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

Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

For many Americans, the good news in 1992 was that the country finally had a feminist President. The bad news was that the President was a man. For many others, Bill Clinton's Administration has, fairly or not, come to symbolize an attack on men and masculinity as "problems"to be overcome. If 1992 was the "Year of the Woman,"1994 brought the "Revolt of the Angry White Male." Suddenly the question that has haunted American politics since women got the vote, in 1920—Will women vote differently from men, and how will that change politics and public life generally?—had a new salience. The "gender gap"of the 1980s, a phenomenon wrongly interpreted as favoring the Democrats, was yielding to a new concept: gender realignment.

Traditionally, American party politics has had fault lines—blacks vote differently from whites and southerners from northerners. Even in the 1970s, however, gender was not one of these. "Sex was a variable it never paid to look at," Patrick Caddell, a leading Democratic pollster, once said. Men and women tended to vote alike.

Those days are now gone. In the 1994 midterm congressional elections men voted Republican by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent and women voted Democratic 54 percent to 46 percent for a gender gap of 22 points. Demographic breakdowns within these groups tend to reveal even wider disparities: white men went Republican in 1994 by 26 points, while unmarried women, white and nonwhite, backed the Democrats by a 32-point margin.

Along with the continuing shift of the once-solidly Democratic South to Republican control, a related trend, the gravitation of men and women to different political camps, appears to be the outstanding demographic development in American politics over the past twenty years. "I think that we're the party of Mars, but we would like to have the Venus side of the American society in our party too," Trent Lott, a Republican senator from Mississippi, said last year. With a gender split increasingly driving our politics, many of the issues on the national agenda—from welfare to health care to abortion—have been the bases for an indirect debate on the changing roles of women and men. And the trend will continue. "I foresee a tremendous clash around these issues continuing in the 1996 elections and beyond," says Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In a mid-spring New York Times/CBS News poll Bill Clinton was running stronger among women against his Republican opponent than he did in 1992, but slightly worse among men.

The press discovered the gender gap some fifteen years ago. Yet most conventional accounts of the gap and its meaning continue to obscure the importance of this realignment. First, although a difference in the way each sex views political issues is nothing new, the emerging party-identification gap between the sexes is unprecedented. Each party and its candidates now appear to represent, at least in part, the interests of one sex against the other. Thus the gap is responsible for much of the changing ideological orientation of both parties—and the outcome of elections and the direction of government policy. Second, although many media accounts still give the impression that the gap is greatest on "women's issues" such as abortion and an Equal Rights Amendment, men and women do not differ much on these issues. Rather, the gulf today tends to be on issues involving the existence and expansion of the social-welfare state.

Far more women than men supported the Clinton health-care plan—not because its architect was Hillary Clinton but because women are far less likely to be covered by existing insurance plans (more of them work part-time). Women tend to support affirmative action more than men, yet are much more in favor of government spending to support social programs. In the cultural area women are far more accepting of homosexuality than men, yet are also likelier to support banning books that advocate positions they think are dangerous. (In a clash between a real threat and an abstract ideal—say, the First Amendment—women tend to worry about the real threat far more than men do.) Even the ways politicians talk about issues affect the sexes differently. "Women have a much lower tolerance for conflict," Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, says. "Take the trade issue: Both parties kept making arguments for NAFTA by saying 'This will increase competition.' But women don't like competition and they don't respond to metaphors such as 'leveling the playing field.'"

Certainly gap politics drives the current debate over welfare. The original program, Aid to Dependent Children, was designed to support women so that they could stay home and raise children—an ideal that has now changed. "Almost all welfare states were built around the concept of a nuclear family, with a wage-earning man," says Theda Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard. As the norm changes, support for programs linked to it changes too. If one sees the current welfare state as enabling women to be freer of men—and, perhaps, more hostile to them—then dismantling that state may not seem like such a terrible idea.

Finally, most media accounts continue to describe the gap as helping the Democrats, as mobilized women answer the call of feminism. In fact the opposite has often been true, as men have turned out in strength to protect their interests. Though the press frequently describes the gender gap as one figure—say, 22 points in 1994—there are really two gaps: one among women (equaling 8 points in 1994), benefiting the Democrats, and another among men (14 points in 1994), which has recurrently benefited the Republicans more. Maybe 1996 will be the year the gender gap finally benefits the Democrats. At least until now, however, the "gendering" of American politics has sharply eroded support for the social programs for which the Democrats have traditionally stood. The two major political trends of the past fifteen years—the rise of the gender gap and our political swing to the right—are linked.

Why have the political interests and voting behavior of many women and men diverged in the past decade and a half? Is the divergence a good thing for our society? And if this is one of the major themes of our politics today, why aren't any candidates addressing it directly?

A "Women's New Deal"

Historians have observed that this country long defined its politics by sex far more than did other industrialized nations. Electoral politics in the nineteenth century—an all-male activity—was closely linked with cultural ideas about masculinity. With its rallies, shop talk, and fraternity, politics then was something akin to sports today. Manhood was frequently an issue. In 1840 the supporters of William Henry Harrison, a war hero, began an American tradition by attacking the incumbent Martin Van Buren as a fop. "Little Van—the used-up man" his enemies called him, noting that Van Buren favored ruffled shirts and had achieved a new level of effeminacy because he enjoyed taking baths. A victim of his own propaganda, the sixty-eight-year-old Harrison refused to wear a coat to his chilly inauguration in March, caught pneumonia, and died a manly death a month later.

donkey picture Voting often took place in saloons; men whose party loyalty was wavering were called "Miss-Nancys"; and reformers were depicted as politically impotent. Deborah Tannen, a linguist who has written several books about differences in how the sexes communicate, maintains that American politics retains the masculine perspective of its nineteenth-century origins. "It's still so clear that it was structured with a male audience in mind," she says. "There's all the sports analogies, the ritual opposition, the warlike debate formats, even the ways our leaders get points for being successful in military situations. The basic assumptions and rhetoric are still far more reflective of a male perspective." This was the framework within which women began to be politically active in the nineteenth century, long before they had the vote.

In Colonial times men had been viewed as "the fathers of the community," responsible for its morality. The Industrial Revolution, however, pulled men out of the home, so women assumed the role of civic custodians. Abolitionism had disproportionate support from women, and through missionary work and benevolent societies women led later morality-based movements to ban prostitution, discourage child labor, and encourage temperance. One of the earliest political surveys, in 1919, showed that women in Illinois were twice as supportive of Prohibition as men—the first recorded gender gap.

The promise of women's suffrage was that women would cleanse politics and American life of male excesses, and not simply by taking voting out of barber shops and saloons and moving it into schools. At the turn of the century the suffrage and Progressive movements were inextricably linked. As Rheta Childe Door wrote in What Eight Million Women Want (1910), "Woman's place is in the home. . . . But Home is not contained within the four walls of an individual home. Home is the community. The city full of people is the Family. The public school is the real Nursery." Women championed Progressive social-welfare programs, including the creation in 1912 of the Children's Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Infancy and Maternity Protection Act in 1921.

In a recent pathbreaking work of social science, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, Theda Skocpol traces how these and other efforts undertaken by women created an early patchwork system of social programs. Previous efforts, relating to the old system of Civil War veterans' pensions, had failed—in no small part because of middle-class opposition at the turn of the twentieth century to a strong central government. The result was that unlike most European states, America had a welfare state constructed not around the "paternal" notion of work (workers' pensions and the like) but around "maternal" programs defending mothers and families, deemed weaker and needing protection. "Most of these programs, which were the forebears of the New Deal and later welfare programs, were tied into the notion that motherhood was really a form of community service," Skocpol says.

For these reasons passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was widely expected to change American politics and voting patterns immediately, to the benefit of the more progressive Democrats. To almost everyone's surprise, however, it did not. For the first decade or so after women got the vote, turnout was low and conservative Republicans won most elections. By the time women did begin to vote in greater numbers, the Depression had changed American politics—in the words of Everett C. Ladd, the executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, at the University of Connecticut, reducing "the salience of moral questions and elevating a variety of economic recovery concerns" that masked the differences in the ways men and women approached politics. The Depression forced male voters to consider the benefits of a "maternal" welfare state and to change their allegiance—voting as women had been expected to vote and, in fact, now were voting. "This not only meant a New Deal for women as recipients," Sara Evans, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, wrote in her history of women in America, Born for Liberty (1989), "but . . . in many ways a women's New Deal." New Deal social programs, such as the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, were in part drafted and promoted by the old Progressive child-welfare establishment, dominated by women whose view of government reflected their maternal view of the state. For example, Aid to Families with Dependent Children—still the program most commonly identified by politicians and the public as "welfare"—was originally designed for children and mothers; it was passed in 1935.

Long after the Depression, both parties continued to favor the growth of the welfare state that economic crisis had spawned. It is assumed that with Americans entering a period of consumerism and conformity after the Second World War, men and women tended to define their interests mutually, in terms of their families, and to vote much the same. To be sure, the sexes approached certain political questions differently, with men more likely to favor the use of force than women, whether in military action or in the death penalty. When Dwight Eisenhower promised in 1952 to "go to Korea" to end the war there, Roper found that women preferred him to Adlai Stevenson by six percentage points more than men.

eleph picture Analysts also tended to find women voters almost everywhere to be risk-averse. Abroad, where the divisions between parties were more ideological, that meant that as women got the vote, they tended to align themselves with church-based conservative parties as opposed to labor parties. In this country, however, the differences in the ways the sexes approached political issues hadn't really led to differences in partisan allegiance yet. To the extent that differences existed in presidential voting from 1960 to 1980, women tended to slightly favor incumbents or candidates of the incumbent party. In 1960—despite the myth now prevailing that John Kennedy owed his victory over Richard Nixon to his appeal to women—Nixon actually carried women narrowly. Women in 1976 favored the Democrat Jimmy Carter less than men did, and women voted in greater percentages than men for Lyndon Johnson (1964) and Hubert Humphrey (1968). (In 1972 men supported the incumbent Richard Nixon by only one percentage point more than women did, as George McGovern attracted some women with a peace platform.)
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."

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).

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.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was also a part of the cause. A joke in Clinton's early months went something like "In the last Administration we used to worry what would happen if Bush became sick and we got Quayle. Now we worry what would happen if Hillary became sick and we got Bill." Polls on Hillary Clinton also showed an enormous and unusual gender gap: women approved 60 percent to 25 percent and men only 40 percent to 37 percent.

In the 1994 congressional elections, which produced a Republican victory, turnout among women was the lowest since 1974. "Democrats would have retained control of both the House and Senate if women had been as excited about the Democrats as men were about the Republicans," Celinda Lake wrote in a memo shortly after the election. She said later, in an interview, "The women who didn't turn out in proportionate numbers tended to be non-college-educated women. They were very disappointed with the way the health-care effort led by Hillary had failed, and they didn't think the President had done enough to focus on the economy." Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, suggests that the well-publicized 1994 Paula Jones suit for sexual harassment may also have played a major role in depressing enthusiasm for Clinton among these women.

So, again, a gap predicted to help Democrats had really helped Republicans. "The Republican stars . . . are ushering in a fresh image of masculine government," the conservative columnist Suzanne Fields wrote a month after the election. With the Republicans trying to dismantle a welfare state that many women feel is responsible for securing and protecting their gains of the past two decades, it's no surprise that immediately following the 1994 midterm elections the gender gap widened. The gap between the sexes tended to be largest among those under thirty and those with a college education—where some surveys now found it to be 34 points. "The joke we tell around the office is that we don't see how a lot of these young professionals are going to be able to find compatible spouses," Celinda Lake told a reporter. In the early 1996 presidential primaries, when there was still a race, the percentage of females voting in the Republican primaries, according to exit polls, had shrunk to 40-45 percent from its customary 50 percent or slightly higher. And although there is evidence that the gap has been narrowing somewhat in recent months, as both women and men have concluded that the Republican revolution may be going too far, most polling analysts now see it as a standard feature of our politics.

"The Ambivalent Woman"

How will the gender gap affect the 1996 election and our politics thereafter? "The big question in 1996 is how threatened women will feel by what the Republicans are doing," says Andrew Kohut, who has recently released surveys showing the trend toward a gap to be stronger than ever. Celinda Lake says her figures show much the same thing, and argues that the gap's continued presence could help Clinton—if he can get his voters to the polls to the extent that the Republicans got out their vote in 1994. In the special Oregon senatorial election last winter, for example, women favored the Democrat by seven points and men the Republican by 10 points. Yet the Democrat won, because turnout among women was huge—57 percent of the total electorate.

Still, political trends of the past fifteen years suggest that if the electorate continues to divide increasingly along sex lines, it will help the Republicans. Although polls so far show that the gap does appear to be aiding the Democrats this year, that may be a one-election reaction to Bob Dole's age (and his lack of appeal to some men) and to the way Republicans have frightened voters with their threats of Medicare cuts. More important, the whole political debate has now shifted so far to the right—with both presidential candidates endorsing balanced budgets and substantial cuts in the welfare state—that no matter who gets elected in November, the agenda of the "Daddy" party is going to prevail. That's why Everett C. Ladd, of the Roper Center, can say, "In truth, women are not really more Democratic than they were fifteen years ago. It's that men have become more Republican." And so, therefore, has the country.

The press often describes this as a "backlash," but it's more complicated than that. In a universe where one party is identified with men and the other with women, most men see something of themselves in the male party. But many women—principally homemakers and the traditionally religious—are still unlikely to respond to a female party, at least as that party has been defined by the Democratic left or by media sympathetic to feminist causes. According to Celinda Lake, recent elections have tilted Republican not so much because of men but because of what she describes as "the ambivalent woman." What's more, in a politics defined by gender identification men are more likely to rally to a male standard than women to a female one. Men still tend to follow conventional politics far more closely than women do; they are more likely to find their identity in it and to be energized by it. That's especially true when they feel they are unfairly under siege. As Todd Gitlin writes in another context in his new book, The Twilight of Common Dreams, many men demonized as conservative white males will ironically seek out the very stereotypical identity with which they have been tagged.

Some strategists say that part of the problem is that the male leadership of the Democratic Party is having trouble meshing with its new constituency. "The Republican leaders, who are men, understand the male vote," Lake says. "But I sense that a lot of Democratic male leaders are uncomfortable with their new base of women." That may be why the Democratic Party is having trouble finding its voice in this new era and why so many of its old leaders, such as Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley, are leaving politics. In fact, Paula Baker, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of several articles on sex and politics, sees the general disenchantment with the Democratic Party—and, indeed, with politics and government altogether—as a direct result of sex-based shifts. "There's a trend in American history that when women enter a particular activity or profession, men then often think less of that domain," Baker says. "When anything becomes feminized, the pay diminishes, the stratification in the work increases, and the status diminishes."

The Individual and the Community

The importance of the gender gap can be misinterpreted—as the media have frequently demonstrated over the past fifteen years. Moreover, while the voting gaps that once divided us over religion and class have become less important, other gaps—such as those defined by race and education—reveal larger fault lines in the electorate than does the gender gap.

In American politics, however, where most battles tend to be fought in the cautious middle, a shift of only 10 percent of the electorate can cause a realignment. In the wake of the O. J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March on Washington last year many commentators called for a more open public discussion of our racial problems. Yet with all its complications, race gets discussed far more openly and, often, intelligently in politics than does the new role of women or male fears of displacement. The welfare debate focuses on race almost to the exclusion of sex. In discussions of affirmative action in the media the focus is almost always on race. When analysts talk about the "white male revolt" of 1994, they tend to focus on the "white," not the "male." Politicians and editorialists call every day for healing the racial divisions in the culture, but no one ever calls for a similar reconciliation on gender issues. "This is the elephant in the room that no one's willing to acknowledge," says the social and cultural historian Elaine Tyler May. "Because men and women live together in the same families, people are conflicted. It's a very difficult issue to discuss openly, because the intimacy complicates the matter." In truth, the gender gap has become a convenient metaphor for addressing an issue that has always troubled Americans—finding a workable balance between the cherished values of libertarianism on the one hand and communitarianism on the other. It should probably not surprise us that in a troubled and confused age we have somehow managed to combine these two preoccupations into one abiding, if rarely articulated, fixation that now permeates and defines our politics. And in the end it is inevitable that changes as momentous as the ones sparked by the women's movement will produce dislocations. Traditional notions of what it means to be a man or a woman have been woven into our notions of what a government ought to provide. As a British writer, Julie Burchill, once said, "Only America could have started the men's movement in a country which had not passed the Equal Rights Amendment, nor given women the right to terminate their pregnancies while giving men every right to abandon pregnant women."