The Myth of the Beyoncé Voter

All the single ladies… aren’t the same.

In the controversial Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the crafts superstore can't be compelled to offer birth control to its employees under the Affordable Care Act. Ironically, the decision seems to have given birth to a new group of Americans: the Beyoncé voters.

Fox News's Jesse Watters coined the term to refer to single women, predicting this demographic will be a coveted bloc to court come election time.

“I call them the Beyoncé voters, the single ladies,” Watters declared. ("Single Ladies," get it?) “Obama won the single ladies by 76 percent last time, and they made up about a quarter of the electorate. You know, they depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.”

The term went viral, spawning a Tumblr account matching lyrics of Beyoncé hits to photos of influential women, and eliciting snarky responses from “typical” single women (“We are a monolithic block [sic], each and every one dedicated to premarital sex, hedonism, socialism, white wine, and tweeting about misogyny”).

Watters may be right that unmarried women constitute an important set of votes. But a closer look shows why no party can afford to lump such a diverse group of people together and treat them as a single bloc to be won or lost.

Let's break down Watters' statement:

  • “Obama won the single ladies by 76 percent last time ...” Exit polling in 2012 showed that 67 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama. In 2008, this number was actually higher by a few percentage points. Perhaps most surprising? Single women tend to vote more Republican than the commonly held misconception of their Democratic leanings. 
  • “... and they made up about a quarter of the electorate.” This is true: 25.2 percent of the voting-age population, or 53 million people, are unmarried women. The problem for Democrats is that despite single women leaning toward the party, they don’t necessarily go out to vote, particularly for midterm elections. Only single men are less likely to show up at the polls.
  • “They depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands.” Setting aside the sexist assumption that married women "depend" on their husbands, it's true by definition that unmarried women don't have a partner to fall back on in hard times. But do they depend on the government? Women are twice as likely as men to have received food stamps. The major driver of this disparity is that single women care for children at higher rates than men, while single mothers earn four times less than their married counterparts—$23,000 per year compared to the $80,000 married moms pull in. Single women are therefore more likely to use welfare programs. But there's no strong correlation between political leaning and receiving benefits. A 2012 Pew Research survey found that 60 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans had received funds from federal entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment benefits, and food stamps.
  • “They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” Women do in fact tend to be concerned about things like contraception, health care, and equal pay. But it's not as one-dimensional as he implies. Pew finds that the Affordable Care Act is far more likely to influence men's votes in the midterm elections than women's. And the politics of fair pay are complicated. While women still lag behind men in earnings, young, city-dwelling single women actually earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, 61 percent of men agree this is a problem that needs to be solved.

On a basic level, Watters is correct. But beyond these numbers (and from my perspective as a single woman), it seems foolish to draw too many assumptions about the voting bloc. Here's why: The only thing that unites all single women is their marital status. That’s it.

Simply looking at their marital status doesn’t begin to speak to the complexity of their lives. Some have been married before. Some are in relationships. Some are engaged. Some have children. But at this moment, just about the only thing linking the struggling single mother working a minimum-wage job and the middle-aged businesswoman with a swanky Upper East Side apartment is the lack of jewelry on their left ring finger.

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Tanya Basu is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic.

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