Does Having Daughters Really Make You More Republican?

It did in the early '90s. But the parties—and their reproductive-health policies—have changed since then.
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Have you ever found yourself brimming with "the gentle thrill inspired by a social-science finding that mildly unsettles one’s ideological opponents”? That's exactly how Ross Douthat feels, according to his most recent column.

The study in question, by Dalton Conley of New York University and Emily Rauscher of the University of Kansas, found that having more daughters than sons, as well as having a daughter first, “significantly reduces the likelihood of Democratic identification and significantly increases the strength of Republican Party identification." What's so thrilling for Douthat is that this connection between daughters and conservatism contradicts past research that's found the opposite to be true: That having more girls in the family increases the likelihood of holding a liberal worldview.

The study authors' theory is that a daughter's fertility comes with steep costs if unleashed too early or with the wrong guy. Have sons, and you may develop devil-may-care, supposedly Democratic attitudes, but give birth to girls and you'll want the most buttoned-up social policies possible, the better to protect your damsels against untimely insemination. The proxy for these conservative values in political terms, at least for many voters, is the Republican Party.

Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher 

Douthat connects this parental fear of liberal sexual mores to the recent novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., in which the noncommittal title character exhibits the sort of relational indecisiveness that represents, to Douthat, "one of the hidden taproots of well-educated women’s work-life-balance angst, and one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity." Thus, parents of daughters would naturally want "a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them." In other words, they'd naturally want Republicans in office.

Douthat is right that parents of daughters were significantly more likely to be Republicans, as long as they scored high on the socioeconomic index (or high-SEI, as the study authors call it). "For example, compared to high-SEI parents with no daughters, high-SEI parents with all daughters are 19 percent more likely to identify as Republican," they wrote.

But the overall findings are more complicated than Douthat's explanation that a more conservative society is somehow beneficial for women and girls.

First of all, the effect was only strong for rich parents. And even as Douthat argues that looking out for one's daughters causes people to gradually "tiptoe" toward conservative ideas, he disregards what the two parties have come to represent since 1994, when the data for the study was collected. 

One of the metrics the authors used for Republicanism was which candidate the person was likely to support in the 1992 election—and people with daughters were indeed less likely to vote Democrat that year. But the Democratic candidate in 1992 was Bill Clinton, who was accused of having an extramarital affair during the campaign. That fact might have naturally made him less popular among people who, with their daughters at the back of their minds, favored a culture of sexual fidelity.

What's more, it turns out having daughters also made people more liberal in one very important way. The authors found that having a girl actually increased the pro-abortion sentiment of parents, consistent with the idea that parents generally want to avoid pregnancies among their teenaged daughters.

"Compared to parents with all sons, parents with at least one daughter are 6 percent and 10 percent more likely to state that abortion should be legal if the woman’s health is endangered or if the woman is single and does not want to marry the man, respectively," they wrote. 

Parents of daughters, it seems, aren't drawn to a the idea of a lost, sexually pure utopia. They just don't want to be liable for the unwanted baby of the 16-year-old quarterback. And it would be tough to argue that support for abortion rights is a conservative or Republican value.

A lot has changed in social policy since the early '90s. The GOP has become more uniformly anti-abortion as pro-choice moderates have been squeezed out. Meanwhile, Republicans have made stricter abortion laws a major cause, from "personhood" bills to candidates like Todd Akin to laws shuttering dozens of abortion clinics in states like Texas. On the other side of the aisle, the Affordable Care Act—pushed through by Democrats—provides for free birth control and ends health-insurance price discrimination based on gender. Both measures may help keep daughters richer and child-free for longer.

If the survey were performed using today's data and political climate, it's possible that parents would see Democratic policies as better suited to preventing teen pregnancies and births. But even if they did, that wouldn't be enough to vaguely argue that a "liberal" society is uniformly better for women. Even if you added a fictional anecdote on top of it.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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