Why the ‘women’s vote’ is a myth – and why believing it is dangerous
Originally published on Europe & Me as “Why the ‘women’s vote’ is a myth – and why believing it is dangerous”
After the election of current US president Donald Trump many pundits on all sides expressed surprise and shock over the large number of women who voted for him. After all, Mr Trump had time and again during the election season expressed many sexist views aimed towards women and their bodies that many found abhorrent.
While not most women voted for Mr Trump, a majority of white women did: according to a CNN exit poll, 53 percent of white women preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, and some accused these women to be misogynistic and to “vote against their own self-interest”. This begs the question: is there more to this debate than just gender? Is gender even an important factor when looking at politics and voting behaviour today?
The elusive “women’s vote”, or how the “fairer sex” votes, has for long been a topic for academic and political debate, and there has, historically, been a discrepancy between the voting patterns of men and women. When women were first given the right to vote, a process that happened at different times across the world, the parties who gained most from women’s suffrage were conservative ones.
Well-respected historian Tony Judt, in his seminal work Post-war, prescribes this to the fact that conservative (and mainly Christian Democratic) parties in Europe “always emphasised reconciliation and stability”, which spoke to women – as opposed to the reformist and even revolutionary undertones among parties on the left: Social Democrats and Communists.
In a time when a majority of women did not participate in the labour market to any major degree, their safety net was the nuclear family, and Christian Democratic parties often appealed to women by insisting on the importance of this very family structure. Furthermore, conservative parties had a very wide appeal; socialist and leftist parties often catered to working men only, while conservative parties could appeal to women from many different strata in society. However, this had changed by the mid-1900s and the situation was reversed: more women than men voted for parties on the left.
This perceived idea is still strong today: it is often said that US women are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, and the conservative Tories in Great Britain have had problems with appealing to women for several decades – or so the narrative goes. This makes the success of Donald Trump among (white) women even more outstanding – or is the conception of the leftward-leaning ‘women’s vote’ a myth?
Anthony Wells at pollster YouGov explains that the Tories actually do enjoy the same support among men as among women: in a January 2014 poll the Conservative party enjoys the same amount of support among both genders; Mr Wells argues that age, for example, plays a much more important role than gender does. In the 2010 UK election, the difference between the men’s and women’s vote was less than 1%, and Mr Wells denounces a lot of the ideas on the electoral differences between men and women as “based on flimsy evidence”.
“Why should women agree with one another?” Amanda Hess, David Carr Fellow at the New York Times, asks in a November 2016 piece titled “The Dream — and the Myth — of the ‘Women’s Vote’”. She argues that “[women] are alienated from one another by race, class, geography, sexual orientation and marriage. In the face of those divisions, women develop radically different ideas of what it means to be a woman. Often those conceptions of womanhood conflict. And that’s never more obvious than when another woman is on the ballot.”
So, while women may have been inclined to vote conservative when first gaining the right to vote, this changed as progress was made in terms of social and economic independence and they started working normal jobs and got more sexual and legal rights, which made them just as likely to vote left – or right – as their fellow men.
So why has this myth of the ‘women’s vote’ persisted to the degree that it came to a shock to pollsters, analysts, and pundits that women did vote for Trump in the American election, contrary to the public perception that women would not vote for a republican, much less a sexist one? In response to this, several American post-election post-mortems identified race as a more important factor than gender. American women in general did not give Donald Trump a majority – white women did. Just as Miss Hess at the New York Times posits, it is important to see beyond gender (true for all genders – lest we forget people who don’t conform to the gender binary – but especially women, due to the myth that they vote different because of their gender): we are more complex than our genders.
The same trends can historically be seen in other European countries. Already in the 1970s center-right parties in Finland got as many votes from women as parties on the left, which went hand in hand with how many women they nominated on their party lists. The same was true in Sweden at the time, where women’s representation in centrist and leftist parties already were on similar levels forty years ago from today. The recent surge in new, anti-establishment populist parties in Western Europe does however speak against this trend, as fewer women than men actually vote for these parties, but researchers have found it hard to attribute and isolate this difference to any unique factors such as gender.
Another, new dynamic that has already proven to make a larger difference at the polls is the increasing schism between rural and urban populations, where the former tends to vote more nationalist and isolationist and the latter, often more educated and affluent, vote for parties and candidates that put forward a more global and inclusive agenda. This spans many traditional divisions such as gender, and even race. In this debate, the myth that women most certainly will cast their vote on a progressive party is a dangerous red herring, and if Europe can learn anything for this “super-election year” it is that no party can take any votes for granted, not women’s – nor men’s.