Venus at the Ballot Box

Women may lean toward the "Mommy State," but their politics are more complex than pundits recognize.


The election deadlock of 2000 that provided such a surreal—and fitting—end to the Clinton era would not have happened if only one sex had gone to the polls. An all-male electorate would have handed George W. Bush a decisive victory, 53 percent to 42 percent. If only women voted, Al Gore would have won 54 percent to 43 percent. These numbers are unlikely to startle anyone who has followed American politics over the last two decades.

Women get the credit, or the blame, for sending Bill Clinton back to the White House in 1996, when exit polls showed Bob Dole with a 1 percent lead among men. Women are also more likely to vote for Democrats in congressional elections. There is a widespread perception that Republicans are the party of men and Democrats are the party of women. Paraphrasing John Gray's pop psychology best-sellers, you might call it Mars and Venus at the Ballot Box.

The gender gap as we know it first emerged in the early 1980s, and it was widely attributed to the Republicans' opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. But the reality turned out to be much more complex. Poll after poll has shown little difference of opinion between women and men on such supposedly quintessential "women's issues" (though it is likely women attach more importance to them when deciding how to vote).

The real split has been on political issues that ostensibly have little to do with gender: Women are generally more dovish than men on foreign policy and more inclined to favor an active role for government in economic and social life. The stereotype, which like many stereotypes has some basis in reality, is that men want a government that will kick the crap out of the bad guys and otherwise leave people alone, while women want a government that will take care of people. As heterodox Democratic pundit Chris Matthews puts it, it's the Daddy Party vs. the Mommy Party.

Whether this stereotype is anti-male or anti-female depends, of course, on one's perspective. Feminists have often hailed "female values" as the key to a better world. In the mid-1990s, the male voters who delivered Congress to the Republicans were often caricatured by the liberal commentariat as "angry white males" panicked about losing their privilege, determined to keep the government away from their money and their guns, and clinging to their lone-cowboy fantasies.

In a 1996 column in Time, Barbara Ehrenreich suggested that men's rightward drift was due largely to the trend of more men living on their own because of late marriages and more divorces, and hence embracing cutthroat individualism. (This is spectacularly wrong, since it's married men who are most likely to vote Republican.) "Cut off from daily contact with the weak and the needy, and hypnotized by the zero-sum ethic of televised sports, men were bound to be seduced by the social Darwinism of the political right," wrote Ehrenreich. "Women, on the other hand, are more likely to have a vested interest in the notion of human interdependence. …The aim should be to close the gap as quickly as possible—by bringing the guys back into the human race."

In recent years, such left-wing male-bashing has been more than matched by right-wing tirades against female voters, often accompanied by only half-facetious quips about the folly of giving women the vote. Conservative rhetoric depicts women as soft-headed, sentimental creatures who are always looking for a protector—in the words of columnist Betsy Hart, "Uncle Sam as…the ultimate alpha male." Shortly before the last election, in a National Review column titled "Clueless," Kate O'Beirne blamed women's irritating voting habits on ignorance, pointing to surveys showing that women on the whole are less informed about politics than men.

On the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Irving Kristol recently posited a dichotomy between the good "masculine" welfare state (a limited safety net for the needy and the down-on-their-luck) and the bad "feminine-maternalistic" kind (an ever-expanding blob of indiscriminate "compassion" toward anyone who claims to be suffering). The godfather of the neoconservative movement offered this psychological analysis: "Fathers want their children to grow up to be self-reliant, self-supporting, and able to cope with a recalcitrant world. Mothers want their children to be as completely protected as possible from such a world and to be gratefully attached to them as long as they live."

So what's really going on with the gender gap? To start with the obvious, neither women nor men are anything like a solid bloc. Gender differences in voting are easily dwarfed by other gaps, including the racial divide.

In this year's presidential election, as usual, about 90 percent of black voters supported the Democratic candidate. A slim majority of white women, on the other hand, voted for Bush. (In the 1994 elections supposedly dominated by the "angry white males," 53 percent of white women also voted for Republicans in congressional races.) Single women are especially likely to vote Democratic—as many as two-thirds of them went for Gore this year—while married women are just about evenly divided. Women who are not employed outside the home continue to be a Republican constituency, with 52 percent of them backing Bush.

Of the various explanations given for the gender gap, one—female cluelessness about politics—can be quickly dismissed. True, surveys consistently find that fewer women than men give correct answers to questions measuring political knowledge. Ask men and women questions such as "which party controls the House" or "name one First Amendment right," and women will score lower than men by an average margin of 10 percentage points. Women fare especially poorly on foreign policy questions, which should have made them feel right at home with Dubya. However, political scientists Scott Keeter and Michael Delli Carpini, co-authors of the 1996 book What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters, conclude that the better informed women are, the more liberal they tend to be on domestic issues—particularly single women. For men, interestingly, it's the other way around.

The women-as-statists theory has somewhat more substance to it, though it's a vast oversimplification. In a number of polls in recent years, majorities of both sexes have expressed a preference for a smaller government with fewer services over a larger government with more services; however, this preference is far stronger among men (68 percent to 23 percent, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll of registered voters last October) than women (50 percent to 39 percent). Yet on many specific issues, there seems to be surprisingly little difference between the sexes.

Thus, in a recent Gallup poll, both Mars and Venus favored across-the-board tax cuts, partial privatization of Social Security, and reducing the size of government agencies. In a Washington Post poll in September, nearly 60 percent of men and women alike said that religious, charitable, and community organizations can do a better job of providing social services than the government. In a 1997 Pew Research Center survey, 81 percent of men and 78 percent of women agreed that poor people had become too dependent on government programs (so much for Kristol's invective against mommies who don't want the kids to cut the apron strings), while 59 percent of men and 51 percent of women felt that "the federal government controls too much of our daily lives."

On other issues, such as raising the minimum wage, hiring more teachers to reduce class size in public schools, and increasing federal spending on child care for low-income families, both sexes overwhelmingly take the "liberal" position, though women do so somewhat more strongly. About three out of five American adults, with only a very slight gender gap creeping in, agree that the state has a responsibility to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. The bottom line is that there is widespread support among both sexes for limiting government but not for cutting it back dramatically. However, women and men are aligned a little differently on this generally centrist spectrum.

Why are women more pro-government than men? Partly, it is undoubtedly a matter of differences in temperament that, whether cultural or innate, are quite real: Women as a group are more likely to be sensitive to perceptions of danger, which probably explains much of the differences in support for gun control and environmental regulation. (If these female attitudes are sometimes, as conservatives claim, based on mindless sentimentalism, it is probably equally true that, as feminists claim, men's greater support for military power and interventionism is sometimes based on mindless machismo.)

Partly, it may be because of perceived self-interest. In a recent article in The American Prospect expressing concern over white male defection from the Democratic Party, political analyst Anna Greenberg points out that since the 1960s, government programs have been geared to women more than men. Anti-poverty efforts have focused overwhelmingly on single-mother families. Even among beneficiaries of universal social insurance programs such as Social Security and Medicare, women outnumber men because they outlive them. With the exception of the military, women also predominate in public-sector jobs.

The Clinton White House, of course, elevated the wooing of women voters with government largess to a political art form: The administration constantly stressed its specific efforts on behalf of women in such areas as family leave, health care, violence, and child-support collection. (Children have been the only group invoked more frequently as a justification for various Clinton policies.) Perhaps it is no coincidence that the gender gap was wider than ever in 1996 and 2000—not only because the relentless rhetoric about benefits for women attracted women to the Democrats, but because it alienated many men.

Meanwhile, despite women's tendency to view government activism somewhat more favorably, many women clearly support policies that would reduce government control over social and economic life. So far, the GOP seems to have had only mixed success in pitching its message to these women. (The female voters with whom it fares best, survey data from the Pew Research Center suggests, are authoritarian populists who are more interested in curbing personal and social freedoms than in expanding economic ones.) To some extent, this may be because the self-styled party of smaller government is also seen as the party that remains hostile to women's new roles and new autonomy. If many conservatives' misogynist response to the gender gap is an indication, this perception isn't wholly unfair.

At the dawn of the new millennium, American women have unprecedented opportunities to pursue their lives as individuals and as adults—and they're taking advantage of these choices in unprecedented numbers. It's too bad that, at the voting booth, they still face only a choice between a Mommy Party that wants to coddle them and a Daddy Party that wants to tell them what to do.