that have been more widely debated. This might also be said about the racial rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s on which these initiatives were modeled. Yet that often anti-majoritarian movement had a unique foundation, drawing on everything from the nation's legacy of slavery to the hosings in Birmingham, which gave it a legitimacy that women's-rights activists could not match. In fact, when it came time, in the mid-1970s, for the states to pass an Equal Rights Amendment for women, similar to the Fourteenth Amendment for blacks, the effort failed—with Texas and Tennessee being the only states of the old Confederacy to ratify it. The new Republican Party, built around the opposition of white southern males to the sexual and race revolutions, was taking shape.

The abortion wars of the 1970s also played into a general sentiment that the women's movement was securing its gains in an anti-democratic fashion. In the five years before the Roe v. Wade decision, in 1973, sixteen states with more than 40 percent of the nation's population had liberalized their abortion laws. In those days the issue was hardly a partisan one: Ronald Reagan signed California's liberalizing law, whereas a restrictive Georgia statute, struck down by the Supreme Court in a companion case to Roe, was law when Jimmy Carter was governor. Absent the Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, most state legislatures would probably have continued to vote to permit abortion along the lines mandated by Roe. By taking the decision out of voters' hands, however, the Supreme Court unintentionally reinforced a notion that women were achieving gains in something less than a legitimate manner.

Yet Roe became extremely important to upper-middle-class activists in liberal women's groups and also to fundamentalists in conservative groups—both of whom saw it as the leading symbol of the feminist movement. The result was twofold: After Roe v. Wade, abortion was quickly tagged by the press and others as "the women's issue," which meant that other issues that, according to polls, actually concerned women more—such as wages and child care—got slighted. And as the sexes tended to drift into separate political parties, those parties adopted the abortion positions of their activist wings. Within a few years it was unthinkable for the Democrats not to support upholding Roe v. Wade in their platform, and for the Republicans not to promise to try to overturn it.

As the feminist revolution in the culture and the workplace began to take hold in the 1970s, pollsters began to pick up significant differences between men and women—if not yet in their choice of presidential candidates, then in attitudes on issues in addition to the use of force. Though women had always been somewhat less likely to support insurgent nominees, they were especially wary of the confrontational candidates who were now cropping up, who harked back to something the country hadn't seen in a generation. Two thirds of George Wallace's supporters nationally, for example, were male. There continued to be no significant difference between the sexes in their attitudes on social issues such as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, but analysts in the 1970s found women to be more pessimistic than men about the country's future (though not about their own), and even more risk-averse than before. "For the first time since polling began, you began to see significant differences on the proper role of government, with women favoring such things as full guaranteed employment more than men," says Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "And women were now even more likely to avoid risk: differences on the use of force got larger, and in response to questions, women would oppose more strongly than men things such as the location of a nuclear plant in their area."

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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.
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