The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: Women & Mass-Level Electoral Politics & Power Since the 19th Amendment

Week 8 

Well, the world has changed. Spring break is over and this is the first week we worked remotely using Zoom in the new C-19 world. Thanks to all my students who were great partners in this new venture. Proud to work with them.

Now that we have the 19th Amendment in place (in this course), we look at the significance in the post 1920 world, the remaining gendered gaps in empowerment, and the processes of the continuing struggles.

This week we attended to the classic question: Now (a large number of ) women have the vote; what did they do with it. We began by clarifying once again this important point: The 19th Amendment did not “grant women the right to vote.” This is true in two important sense. First, a substantial portion of American women already had the right to vote because of the state actions we studied. Second, the 19th Amendment did not technically give the right to vote; it said that that right could not be “denied or abridged on account of sex.” The Amendment changed nothing for those whose vote was still being denied or abridged on account of race, literacy, grandfather clauses, lack of funds for poll taxes, age, or any other basis on which the franchise was limited. (Note – most people accept it as natural that people under a particular age should not be able to vote – but that is “denying or abridging” the right to vote.) So we focus this week on the voting behavior of women who were allowed to vote.

The new book by Christina Wolbrecht and Kevin Corder, A Century of Votes for Women (2020) served as the preparation for this class. Many students were also fortunate to hear Professor Wolbrecht discuss this book when she visited at the beginning of the semester.

We began with a general, theoretical discussion about how we might understand what kinds of impact the 19th Amendment might have had. It became clear in our survey of possibilities that some potential impacts might be measured relatively easily, and others not so much. In some cases impact became much easier to measure later in history, for example after the development of survey research. This is important to think about to understand not just what impacts there might be, but how we know how much, if any, impact there was.

Obviously one potential impact of the 19th Amendment would be – and was – that women who were allowed to vote did vote. Of course one major question A Century of Votes for Women looked at was  how much did women vote, especially compared with men, or men similarly placed. But there are other potential impacts to explore as well.

Did the inclusion of women in the right to the franchise change their levels of political interest, knowledge, and awareness? This semester we studied women’s political involvement before they had the right to vote – in movements such as antislavery, the women’s rights,  woman suffrage, and temperance movements,  but also in their churches, clubs, and other organizations, and even in political parties.   So it wasn’t that no women would have had political awareness, knowledge, etc. and then suddenly they did. But it is certainly plausible that gaining the right to vote changed these cognitive aspects of citizenship to some degree for some women.

Did the inclusion of women in the right to vote change women’s understanding of the nature of their citizenship? If many women came to see voting not just as a right but as their citizen obligation, we have clearly left behind the old-fashioned version of republican motherhood.

Did the inclusion of women in the right to vote change anything broader about cultural understandings of gender and politics? Surely we witnessed a decline in the view among both women and men that elections are simply not an appropriate focus for women. But many students also speculated that with women voting, cultural stereotypes would drive those who had an interest in engaging women in politics to begin to define a realm of “women’s issues” more clearly.

Did the inclusion of women in the right to vote change their involvement in campaign activities (not just voting) and their types of political engagement? We imagined plausible scenarios that would lead women’s engagement in voting also to have an impact in their engagement in other means of influencing public policy.

And finally, there is the question the consequences of inclusion in the electoral franchise for partisanship and for vote choice. Were there distinct gendered ways in which women related to political parties or chose their candidates?

Before we turned to specifics, I also offered three further elements of a good framework for thinking about and analyzing the impact of the 19th Amendment on women and women’s use of the franchise:

  • We have to pay attention to the difference between speculation about women’s political views and behavior versus their actual views and behavior. We noted how much it is still true today that pundits, journalists, and political folk still make gendered assumptions about women’s political behavior and attitudes, often without a shred of evidence. That speculation itself has an impact on the political world, however.
  • It is important to consider a developmental approach to understanding the short- and long-term impact of the 19th Amendment on women’s consciousness, understanding, attitudes, and behavior. As one person in the class noted quickly, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, there were women who had lived under the old system for very long lives and there were young women with very different experiences and attitudes – those of the “Roaring Twenties,” for example. And soon there were women who had never experienced lacking the right to vote. I explained a developmental approach as attending both to historical and life course processes, and the relationship between those two. The 19th Amendment was not just a flip of a switch that affected all women in the same way, even among those who actually did gain the right to vote.
  • We also have to take account of a contextual approach to understanding the impact of the 19th Women, as well as men, are politically affected by things like economic conditions (booms, depressions, recessions), wars, major political events, technological and other disjunctures, and, need we say it, epidemics. Gender does not affect people regardless of these major factors – these interact with gender to create impacts.

The next phase of our discussion picked up on a clear conclusion of the Wolbrecht and Corder book, and indeed, all of political science research on gender and elections:  There is not now and never has been anything like a homogeneous “women’s vote.” There is not now and never has been a women’s voting block. So, I asked: Does this mean that gender does not have an impact on women’s use of the vote?

The class discussed the wide variety of ways that gender can affect political views and behavior without actually creating block votes. I discussed the results of political psychology research that shows that neither gender nor gender identity have constant impacts on the way people think and act politically, but that these identities (like other kinds of social identity) have an impact when they are triggered by events or situations. This is why we don’t see a constant “gender gap,” but a variable one. I discussed the recent research that shows that even underlying sexist (or racist) attitudes may not have an impact on political preferences unless they are triggered by the specifics of electoral races. We explored the conditions under which gender identities – of women and men – might be triggered and come into play.

I next ran a combination breakout discussion/experiment with the students.  I sent them into two different “breakout rooms” (thank you, software), and asked the two “rooms” to discuss different questions. One got this: A lot of research shows that women are more likely to vote Democratic than men. Why do you think this is the case?  The other “room” got this:  A lot of research shows that men are more likely to vote Republican than women. Why do you think this is the case?

When they got back from their groups and reported, what I expected happened: The group that had been asked why women were more Democratic than men basically reported through many stereotypes of and over-generalizations about women – their compassion, views of abortion and “women’s issues,” and assorted other “special” things about women that make them different from the baseline – namely men. The group that had been asked why men were more Republican than women basically reported through many stereotypes and over-generalizations about men – their lack of compassion, their protection of their privilege, their devotion to traditional order, etc.  It was easy to show them how using one or another gender as the standard or norm against which the other is compared (and it is usually men who are the norm or standard, with women needing “explaining”) distorts analysis and led them to rely on stereotype and generalization. We discussed what it meant to ask the question another way: Research has shown that there are gender differences in partisanship. Why do you think this is the case?  It takes two to create a difference.

The remainder of the class served as an application of these different points. First we looked at the period of the World War II using the Wolbrecht and Corder book. Then, to examine the post-World War II period, I used a set of graphs constructed largely out of American National Election Data as well as some exit polling to understand changes in gender differences in partisanship and in vote choice, and gender differences within partisanship. (See the slides for this class.)

We first looked at Democratic party identification in presidential election years, 1948-2016. Among the observations we made and discussed: (1) the slight tendency for men to lean more Democratic than women before the 1960s; (2) the bigger observed partisan change among men than women in terms of the decline in Democratic partisanship first, as part of the transition of substantial number of white Southerners from the Democratic to Republican party given the changing civil rights agenda of the Democratic party and second as part of the “Reagan revolution” that drew many working class white people from the Democratic to the Republican party as a result of the rhetoric about the impact of interference with the economy through welfare policy, and interference in the labor market through affirmative action. We discussed why men might have been more affected than women by these circumstances. We also discussed (3) the resulting development of the “gender gap,” but the fact that it varies from year to year, and (4) the divergent impact of the 2016 election period.  We also looked at a graph Gender differences in partisan identification with the Republican party to see the story from the other side.

We considered the same question of gender differences in partisanship using cross-national comparative data across a wide range of countries, showing that while women identify more with the more liberal party in many countries, that is true to a varying degree; and men identify more with the more liberal party in some countries, and to varying degrees. We discussed why that might be the case.

Just to be clear, not all gender differences in electoral choice are related specifically to party. I shared data from exit polls during the 2016 primaries that show that in every state, regardless of whether Clinton ultimately won or Sanders won, there were gender differences in candidate support, with women more supportive of Clinton and men more supportive of Sanders.  Given everything else we know, it made little sense to suggest that this was because men were generally more liberal in their views. Of course many people leapt to the conclusion that this was because women in particular supported the female candidate. But do we have much evidence that the gender of the candidate generally shapes women’s political choices? And (again, a question of stereotyping versus analysis), if we do not assume that men’s choices are the standard or norm, and it is women’s votes that need explaining, might we equally hypothesize that men were especially supportive of Sanders because he was a man?  How would we know which of these hypotheses was true?

Finally, we looked at gender differences in the vote, leading up to the often-asked question of why white women’s votes broke in favor of the Republican candidate for president in 2016.

I started by showing a graph of the relationship between partisanship and vote for the Democratic candidate from 1952 to 2016. Except in landslide elections (1964, 1972), as a rule the vast majority of Democrats vote for Democrats and the vast majority of Republicans vote for Republicans, regardless of what else is going on.  The first thing we need to know to understand how people are voting is their party identification. We have already seen gender differences in party identification, so we should have a good idea of what the gender differences in the vote will look like. And, of course, when we look at gender differences in the vote we do see the development of the “gender gap” from the 1980s on. Using a series of tables from the 2016 exit polls, we can see some of the explanation of gender differences in the vote, but we can also see why it is not surprising that while substantial majorities of African American women (and men) voted Democratic, white women split fairly evenly, with a slight edge going to Donald Trump. The different patterns of partisanship across the different racial groups was crucial, although we also see a large impact of education.  At the same time, a gender difference in support for the Democratic and Republican candidates shows up in each racial group, especially among white and black voters. There also was a large gender difference within education levels among white people. We discussed the fact that neither white women (or men) nor black women (or men) showed much tendency to vote independently of their partisan identity, which is a more stable, persistent orientation toward politics.

Finally, we turned to congressional elections so we could take account of the post-Trump congressional election.  Looking at gender differences in congressional vote from 2008 to 2018 we see substantially parallel lines with a pretty substantial gender difference in vote depicted in fairly parallel lines, with two notable exceptions. Men turned away from Democratic candidates in 2014 to a greater degree than women did. And women turned toward Democratic candidates much more than men did in 2018.  A look at some of the exit polling data suggests there may be some new movement taking place now, with white women, and especially white college-educated women moving more toward the Democratic party in the Trump era. The 2020 elections will tell us more.

Slides from the class:  PO50519thMassPoliticsAfter19th

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