What Unmarried Women Want: Big Government?

In 2016, unmarried women will-for the first time-make up a majority of the potential female electorate. Should we worry?


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For most of American history, married women have far outnumbered their single counterparts. But this all changed in 2009, when the proportion of unmarried U.S. women first climbed above 50 percent. And in 2016, unmarried women will—for the first time—make up a majority of the potential female electorate.

Should libertarians worry? 

If the portrait of the unmarried female voter laid out by Rebecca Traister is correct, then perhaps we should. 

In a New York magazine excerpt of her upcoming book, All the Single Ladies, Traister writes that the rise of the single-lady demographic represents "a radical upheaval, a national reckoning with massive social and political implications. Across classes, and races, we are seeing a wholesale revision of what female life might entail. We are living through the invention of independent female adulthood as a norm, not an aberration, and the creation of an entirely new population: adult women who are no longer economically, socially, sexually, or reproductively dependent on or defined by the men they marry."

"This reorganization of our citizenry," Traister continues, "is not a self-consciously politicized event." Still, its political implications could be profound.

In 2012, single women made up nearly a quarter of all voters. According to the Voter Participation Center, single women drove voter turnout across many categories, making up almost 40 percent of black voters, 30 percent of Latino voters, and around a third of all young voters. And this year, the single women contingent of American voters could be even bigger. 

What do all these single women want? Well, according to Traister, it is most certainly not a "hubby state," the term some conservatives have used to insinuate that women still desire dependency, just on Uncle Sam instead of a family patriarch. "The notion that what the powerful, growing population of unmarried American women needs from the government is a husband…  is of course problematic," she writes. "It reduces all relationships women have to marital, sexual, hetero ones and suggests that they are, by nature, dependent beings."

Traister is right to point out that when men rely on government social programs or tax incentives, we don't say they're seeking a "wifey state." Also that men, especially married men, long benefited from government policies designed to sustain their dominance, be they direct (laws limiting the hours that women could work) or indirect (policies that propped up the mid-century nuclear family). But the problem comes when Traister tries to define what single women do want from government: laws ensuring "pay equity, paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, universal pre-K, lowered college costs, more affordable health care, and broadly accessible reproductive rights."

With the exception of the last point, those are all either direct requests for state support or requests for state-mandated support from private actors. Sure, these policies aren't designed solely to benefit women (unless you think of things like parenting as purely female), but there's no mistaking this agenda for anything other than a call for More! and Bigger! government.

Do unmarried women really support Traister's policy wishlist, though? That's harder to say. 

There's not much gender- and marriage-segregated data on any of these issues specifically. One recent survey from American Women and Elle magazine showed strong support from unmarried women for "equal pay for equal work"—but it didn't mention any policy specifics. And without specifics, who wouldn't want "equal pay for equal work?" I found a few other studies concerned with these issues and unmarried women, but all were conducted by partisan or advocacy groups and relied on similarly vague language and biasing descriptors.

The American Women poll also showed strong support from single women for both "allowing workers to earn unpaid sick days" and "requiring employers to provide paid family and medical leave," as well as "lowering taxes on businesses and the middle class." When asked what policies would make them most likely to vote for a candidate, "equal pay" was the number one choice for women ages 18- to 24-years-old, but "lower taxes" was the top choice of 25- to 35-year-old women, followed by public school funding and college affordability. Women ages 50- to 64-years-old named public school funding as their top priority, followed by paid sick leave and "equal pay."  

For the past several decades, U.S. women in general have tended to learn more Democrat than men. In 2012, 56 percent of women voted for Barack Obama, while just 46 percent of men did. In 2000, 54 percent of women voted for Al Gore, compared to 42 percent of men. In 1984, 42 percent of women voted for Walter Mondale, compared to 38 percent of men. 

And unmarried women in particular tend to go even more Democrat than women overall. About two-thirds of unmarried female voters cast their ballots for Obama in 2012. 

But unmarried men also tend to lean heavily Democrat. In 2004, USA Today polling showed 56 percent of married male voters supported George W. Bush, while 55 percent of unmarried male voters backed John Kerry. In a national poll leading up to the 2012 election, 54 percent of married men backed Mitt Romney while 54 percent of unmarried men backed Obama. Come election time, the divide was even more drastic: 62 percent of married men voted Republican, while 55 percent of unmarried men voted Democrat. 

As poli-sci types have noted for years, there's much more of a "marriage gap" in electoral politics than a gender gap, though the latter receives much more attention.

"While the "gender gap' has been a statistically clear election phenomenon only since 1980, differences between married and single people can be found in post-election interviews conducted … at least as far back as 1974," The New York Times reported in 1983.

It's not hard to guess what's going on here. Sure, inclinations toward liberalism or conservatism are also likely to affect the importance individuals place on marriage. But the bulk of the gap probably lies in demographics, not disposition: Unmarried Americans are more likely to be young, and younger Americans are more likely to be Democrats (or liberal-leaning independents). Until recently, the unmarried was a population that necessarily included most same-sex individuals—another cohort that understandably leans less toward Republicans. And race also plays a role: black men and women are both less likely to be married than whites, and way more likely to vote Democrat. 

In fact, race may a much bigger predictor than gender of how someone will vote. In 2012, 96 percent of black women and 87 percent of black men voted for Obama, 76 percent of Hispanic women and 65 percent of Hispanic men voted for Obama, and just 42 percent of white women and 35 percent of white men did so. 

The liberal tilt of unmarried women as a voting bloc, then, seems to come down to a confluence of factors, including racial makeup, age, and gender—with gender mattering least. As Kay S. Hymowitz wrote in City Journal, "unmarried women [vote] just the way you'd expect them to, considering their age, income, education, race, and ethnicity." 

"Yes, taken as a group, women vote more Democratic than men do," concluded Hymowitz. "But that has little to do with their sex, which is why analysts would be wise to pay a little less mind to the gap."

Traister acknowledges towards the end of the New York excerpt that single women run "the gamut of race and class" and have thus far "largely defied the pull of identity politics." 

But Democrats won't take to this failure of collectivism lightly. The rise of unmarried female voters presents "an opportunity that you cannot take for granted," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the DCCC, told The Washington Post in 2014, "and that is why we are building our earliest and most aggressive field and targeting program ever." 

They'll have hard work ahead of them, however: while women vote in higher numbers than men overall—nearly 64 percent of eligible women voted in 2012, compared to about 60 percent of eligible male voters—unmarried women are some of the least likely to show up to vote.