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).
A Party for Daddy
Bill Clinton did only a few points better among women than he did among men. Once he took office, however, he was responsible for widening the gap, as Reagan had been twelve years earlier—only in reverse, as men this time fled the incumbent's camp. In Clinton's case the reaction among men seemed almost visceral. Taken separately, his coffee-klatch managerial style, his propensity to schmooze and gossip, his celebrated indecision, his discomfort with military procedures, and his constant emphasis on diversity and inclusion might seem unremarkable, as might his early decision to make it easier for gays to serve in the military and his insistence that a woman had to be placed in the job of first law-enforcement officer in the country. Taken together, however, these attributes and actions presented a portrait of leadership many men apparently found effeminate.