Women Will Elect the Next President

In 1984, I wrote the book Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President. I knew the title’s bold prediction would be more evolutionary than revolutionary, but felt the gender gap and its origin story needed to be told.

Today the term “gender gap” needs little or no explanation. A team of us at the National Organization for Women, which I led, first identified the gender gap in 1980. We named it. We defined it. (The measurable difference in the way women and men vote for candidates and in the way they view political issues.) We wanted politicians to know that if they voted against the Equal Rights Amendment they would pay a price: women would remember in November. We knew it would grow, especially if women’s rights issues were salient in an election.

This brings us to the 2016 presidential election: Donald Trump’s misogynistic statements and behavior have made violence against women and basic respect for women key to this election. The likely election of Hillary Clinton tomorrow as the first woman President of the United States will be with a decisive gender gap and makes this an excellent time to review why there is often a gender gap against Republican candidates.

Trump is not an outlier Republican candidate—he’s just more crude and obvious in his anti-women’s rights stance. Republican candidates have had a woman problem since Ronald Reagan and his 1980 Republican platform, which removed support for the Equal Rights Amendment and supported a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion and some forms of birth control. Historical voting data shows that despite winning, Ronald Reagan had a problem with women voters (8% fewer women than men voted for Reagan). Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won because of women voters. Today 60% of the Democratic vote is comprised of women, especially single (divorced, widowed, or never married) women, women of color, and younger women.

In 2012, Obama won with 55 percent of women voting for him and only 45 percent of men—a 10 percent gender gap. A new metric emerged in this election: the Feminist Factor. According to a Ms. and Lake Research Partners post-election poll, 64% of self-identified feminist women and 54% of self-identified feminist men voted for Obama.

Broad-ranging research has confirmed that women of color and single women consistently vote more Democratic and that women vote based on their life experiences rather than the old myth that wives vote the way their husbands tell them to. The gender gap is cross-generational and appears along race, ethnicity, income, and educational lines.

The number of women who vote grows each election. This year, women are about 53% of the electorate and will cast 10 million more votes than men. However, both gerrymandering and gender-mandering mask the impact of women’s votes and the votes of people of color. District lines can be drawn to minimize the votes of single women who tend not to live in coupled suburbs.

Numbers of self-identified feminists are also growing. According to an early 2016 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Poll on Feminism, 60% of women and 33% of men self-identify as feminists.

There are many reasons why women will elect the next president this Tuesday. Women’s votes have already determined the Democratic primary. According to some primary exit polls, Hillary Clinton won with the largest gender gaps I have ever seen–as high as 21%. Right now, depending on the poll and state, the general election gender gap is large and significant.

No wonder. The next president will appoint Supreme Court justices who will decide not only the future of access to legal abortion and family planning, but a host of questions: will women and girls move toward full equality or backwards based on Justice Scalia’s notion of original intent that the constitution does not prohibit sex discrimination? Will Title IX be enforced or reversed? Will employment laws fighting sex and race discrimination be strengthened or weakened? These rights and more are dependent on this election largely because the Supreme Court is split on many issues affecting women.

There are universally salient legislative issues driving the gender gap too: Congress could narrow the pay gap by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Fair Pay Act, increase the minimum wage, pass nationwide paid family and medical leave, and grant caregiver credits to older women on Social Security. If the Affordable Care Act is eliminated, discriminatory gender rated pricing could be restored and the availability of birth control without co-pays or deductibles could be eliminated. Social Security could be privatized, which would be devastating to older women. The differing views of men and women on issues related to the environment, clean air and water, peace, national security, and gun violence all impact the size of the gender gap.

No question, the gender gap will be bigger in 2016 than when I wrote the book in 1984. Political pundits need to look beyond the numbers and ask why the gender gap is becoming a gender gulf.

Women voting for Hillary Clinton and down ballot Democrats are doing so for more reasons than Donald Trump’s regular insults and disrespect. I predict the 2016 election will fuel feminists of all ages to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. It’s about fairness and respect, which this election has shown women need now more than ever.


Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.


Eleanor Smeal is president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. For over five decades, she has played a leading role in both national and state campaigns to win women’s rights legislation, including the Equal Rights Amendment.