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From the Issue: Summer 2016

Betting on the Gender Gap

The Women's Vote in the High-Stakes Elections of 2016

by Katherine Spillar

The gender gap is in and out of the news this election cycle. The 2016 election likely will have the largest gender gap in history, which could reach a 15-point difference between women and men in their choices for the country's political leadership. More than ever before, women have the power to elect the next president, decide the makeup of Congress, select state legislators and shape the national agenda.

Words written 30 years ago by Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. publisher, ring more true today than ever:

You've seen it in countless newspaper headlines; you've heard about it on radio and television. Republicans alternately deny its existence or worriedly announce plan after plan for "closing" it. And Democrats, slow to recognize it as a political reality, are nevertheless counting on it to provide a windfall of votes for their party. It's the gender gap—the measurable difference in the way women and men vote for candidates and in the way they view political issues. The "women's vote," a powerful new voting bloc, will make the difference in political contests.

This call to arms opened Smeal's 1984 book Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President. After stepping down as president of the National Organization for Women, she was determined that the importance of the women's vote not be buried in the election coverage, regardless of who became president. (See The Gender Gap Then and Now)

Then and now, the gender gap in voting exists in part because of the differing life experiences of women and men. Caregiving responsibilities fall mainly to women. The pay gap remains stubbornly wide; women are more likely to live in poverty and are the majority of those in low-paid jobs. Domestic violence and sexual assault against women run rampant. The gender gap offers a powerful tool in making women's differing viewpoints visible, compelling politicians to address women's concerns and demands for equality. The better informed the narrative—the more women's voices and opinions and votes are respected— the more powerful the gender gap becomes.

Women in the U.S. won the right to vote in 1920, an accomplishment characterized by journalist Eleanor Clift as "the greatest expansion of democracy on a single day that the world had ever seen." Over the next few decades, more women registered and voted so that by 1980, 5.5 million more women than men voted; by 2012, nearly 10 million more women than men voted.

Conventional wisdom through the early 1980s was that women voted the same way as their husbands. Politicians assumed if they focused on male voters, female votes would follow. But as the ranks of women voters swelled, the movement for women's equality was growing larger, and with it the visibility and salience of issues of importance to women.

The drive to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s and 1980s accelerated the politicization of feminist issues. In key state legislatures, vote counts showed that a majority of Democratic legislators supported the ERA while nearly all Republicans opposed it. After the ERA ratification deadline passed in June 1982, three states short of ratification, the fall election results showed significant gender differences in voting: In state races, women favored Democratic candidates. Feminists speculated this was due in large part to the candidates' positions on the ERA and abortion rights—and academic research confirmed these conclusions.

Since then, the gender gap has become a permanent fixture of U.S. elections, along with more women voting and with women more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. In the 2012 presidential election, the gender gap at 10 points was decisive in electing President Barack Obama, with 55 percent of women and 45 percent of men voting for him and 44 percent of women and 52 percent of men favoring Mitt Romney. In other words, if only men had voted, Romney would have been president.

"It's difficult, if not impossible to win a presidential election without a majority of women's votes," wrote Karen Beckwith, chair of the Department of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed. "Women of color have a particularly strong preference for Democratic candidates."

The number of women registering to vote continues to outpace men, and women of color comprise the fastest-growing segment of women voters. African American and Latina women are important components of the gender gap. In 2012, black women voted at higher rates than other women—70.1 percent compared to 65.6 percent of white women—and they voted overwhelmingly (96 percent) for Obama.

The Feminist Factor

A critical driver of the gender gap is the feminist factor—meaning that voters' views on feminism correlate with their choice of candidates. In a 2012 Ms. magazine/ Communications Consortium Media Center exit poll by Lake Research Partners, 55 percent of women voters self-identified as feminists, up by 9 points among a sample of those voters asked the same question in 2008. Among male voters, 30 percent self-identified as feminists. Almost three-quarters of Democratic women voters identified as feminists, as did more than one-third of Republican women. In addition, "among [all] feminist women, some two-thirds (64 percent) voted for Obama, as did 54 percent of feminist-identified men," Smeal reported in Ms. after the election.

"The feminist factor cuts across race and ethnic lines, with a majority of Latina, African American and white women voters considering themselves feminists," continued Smeal. The feminist factor also cuts across generational lines, with a majority of both younger and older women voters self-identifying as feminists.

For the 2016 elections, the proportion of voters who identify as feminists is likely to increase even further. In a 2016 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 60 percent of all women and 33 percent of men identified as feminists.

Different Lives, Different Views, Different Votes

Women and men often have different opinions on political issues, policy solutions and priorities—and on their choice of candidates. "An important factor underlying the gender gap is the differing views of women and men on the appropriate size and role of the federal government," explains Susan Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "Men are more likely to favor cutbacks and reducing the size and scope of government; women are more concerned than men about preserving the social safety net."

And women want greater representation in elected office. In a 2015 Pew Research Center report, almost 40 percent say that having more women in top leadership positions in government "would do a lot to improve the quality of life for all women." By contrast, only 19 percent of men agree.

Here's a look at some of the gender-gap issues that will shape the outcome of the presidential and congressional races this fall.

The Economy and Workplace: Women want an economy that works for them and their families, which means closing the gender pay gap and offering more workplace flexibility. A 2016 poll by the Center for American Progress shows that an overwhelming majority of African American women (87 percent) and Latina women (88 percent) want the next president to focus on improving the nation's economic well-being. "There's consensus between Latina and African American women on virtually every issue," said Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions.

A National Partnership for Women and Families 2016 poll shows that significantly more women than men say it's "important for elected officials to update the law to guarantee access to paid family and medical leave," and 85 percent of women (compared to only two-thirds of men) say they favor a law that would create a national paid family and medical leave fund.

Equality and Equal Representation: Women are more likely than men to see sex discrimination as a problem. The 2015 Pew report noted that almost "two-thirds of women say there is [at least] some discrimination against women in our society today." Only 48 percent of men agreed. Overwhelming majorities of both sexes support an equal rights amendment to the Constitution with women most enthusiastic. A 2016 poll by the ERA Coalition found that 94 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment that guarantees equal rights for men and women, with 96 percent support among women and 90 percent among men.

Abortion and Health Care: The escalating attacks on reproductive rights by Congress and state legislatures and the critical appointments to the Supreme Court mean these issues will carry weight with women voters. Over the years, a majority of both men and women across all racial and ethnic groups have supported legal abortion in certain circumstances, but women feel more strongly about abortion and are more likely to factor it into their candidate preference. A 2012 Pew poll found that women voters favored Democrats as "better reflecting their views on abortion" by 52 percent, compared to 45 percent of men.

A 2013 landmark study by Belden Russonello Strategists for In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda examined abortion attitudes among African Americans. According to Marcela Howell, founder and executive director of In Our Own Voice, "Black women and men overwhelmingly support keeping abortion safe and legal." Eight in 10 African Americans say abortion should be legal. Only 18 percent say abortion should never be legal.

Health care issues overall are of greater importance to women than men. According to a 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation poll: "Female voters (41 percent) are more likely than male voters (31 percent) to consider health care ‘extremely important' to their vote" in the presidential election.

LGBT Rights: In the wake of mass murders in Orlando and reversals of LGBT rights in states like North Carolina, women's views will make a difference. When asked in the 2012 Pew poll about which candidate is best on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, more women than men (53 percent to 46 percent) sided with President Obama. Decisive gender gaps emerged in 2012 exit polls in the three states with marriage-equality ballot measures; large majorities of women voted to support marriage equality in Maryland, Maine and Washington state, while majorities of men were opposed. In Minnesota, women were decisive in defeating a state constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriages.

Sexual Violence: Exposés of sexual violence on college campuses have exploded as an issue after high-profile cases at Stanford, Brown and other universities. A 2015 Washington Post - Kaiser Family Foundation poll of college students found that 41 percent of women rated sexual assault a "big problem or somewhat of a problem" compared to 33 percent of men. When asked whether a woman who reports a sexual assault will be criticized by other students, 42 percent of women said it was very or somewhat likely, compared to 29 percent of men.

Environment and Renewable Energy: Environmental issues have greater saliency for women, according to studies by Hart Research, VJBreglio and Lake Research Partners. Women voters more strongly value clean air and water and environmental protection when it comes to energy policy. Consequently, women, especially those younger than 50, are more supportive of renewable energy and want to make the transition to renewables as quickly as possible, while men are more divided.

National Security: Although women are more worried than men about the prospects of a terrorist attack, more women (50 percent) compared to men (44 percent) think "relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism," according to a Pew 2016 poll. Women are more likely than men to oppose U.S. military intervention in other countries and more likely to support multilateral efforts and global cooperation.

Voters Who Identify as Feminists

voters who identify as feminists chart

Heading Back to the Future

"Those who predict the gender gap will one day totally disappear miss the point," Smeal wrote back in 1984. "As long as women view public issues in a substantially different way than men do; as long as significant numbers of women are underpaid and discriminated against economically; long as such key feminist issues as abortion and the ERA, affirmative action in jobs and education, discrimination in insurance and in pay equity persist in the country without resolution...the gender gap will persist."

For the gender gap to be decisive in elections, the differences between the candidates on the key issues of concern to women must be widely known—and shared among women and their networks. Just as important, candidates need to know that by committing to action on women's concerns, they don't risk losing the male vote. When the gender gap narrows, it is usually because men have moved in the direction of women's positions on issues and candidates, which shows that women can—and do—lead in the political arena.

Let the 2016 countdown to the gender gap begin.

For regular updates on the gender gap and feminist issues in the election, follow

KATHERINE SPILLAR is executive editor of Ms. and executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

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