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
The Gender Gap Emerges

In 1980 these and other differences between the sexes began to translate into partisan differences—and for the first time, pollsters systematically began to measure them. That year women favored Jimmy Carter by eight percentage points more than men, according to the New York Times/CBS News exit poll: Carter lost 47 percent to 46 percent among women and 55 percent to 38 percent among men. After the election, however, in contrast to prior patterns, women drifted away from the new President while men flocked to him, so that within a year, one poll found, men approved of the incumbent by about 15 percentage points more than women did.

The reason, of course, was Ronald Reagan himself—the first President to talk openly of government as "the enemy" and of dismantling the protections of the modern welfare state that both parties had endorsed almost since women had gotten the vote.

At the same time, certain trends had been crystallizing as a result of the so-called second wave of feminism, which had begun with the promise of making men and women equal. Yet, ironically, the more men and women were accorded equal treatment in the culture, the less they resembled each other politically. By 1980, for the first time, more than half of all women worked outside the home, and pollsters found that those who did work were far more likely to vote differently from men than those who did not. The jobs that women who worked outside the home held were disproportionately in the public sector (where discrimination was less acute), in federal and state bureaucracies that were beginning to raise taxpayers' ire because they were growing far faster than seemed justified. Men and women had once tended to vote as family units, but as divorce rates doubled, from 1965 to 1979, and more women chose to remain single, the family began to splinter.

With divorce and illegitimacy increasing, growing numbers of families came to be headed by women, who tended to be poorer than men similarly situated. In 1978 analysts began to describe "the feminization of poverty"—a trend that led more women than men to be dependent on and supportive of government welfare programs. As the Democratic Party increasingly became associated with preserving the welfare state from Republican attack, the parties started to take on distinct sexual identities—a trend strengthened by Democratic support in the early 1980s for the women-dominated "nuclear freeze" movement, which was opposed by most Republicans, and by the prominent place the Democratic Party gave to leaders and causes associated with liberal women's groups, including the National Organization for Women.

Men observed the trend too—and it especially affected those who saw themselves as falling even further out of the economic mainstream than women but also as having been abandoned by a "feminized" Democratic Party that had once defined their interests as paramount. By 1980 the country was into a continuing economic cycle that has seen the pay and economic status of men steadily decline in real terms. According to the Labor Department, from 1979 to 1995 the median annual earnings for male workers dropped 11.5 percent, while those for female workers rose by about half that much. Though women's earnings are still only about three quarters of men's, around 60 percent of the new jobs in the 1980s went to women.

Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 1988 carried majorities of women, but the gap also widened in response to the Gulf War—with a majority of women and Democratic members of Congress opposing the Gulf War Resolution and a majority of men and Republican members of Congress supporting it. By the early nineties Christopher Matthews and other political analysts were beginning to outline the ways in which the two parties often mirrored sex stereotypes—with the Democrats being seen as the "Mommy" party (concerned about education and health care), and the Republicans as the "Daddy" party (strong on defense and crime).

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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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