Gene Expression

Gender gap in politics

One of the truisms of American politics for the past generation has been the “gender gap” whereby women tend to lean toward the Democrats and men toward the Republicans. This gap has become part of the background assumptions of American political commentary to the point that right-wing polemicist Ann Coulter has proposed restricting the vote to men. Though Coulter’s proposal is obviously ludicrous, there isn’t that much objection to the assumption she makes that women support the Left party and men the Right. That’s been empirically a valid judgment in the United States for the past generation. The problem is when pundits begin to create grand theories about how the Democrats and their liberal program are naturally the “Mommy Party” and the Republicans and their conservative plank the “Daddy Party.” I generally don’t buy it, because I read, and so when I was a teenager I read a paper which showed that if suffrage had been limited to men in the United Kingdom then almost every Conservative victory in the 20th century would have been overturned. A similar tendency also holds for Australia. This is not to suggest that men are naturally liberal, or women naturally conservative. Rather, it is to suggest that locally contingent conditions are important, and generalizing from one case might lead one astray. Since we Americans don’t know much about other nations we need to fall into this trap quite a bit.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting cross-cultural dynamics within the past generation worth noting. The Developmental Theory of the Gender Gap: Women and Men’s Voting Behavior in Global Perspective:

The analysis demonstrated that gender differences in voting behavior have been realigning in post-industrial societies. By the 1990s women voters in these nations proved significantly more leftwing than men, even after introducing a range of social controls. The modern gender gap in not confined only to the United States, as particularistic accounts suggest, but is also evident by the 1990s in some West European states. Nevertheless this pattern was not yet evident in post-communist societies or developing societies, where the traditional gender gap persists into the mid-1990s with women voters more rightwing than men. The main reason for the emergence of the modern gender gap in post-industrial societies, we argue, is that structural and cultural trends have transformed the values of the women, particularly among the younger generation. The conclusion summarizes the main findings and considers the implications for understanding women and men’s power at the ballot box and the process of cultural change.



  1. #1 Luis
    May 23, 2008

    In Spain it’s certainly been argued now and then that women tend to feel and vote more conservatively than me. It seems that the data does reflect that for this particular case. It’s been even argued by historians that the implementation of universal suffrage in 1933 was what gave the conservatives the edge for victory (this was reversed in 1936 though).

    Anyhow, I’m glad that the Spanish trend is not universal.

  2. #2 Tevebaugh
    May 23, 2008

    Interesting paper.

    My hypothesis is that conservatives have been losing female votes in the U.S. because (informed) voters don’t like being kicked in the face, and will vote accordingly.

    I wonder, though. U.S. elections feel more like ad campaigns than serious political events. Maybe the authors of this paper are giving the American electorate too much credit for making decisions that reflect its own best interest or philosophical alignment.

  3. #3 John Emerson
    May 23, 2008

    I think that the left-right / conservative-liberal polarities don’t cover this. I think that women tend to be more cautious and averse to conflict. Where the left is militant, they’ll vote left (especially notable in France and probably Spain.). Where the right is militant, they’ll vote right.

    In many respects, the Democrats have been the status quo, incrementalist party since 1968, whereas the Republicans have been talking loud about shaking things up.

  4. #4 Marc
    May 23, 2008

    My hypothesis is that conservatives have been losing female votes in the U.S. because (informed) voters don’t like being kicked in the face, and will vote accordingly.

    So in the U.S., women are generally more informed voters than men?

  5. #5 agnostic
    May 23, 2008

    So Spanish females are also fairly conservative, in addition to being beautiful and feminine? Is there anything bad about them?

    There’s something to John Emerson’s idea about militancy forcing women in the opposite direction. Look at Spain: after the fall of fascism and the transition to democracy, women are more conservative than men, but the difference is not statistically significant. As the left becomes stronger, women become increasingly more conservative, and the statistical significance becomes even greater.

    All you conservative guys out there now have some useful information about where to look for a wife!

  6. #6 agnostic
    May 23, 2008

    Ireland’s another place — although you have to prefer the leggy blond type more than the voluptuous brunette.

  7. #7 John S. Wilkins
    May 23, 2008

    I can’t say whether there’s much of a gender divide here in Australia, but it does seem to me that you (or the paper’s authors) are not comparing apples with apples. Australian left wing parties are nothing like the radical parties of Europe, and so far as I can tell homogenisation has left America with no large left wing parties at all.

    My personal experience with one of the conservative parties in Australia does lead me to think it is largely run by, and for the benefit of, late middle aged ladies with a tendency to rinse their hair blue.

  8. #8 John Emerson
    May 23, 2008

    Obviously there was right-left error in my post.

  9. #9 TGGP
    May 23, 2008

    Have any of you read John Lott on women’s suffrage in the U.S and the increasing size of government? I was surprised when in a friendly interview he denied the conclusion that suffrage was a bad idea, as he simply noted women have different interests than men that got representation after suffrage.

  10. #10 razib
    May 24, 2008

    in catholic countries leftish anti-clericalism has tended to suppress older female support, as women are the backbone of the church. illustration: franco’s father was a freethinker, his mother a staunch catholic.

    Australian left wing parties are nothing like the radical parties of Europe, and so far as I can tell homogenisation has left America with no large left wing parties at all.

    it’s a relative scale. there’s nothing “absolute” called left or right, just positions within a given time & place.

  11. #11 Ronduck
    May 26, 2008

    I read a few years ago that in the US marries women tended to vote conservative, whereas single women voted liberal.

  12. #12 Richard Sharpe
    June 10, 2008

    You need to warn us that some members of your blog roll are NSFW.

    It seems unremarkable that women might be more inclined to support government largess than men and that this might change over time, but it seems prudent to analyze it by looking at four different constituencies and noting that men and women have different potentials for amassing resources (depending on a number of variables, of course).

    It would seem to me that most women who do not have inherited wealth would be acting rationally to vote for redistribution of wealth away from those who create/earn it (who are mostly men) towards themselves, especially in an environment in which government has proven that it is relatively stable and is prepared to redistribute … I would expect men who have little prospect of amassing resources to also support such governments.

    On the other hand, men who have good prospects and women who have inherited wealth might not be so interested in redistribution, but then there are always politicians …

    The question is how long can such a situation continue before those who create the wealth decide to move elsewhere.

  13. #13 Richard Sharpe
    June 10, 2008

    Indeed, an argument could be made that women are primed by evolution to expect redistribution of wealth towards them at some level in order to raise children.

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