Winning the Gender Wars

Winning the Gender Wars

Feminism and misogyny have assumed larger roles in Americans’ electoral identities. This worked to the Democrats’ advantage in the midterms, but may not in the presidential race two years hence.

December 18, 2018

This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Susbcribe here

In the 2018 midterms, the women of this country delivered a severe rebuke to President Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The seeds were planted by the 2017 Women’s March, by many accounts the largest single-day demonstration in American history. Thousands of women subsequently decided to run for office, including the hundreds who ran for the House of Representatives (up from 120 in 2016). A record 126 women will serve in the 116th Congress. Nearly 60 percent of women voted for Democratic candidates, resulting in a historic 23-point gender gap between the parties.

It is tempting to argue that this is all about Trump. He ran against the first female major-party nominee for president, in a race where his attitudes and behavior toward women were on full display. The Access Hollywood tape in which Trump revealed his penchant for unwanted advances, the toleration of sexual harassment and allegations of assault he revealed in defending Roy Moore, the almost complete absence of female leadership in the White House—these and more left no doubt about where this president stands. Indeed, in a national poll of registered voters from February 2018, 67 percent said they believed Trump sexually harassed women and 56 percent think he is a sexual predator.

But Trump simply exposed—and perhaps accelerated—a trend that has become central to American politics. Feminist beliefs are increasingly correlated with support for the Democratic Party, independent from ideology and even taking into account other factors like attitudes about race. The heightened importance of feminism and the increasing politicization around gender in the last two elections will change the face of the Democratic Party. Women voters now play, and will play, a much larger role in determining outcomes in Democratic primaries, and certain groups of white women (college-educated women and younger women) now join, and will join, minority women who already represent the backbone of the party.

But the gender dynamic that helped Democrats take back the House may not be entirely helpful in 2020. Views about gender roles—as opposed to generic support for equal rights—are polarizing, and activate voters who do not share an affinity to feminism. “Hostile sexism” was a strong predictor of vote choice in the midterms. Democrats continue to struggle with the kinds of voters who hold conservative views on gender roles—especially white blue-collar men and women—the very voters who make the Electoral College map competitive for Trump.


THE GENDER GAP IN ELECTORAL politics is long recognized and well understood. Beginning in the late 1950s and 1960s, Southern white men started leaving the Democratic Party when it began to champion civil and voting rights in the states and at the federal level. Northern white men followed suit throughout the 1970s, as the Democratic Party became associated with women’s rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. The campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon were the first Republican presidential campaigns to exploit racial animus as a way to target white voters.

In the aftermath of the 1980 election, academics and pundits noted an increasing divergence between men and women, and termed it the “gender gap.” Fully 55 percent of men had voted for Ronald Reagan, compared with only 47 percent of women. The gender gap was relatively consistent in congressional races until 1994, when Democratic support among men collapsed—dropping from 52 percent to 42 percent and swelling the gender gap to a historic 22 percentage points.

Since 1994, the gender gap has been consistently in the double digits, with the exception of 2006 and 2008, when Democrats made historic gains in the House. Since those elections, the separation between men and women has grown, with gender gaps of 20 points or higher in the last four congressional elections. In 2018, 59 percent of women voted for Democratic candidates for Congress, delivering a 19-point margin for the Democratic Party and a 23-point gender gap.

Traditional explanations for this gender gap observe the differing policy preferences of men and women and the way these views affect partisanship and vote choice. Commentators argue that women are more likely to support government programs that support families and are less hawkish on foreign policy; women have also been a little more socially and racially liberal than men. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that women also “stayed” in the Democratic Party because many of the policies of the Great Society, such as expanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children and eliminating discriminatory restrictions in programs like unemployment insurance, directly benefited women. Perhaps surprisingly, “women’s issues” like abortion and the gender of the voter or the candidate have played a very small role in voting decisions.

But the thinking about the role that gender specifically plays in elections is changing, particularly as the size of the gender gap grows. Academic research now focuses less on the way policy views might influence partisanship and more on the way partisanship reflects social sorting and identity politics. In other words, identifying with a party is less a “rational” choice based on how a voter’s policy views align with a party, and more a reflection of how “partisan identity aligns with racial, religious, and ideological identities.” In this context, adherence to or opposition to feminist beliefs may also drive partisan gaps.

Leonie Huddy and Johanna Willmann of the political science department at SUNY Stony Brook, using data from the American National Election Studies (ANES), find that in both 2012 and 2016, “feminist loyalty” and “feminist antipathy” had an effect on Republican and Democratic affiliation independent of the effect that, say, racial attitudes had—an effect more pronounced among women. Similarly, Susan Hansen, professor emerita of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, finds that perception of a candidate’s views on “equal roles for men and women” predicts vote choice, even in elections highly polarized around race (i.e., 2008 and 2012).

Analysis by Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, shows how “hostile sexism” not only played a significant role in presidential vote choice in 2016, but helped account for the growing gap between white college- and non-college-educated voters. He finds that racism and sexism explain at least two-thirds of the education gap among white voters in the 2016 presidential election. And while the role of racism and sexism is often just considered among white voters, Schaffner finds these factors are still predictive when all voters of all races are included in the models.

Chart Data Source: Exit Polls

Adherence to or antipathy toward feminist beliefs, as well as hostile sexism, move different sets of voters in opposite directions. A majority of white women supported Donald Trump in 2016, and “sexist” beliefs played a significant role in their choice to support Trump. Political scientists Erin Cassese and Tiffany Barnes argue that the support that white women without a college degree gave to Trump “stemmed from a heightened tendency to endorse hostile sexism and weaker perceptions of discrimination against women in American society compared to white women with a college degree.”

The critical point is that rather than the sex of the voter, it’s voters’ attitudes about gender roles, discrimination, feminism, and the like that drive gendered partisan politics. The fact that women are more likely to hold feminist attitudes than men and the fact that the effect is stronger for women help drive this gender gap.


THE INCREASING IMPORTANCE of feminism and sexism in determining partisanship and vote choice has not occurred in a vacuum: The parties have increasingly diverged on questions of women’s roles in the family and the workplace. As late as 1976, the Republican Party platform endorsed both the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Roe v. Wade. But the rise of the Christian right and conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly, and the election of Ronald Reagan, portended a real change. After 1980, Republicans opposed not just abortion, but sex education, access to birth control, and the ERA.

Still, the political parties largely avoided discussion of issues like gender roles at work and at home until 1991, when the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings put sexual harassment on the map politically. One consequence was that it sparked the so-called “Year of the Woman,” in which a history-making four Democratic women were elected to the Senate.

Democrats responded legislatively, too. After George H.W. Bush twice vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act, Bill Clinton signed the legislation as one of his first acts as president. Clinton also elevated women to nontraditional roles in his cabinet, appointing, for instance, Madeleine Albright as secretary of state and Janet Reno as attorney general, as well as creating a policy role for First Lady Hillary Clinton. Presidential candidates George W. Bush and John McCain were mostly silent on women’s issues in their campaigns, but Barack Obama made opposition to the Ledbetter decision, and support for equal pay and Planned Parenthood, central planks in both of his presidential campaigns.

There has also been an increasing difference in the two parties’ levels of commitment to women’s representation and leadership. In 1985, Ellen Malcolm founded EMILY’s List to recruit and support pro-choice Democratic women candidates, primarily through bundling campaign contributions. In 2006, Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the first woman speaker of the House and the most powerful woman leader in the nation’s history. Democratic conventions routinely featured “Women’s Night,” which highlighted the number of Democratic women in and running for elective office. While Hillary Clinton lost the primary to Obama in 2008, her nearly successful run signaled to voters the Democratic Party’s embrace of women’s national leadership. For his part, Obama appointed more women to the cabinet than any other president in history and placed two women on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chart Data Source: YouGov

By contrast, the aftermath of the 2008 election ushered in a period of unrelenting misogyny from the Republican Party and its allies. The Republicans elected in the 2010 midterms were a different breed, disproportionately Tea Party adherents who ran against bailouts, the stimulus, and Obamacare. Once in office, in both statehouses and Congress, the Republicans introduced nearly 2,000 bills to restrict women’s access to abortion at the state and federal level in just the two years following their 2010 sweep. They passed a range of laws designed not just to reduce access to abortion, but to humiliate women who seek them. For example, many states passed legislation that required women to view ultrasound pictures of fetuses prior to receiving an abortion, even requiring the use of transvaginal ultrasounds in the early weeks of pregnancy. Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania told women they could simply not look at the image if it was distressing: “You can’t make anybody watch, OK? Because you just have to close your eyes.” Republican members of Congress also introduced bills to limit federal funding for abortion (which covers poor women in instances of rape) by redefining “rape” as “forcible rape.”

The 2012 election also saw its fair share of “gender controversy,” most prominently in Republican Todd Akin’s campaign against Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. In an August interview, he noted that it was hard for women to get pregnant when experiencing a “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Richard Mourdock got himself similarly in trouble in his race against Joe Donnelly for Senate in Indiana when he observed that pregnancy as a result of rape is “something that God intended to happen.” These sort of comments gave voters the strong impression that the Republican Party was not only callous when it came to sexual assault, but also in the dark ages on women’s rights—and women’s bodies—more generally.

2016 marked a new high point for gendered elections. The Democrats nominated the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket and the historic nature of the candidacy was a feature of both the Clinton campaign and the media coverage. As had not been the case in her 2008 primary campaign, Clinton highlighted her historic status as the first female nominee for president. She heavily emphasized her personal story, her role as a mother and grandmother, and her work with women and girls throughout her career. Accused of playing the “woman card” by Trump, Clinton responded, “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in.” In contrast, Trump delivered an alpha-male performance throughout the primaries and the general election, hurling gendered attacks on primary rival Carly Fiorina and broadcaster Megyn Kelly, and accusing Clinton of being “such a nasty woman.” Trump and his supporters dismissed the Access Hollywood tape as “locker-room talk.”

Given the role that feminism and sexism plays in vote choice, it should not be a surprise that 2016 produced a large gender gap. Clinton won women by 13 points and lost men by 9 points, producing a 22-point gender gap.

But Trump’s victory also sparked a women’s revolution. The Women’s March, held the day after Trump’s inauguration, was only the beginning. Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, and Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, have documented the rise of white middle-class women activists in the suburbs, not just in protesting Trump, but also in “repopulat[ing]” the “local layer” of the Democratic Party and running for office. EMILY’s List reports that after the 2016 election, thousands of women contacted them about their interest in running for office. Foreshadowing the 2018 midterm results, the Virginia off-year elections saw an increased turnout and margin for Democrats among both white college-educated women and minority women.


Women Unleashed

The Women’s March, the rise of white middle-class women’s activism, and the results of off-year and special elections all pointed to a big shift toward Democrats among women. Certainly nothing Trump did during his first two years suggested that he was attempting to repair his image. His cabinet has fewer women than either Clinton’s or Obama’s, and his high-profile attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act always featured photos of large gatherings of white Republican men. His support for Roy Moore and other men accused of assault, the name-calling of women (especially women of color), and the Stormy Daniels episode were all just a continuation of his behavior before becoming president.

Perhaps no other event captured the profoundly gendered nature of our politics as much as the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. They took place against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, which had already polarized Americans across the political spectrum. In one poll taken in the days after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, for instance, 64 percent of adults said sexual harassment is a serious problem, a 17-point increase from 2011. This growth, however, was entirely driven by a 20-point increase among Democrats (79 percent called it a serious problem) and independents (66 percent). The share of Republicans saying it was a serious problem remained unchanged at 42 percent. Not surprisingly, views about the Kavanaugh nomination were almost completely divided along party lines, even as polls showed that most voters were more likely to believe Christine Blasey Ford than Kavanaugh.

Chart Data Source: Based on Analysis of 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study by DFP Survey by Brian Schaffner

The year of #MeToo revelations and the Kavanaugh hearings may well have increased “hostile sexism” among Trump voters. Between 2017 and 2018, polling from The Economist shows significant numbers of Trump voters became more likely to agree that false accusations are a bigger problem than sexual assaults, that women who complain about harassment create more problems than they solve, and that men who sexually harassed women 20 years ago should not lose their jobs. Indeed, between 2016 and 2018, hostile sexism became a significant predictor of congressional vote choice.

In the 2018 midterms, nearly 60 percent of women voted for Democratic candidates for Congress, which represented a 7-point increase over 2014’s percentage and a 5-point increase over 2016’s. The most dramatic shift occurred among white college-educated women, who went Democratic by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin. In 2010 and 2014, Democrats had lost white college-educated women by 4 and 10 points respectively; in the 2016 presidential race, they supported Clinton by 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent. Overall, there was a net 11-point increase in Democratic support among white college-educated women between 2016 and 2018.

Women of color receive less attention from pundits because they are already strong Democratic voters, but they turned out at higher rates than they had in 2014 and increased their level of support for Democrats from 76 percent to 88 percent. Millennial women supported Democrats with an astonishing 70 percent of the vote. In total, 60 percent of Democratic votes were cast by women.

White women without a college education remain among the Republicans’ strongest supporters. Trump won these women by 21 points, 58 percent to 37 percent; in 2018, they voted for Republican congressional candidates by 17 points, 58 percent to 41 percent. The impact of these voters was relatively muted as Democratic gains came primarily from suburban, highly educated districts, and districts won by Clinton in 2016. There will be a different dynamic in 2020, when white non-college women, who represent a greater share of the electorate than white women with a college education, may help drive an Electoral College victory for Trump.


THE HEIGHTENED ATTENTION to and conflict around gender in our politics will surely continue. Post-election stories have focused heavily on the new gender and racial diversity of the incoming Democratic freshmen and the stark contrast with the Republicans. The Democratic primary for president will feature many high-profile women candidates. After Clinton’s loss in 2016 and women’s victories in 2018, there will be an ongoing discussion as to whether the country is ready for a female president. It would be foolhardy to even guess what Trump will do in the coming two years that could add fuel to the fire.

Partisan politics has become the setting for the battle over the unfulfilled promise of the women’s movement and second-wave feminism. Gains made by women in education and employment, through policies like Title IX and legalized abortion, have not resulted in equality in the workplace and the home, or even materially increased women’s representation in the highest corridors of power in politics and business. The reactions to these battles to secure these equalities will shape our elections and our politics in the years ahead. 

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