Cynthia D. Lee is an educational consultant. Dwight R. Lee is the Ramsey Professor of Economics at the University of Georgia, Athens.
As of 1980, American women had possessed the right to vote for 60 years through the provisions of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Until that year, women had voted in national elections much the same way men had voted. Beginning in 1980, however, a phenomenon that became known as the gender gap appeared, when women voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate in noticeably larger percentages than men.
Women’s groups have applauded the gender gap as evidence that women are beginning to display the solidarity to assert themselves politically. Eleanor Smeal, past president of the National Organization for Women, writes in her book, Why and HOW Women Will Elect the Next President: “The ‘women’s vote,’ a powerful new voting bloc, will make the difference in political contests. There is no doubt.”
The hope that women, by rallying around common political interests, would exert decisive influence over government policy has a long history, beginning before the Civil War when the women’s suffrage movement started. Suffragists believed that a sisterhood was necessary for the good of society—a sisterhood that would exercise a more positive political influence than that exercised by the then male-dominated electorate. The suffragists claimed that a sisterhood would bring peace and prosperity to all, that “war, imperialism, and vice would be reduced or eliminated” if women could vote.
Implicit in this claim is the belief that women have interests different from those of men. Therefore, with suffrage, they, as well as society, would be better represented in the political process. Supposedly, once women obtained the right to vote, they would unite and vote as a bloc, creating a gender gap. In fact, no such gender gap appeared as the immediate result of women’s suffrage.
The women’s suffrage movement itself did not enjoy wide support among women. Millions of women sat silently on the sidelines or joined anti-suffrage organizations. It was a small minority of women who fought for over 70 years to obtain the right for women to vote, and once this right was obtained very little changed at the polls. The great sisterhood did not arise. Most women stayed away from the polls, and those who did vote didn’t do so as a bloc. As political writer William L. O’Neill observed, in the national elections of 1936, “only about half as many women as men registered to vote and when they went to the polls they voted as their husbands did.”
Political Reality vs. Feminist Fantasies
Has a gender gap finally arrived that reflects a growing solidarity of women in support of women’s issues? Notwithstanding the pronouncements of feminists such as Eleanor Smeal, there is no evidence that women are being led like lemmings in political support of a “women’s agenda.” Indeed, it is insulting to women as intelligent and independent citizens to suggest that a sisterhood of political solidarity can ever be a realistic possibility.
Certainly there are important differences between men and women, and it would be naive to assume that all the political interests of women are identical to all the political interests of men. Yet there was, and still is, more overlap in the political interests of the sexes than is suggested in the writings of the suffrage pioneers and modern-day feminists. At some point in their lives, the majority of women are coupled with men. Whether the couple contracts their relationship formally through marriage, or informally through an arrangement of “living together,” it can be argued that in matters of general interests, these women are advantaged by the same general political and economic climate that serves the interests of men—and vice versa. Only when we begin to consider narrowly focused interests are we likely to find significant differences between the interests of men and women.
If the role of government is largely limited (as it was in the United States until roughly the 1930s) to protecting the borders, controlling crime, enforcing the general laws of commerce, and providing a basic infrastructure (i.e., creating an environment in which people can pursue their personal objectives in productive cooperation with one another), then the detailed differences in the concerns of women and men are not politically relevant.
Some women are married, while others are not. Some women are employed outside the house, others are not. Some women have children, others do not. Some women live in rural communities, others do not. The interests of some women are tied—either through their own employment or that of their husbands—to the profitability of exporting firms, while the interests of other women are tied to the profitability of importing firms. Therefore, when government attempts to address the specific concerns of one group of women it necessarily does so at the expense of other groups of women.
Special Interests Compete
The natural response to a government that stands willing to cater to the interests of narrowly motivated interest groups is the formation of a multitude of special interest groups, each competing for the largess and privileges that government can provide only at the expense of other interest groups and the general public. The prospects of such a competition can be expected to do little to motivate political solidarity among women.
Indeed, as the political environment becomes increasingly characterized by special interest competition, the control that can be exercised over government through voting becomes weaker. As a bloc, voters can grant, or withhold, the power government needs in order to pursue laudable sounding but vaguely defined objectives. However, even here the control is tenuous since it is typically exercised by voting for one of two candidates for a public office who both make appeals for votes with vague promises to support all that is virtuous and to oppose all that is evil. And once power has been granted for government to pursue some objective, voters have almost no control over the effectiveness of that pursuit. Relatively small groups, each with an overriding concern and tightly organized around that concern, will exploit government programs with laudable goals by lobbying aggressively and persistently for those programs to be designed, staffed, and implemented in ways that promote their particular objectives. So the more government concerns itself with the narrowly focused interests that allow differences between the interests of men and women to become politically visible, the less important the vote is in determining political outcomes.
It is true that women activists, who have a long pre-suffrage history of political lobbying, are more effective when lobbying over women’s issues if they can inform politicians that they represent a bloc of women voters who will remember how the politicians vote on those issues. But, as argued previously, if those issues are general, with widespread support among women, they are probably issues that would be widely supported by men as well. On the other hand, if an issue arises out of narrow concerns that can activate a bloc of women to vote in unison, then almost surely this united vote favors government activity that harms the interests of many other women.
Thus, the hope that women would join together in a sisterhood and exert their influence by voting as a bloc should have been seen as an impossible dream. But some impossible dreams never die. As Carol Mueller writes in her book, The Politics of the Gender Gap, “There were hopes . . . in the early 1980s that this new ‘gender gap’ would fulfill the long-delayed dream of suffragists that women would vote as a unified bloc.”
The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. In the fall 1920 election of Cox versus Harding, women did not vote in mass numbers and certainly not in a bloc as the suffragists had argued they would. After the dismal showing of 1920, the League of Women Voters set up a “get out and vote” campaign for the 1924 elections. The net gain of women’s votes in the 1924 elections was a paltry 1 percent.
Until the 1980s, women continued to vote much like men, except in smaller percentages. But with the Presidential election of 1984, there was an upsurge of renewed hope. For the first time in a national election, exit polls revealed that more women voted than men, and that women (as they had for the first time in 1980) voted Democratic in significantly larger percentages than men.
Eleanor Smeal had predicted that “the women’s vote will be the decisive factor in the 1984 Presidential elections.” While the women’s vote in the 1984 Presidential election wasn’t decisive, it did appear a trend was beginning: that indeed, there was a difference between men and women in their choice of candidates. However, feminists ignored the fact that women didn’t vote as a bloc even with Geraldine Ferraro running for Vice President on the Democratic ticket.
Given the election results of 1980 and 1984, women were widely expected to hold the balance of power in the 1988 Presidential election. The Congressional Quarterly speculated on April 2, 1988, “if this year’s White House contest turns out to be a close one, as still seems possible, a recurrence of the ‘gender gap’ could spell the difference between victory and defeat.” Although a gender gap of sorts did exist in the 1988 Presidential election, as in the two previous Presidential elections, this gap had no effect on the outcome and suggests, if anything, that women are less likely to vote in a bloc, of the type envisioned by feminists, than are men.
In the 1976 Carter/Ford election, men and women supported the two candidates in almost identical proportions.
In the Carter/Reagan 1980 election, with John Anderson running as an independent, 37 percent of males voted for Carter, 54 percent for Reagan, and 7 percent for Anderson. Among female voters, 45 percent voted for Carter, 46 percent for Reagan, and 7 percent for Anderson. “The most dramatic split between men and women in the history of modern election polling emerged this year,” according to the National Journal.
In the 1984 Mondale/Reagan election, 37 percent of males voted for Mondale and 63 percent voted for Reagan, while 44 percent of females voted for Mondale and 56 percent voted for Reagan.
In the 1988 Dukakis/Bush election, 40 percent of males voted for Dukakis and 58 percent voted for Bush. Fifty percent of females voted for Dukakis and 49 percent voted for Bush.
In 1986, Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber wrote: “The most important story of the 1980 election results . . . was that a new and distinct political phenomenon-the gender gap was revealed; it showed a marked difference between women and men in their candidate choice.” Feminists declared that the 1980 Presidential election revealed a gender gap for the first time in history, and that this would be a precedent for ensuing elections. Clearly the analysis of voting behavior from 1976 to 1988 shows that this isn’t so. There is no evidence of the trend the suffragists and modern-day feminists have long hoped for. Women are not becoming more powerful at the polls by rallying around a common political agenda and voting in a bloc.
in fact, in the 1988 Presidential election, women were virtually split in partisan voting 50-50. As reported in the National Journal, “The gender gap represents one of the great ironies of the 1988 election . . . . Women were about evenly split, while men gave Bush a solid margin of 18 points. The gender gap controlled the outcome of this year’s election, but not in the way feminists had predicted. Men elected Bush.” In the national elections of the 1980s men have shown more political solidarity than have women, who have shown practically none.
Women, as individuals, are far too diverse and independent to ever be pigeonholed politically, and expected to perform at the demand of a united sisterhood. The idea of women voting in a bloc in support of “women’s issues” is insulting to the intelligence, independence, and individuality of women. Feminists have based their hope for political power on the expectation that women will use their vote to respond in mindless lockstep to some mythical political interest women supposedly have in common. This hope will continue to be frustrated.
1. Several states granted women the right to vote in local, state, and, in some cases, Presidential elections long before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.
5. Carol M. Mueller, ed., The Politics of the Gender Gap: The Social Construction of Political Influence, volume 12, Sage Yearbooks in Women’s Policy Studies (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1988), p. 16. See specifically “The Empowerment of Women: Polling and the Women’s Voting Bloc,” pp. 16-36.
8. These findings emerged from a detailed Election Day survey of 14,836 persons as they left the polls, conducted by CBS News, and from similar surveys by NBC News and other news organizations. National Journal, November 6, 1976, pp/ 1588-90.
10. National Journal, November 10,1984, pp. 2130-32. It is interesting to note that fewer women voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate in 1984 than in 1980, surely a great disappointment for feminism who expected Geraldine Ferraro, the first female major party Vice Presidential candidate, to mobilize the female vote.
12. James David Barber and Barbara Kellerman, eds_, Women Leaders in American Politics (Englewood Cliffs, N J.: Prentice Hall, 1986). See specifically “The New Gender Gap,” by Bella Abzug with Mim Kelber, p. 247.