The Growing Partisan Divide Over Feminism

Democratic men are 31 points more likely to say that the “country has not gone far enough on women’s rights” than Republican women.

Protesters hold up signs at the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017. (John Minchillo / AP)

Amidst the exhilaration of Roy Moore’s defeat, and the broader cultural revolution sparked by women’s willingness to expose the sexual misdeeds of powerful men, it’s worth remembering this: Ninety percent of Republican women in Alabama, according to exit polls, cast their ballots for a man credibly accused of pedophilia. That’s a mere two points less than Republican men. By contrast, Democratic men voted for Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones, at the same rate as Democratic women: 98 percent. In early December, The Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University asked Alabamians whether they believed the allegations against Moore.

At my request, researchers from the Schar School broke down the answers by party and gender. The results: Party mattered far more. Republican women in Alabama were only four points more likely than Republican men to believe Moore’s accusers. In fact, Republican women were 40 points less likely to believe Moore’s accusers than were Democratic men. All of which points to a truth insufficiently appreciated in this moment of sexual and political upheaval: It’s not gender that increasingly divides the two parties. It is feminism.

This September, Leonie Huddy and Johanna Willmann of Stony Brook University presented a paper at the American Political Science Association. (The paper is not yet published, but Huddy sent me a copy.) In it, they charted the effects of feminism on partisanship over time. Holding other factors constant, they found that between 2004 and 2016, support for feminism—belief in the existence of “societal discrimination against women, and the need for greater female political power”—grew increasingly correlated with support for the Democratic Party. The correlation rose earlier among feminist women, but by 2016, it had also risen among feminist men. A key factor, the authors speculated, was Hillary Clinton. A liberal woman’s emergence as a serious presidential contender in 2008, and then as her party’s nominee eight years later, drove feminists of both genders toward the Democratic Party and anti-feminists of both genders toward the GOP.

In other words, Clinton, along with Donald Trump, has done for gender what Barack Obama did for race. Obama’s election, UCLA political scientist Michael Tesler has argued, pushed whites who exhibited more racial resentment into the Republican Party and whites who exhibited less into the Democratic Party. Something similar is now happening around gender. But what’s driving the polarization is less gender identity—do you identify as a man or a woman—than gender attitudes: Do you believe that women and men should be more equal. Democrats aren’t becoming the party of women. They’re becoming the party of feminists.

Amidst the current crescendo of sexual-harassment allegations, this is easy to miss. That’s because, in actual cases of sexual harassment, gender identity is obviously crucial. Overwhelmingly, the harassers are men and the victims are women. Gender attitudes—political beliefs about women’s place in society at large—often matter less. Men who support a feminist political agenda, like Clinton supporter Harvey Weinstein, still assault women. Women who oppose a feminist agenda still get assaulted.

But when it comes to the political reaction to sexual harassment, gender identity matters less and gender attitudes matter more. “A sizable minority of American women,” note Huddy and Willmann, “do not believe in the existence of gender discrimination, think that women who charge men with gender discrimination are trouble makers, and are inclined to side with a man accused of discriminatory behavior.” And Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy seems to have made these women more staunchly Republican.

Which helps explain why female Republicans express far less support for feminism than even male Democrats. Earlier this month, the research firm PerryUndem found that Democratic men were 25 points more likely than Republican women to say sexism remains a “big” or “somewhat” big problem. According to October polling data sorted for me by the Pew Research Center, Democratic men were 31 points more likely than Republican women to say the “country has not gone far enough on women’s rights.” In both surveys, the gender gap within parties was small: Republican women and Republican men answered roughly the same way as did Democratic women and Democratic men. But the gap between parties—between both Democratic men and women and Republican men and women—was large.

Since Trump’s election and the recent wave of sexual-harassment allegations, this partisan divide appears to have grown. In January, when PerryUndem asked whether “most women interpret innocent remarks as being sexist,” Republican women were 11 points more likely than Democratic men to say yes. When PerryUndem asked the question again this month, the gap had more than doubled to 23 points. A year ago, Democratic men were 30 points more likely than Republican women to strongly agree that “the country would be better off if we had more women in political office.” The gap is now 45 points.

Over the decades, a similar divergence has occurred in Congress. Syracuse University’s Danielle Thompson notes that, in the 1980s, “little difference existed between Republican and Democratic women [members of Congress] in their advocacy of women’s rights.” In the 1990s, Republican women members were still noticeably more moderate than their male GOP colleagues. That created a significant degree of ideological affinity between women politicians across the aisle. Now it’s gone. There are many more Democratic than Republican women in Congress. But, Thompson’s research shows, the Republican women are today just as conservative as their male GOP colleagues.

Why does this matter? First, it clarifies why Democrats forced Al Franken to vacate his Senate seat but Republicans didn’t force Roy Moore from his Senate race. Republicans of both genders are simply far more likely than Democrats of both genders to believe that women cry sexism in response to “innocent remarks or acts” and that America has “gone far enough on women’s rights.” It’s not surprising, therefore, that Democratic women senators took the lead in demanding that Franken go while Republican women senators reacted to Moore pretty much like their male colleagues.

Secondly, this partisan divergence hints at the nature of the backlash that the current sexual-harassment reckoning will spark: Anti-feminist women will help to lead it. In part, that’s because anti-feminist women can’t be labelled sexist as easily as anti-feminist men. But it’s also because, given their conservative attitudes, many Republican women likely find the current disruption of gender relations unnerving.

Feminist theorists have long sought to explain this. In a recent essay, Marcie Bianco of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University cited Simone de Beauvoir’s argument that women are more likely than other oppressed groups to defend the hierarchies that subjugate them. Women, de Beauvoir wrote, have “no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. … They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men—fathers or husbands—more firmly than they are to other women.” In her 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that female anti-feminism was an understandable, if tragic, strategy of self-protection. “A woman,” she wrote, “acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms in order to be as safe as she can be.”

Anti-feminists, needless to say, explain their views differently. “It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion,” declared Kellyanne Conway in February. “I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances.” Conway’s point about abortion may be particularly significant in explaining female anti-feminism. According to a July Pew study, 38 percent of American women believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, only four points lower than American men.

All of which underscores a key difference between the current upheaval over gender and the ongoing upheaval over race. Many more women than African Americans are invested in maintaining an unequal status quo. In the growing partisan polarization over women’s rights, women will likely play prominent roles on both sides. The last great era of feminist activism helped to produce not only Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, but also Phyllis Schlafly. And the #metoo movement will probably produce Schlafly’s of its own.