The Political Influence of Women Cannot Be Ignored
This summer, the nation celebrates the 99th anniversary of passing the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. After nearly one hundred years of women’s suffrage under US constitutional authority, bias and assumption – rather than evidence – continue to shape how we think about women’s political influence.
In 1924, barely four years after woman suffrage had been written into the Constitution, scholars and pundits were ready to announce that woman suffrage had been a failure. The voting rate had fallen (http://www.electproject.org/national-1789-present and surely it must have been the fault of the newly enfranchised women, who apparently weren’t that interested in voting.
There was one problem: there was little basis for these claims. No one could really tell how women were voting. Unlike race and class, differences of sex cannot be deduced from voting outcomes in different precincts. Unlike the well documented residential segregation between rich and poor or black and white, men and women do not live in separate areas. There is no geographical surrogate for gender difference.
Nonetheless, the unsubstantiated assertion of women’s political indifference was repeated in election after election for decades to follow. Actual turnout rates could not begin to be discerned for at least another two decades when systematic exit polling began. But by that time, little attention was being paid to gender.
Then, in the mid-1970s, this decades-long myth of women’s political irrelevance was radically displaced by shocking facts on the ground. Polling data revealed a pronounced “gender gap,” offering evidence that women voted in large numbers. Furthermore, these figures indicated that women voted quite differently than men, favoring significantly more Democratic candidates and liberal political positions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_gender_gap_in_the_United_States)
Approaching the 2016 election, this gender gap, which had been in place for four decades, was presumed to turn in favor of Hillary Rodham Clinton—except that it seemed not to. More precisely, early voter turnout data suggested that a majority of white women had voted in favor of Donald Trump. To be sure, African American women supported Clinton at much higher rates, but this part of the story was overshadowed by stories about the disappointing conservatism of women overall. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/03/10/trump-celebrates-winning-52-percent-of-women-in-2016-which-is-only-how-he-did-among-whites/)
Unfortunately, this is another example of weak and sloppy political reporting, perpetuating an alleged “fact” based on assumption and bias. The Pew Research Center has now debunked the assertion that a majority of white women voted for Trump. The original, formerly false figures were based on notoriously inexact exit polling taken at the time of the election.
On the basis of much more careful, subsequent examination of the data, the Pew Research Center contends that white women voted 47% in favor of Trump, compared to 45% for Clinton, a statistically insignificant difference When education was taken into account, the percentage of white women supporting Clinton rose even higher. The Pew data demonstrated that college educated white women voted 13% more for Clinton than for Trump. .( https://time.com/5422644/trump-white-women-2016/)
Rather it seems to be the case those who didn’t vote, in part due to deliberate voter suppression, were responsible for Trump’s election. Here gender does turn out to be a significant factor. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women – regardless of race – were considerably more likely to vote than men. In every age group under 65, women voted in higher percentages in 2016 than men. When the number of actual voters (rather than percentages) is considered, women were far more likely to vote in all age brackets. (https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/genderdiff.pdf)
If Donald Trump’s election taught us anything, it is that we overlook the political influence of women—not just among the candidates for the highest office, but throughout the political environment, at the peril of our constitutional order. The 2018 midterms showed the power of women voting for Congress. In 2020, it remains to be seen if that dynamic can be harnessed and mobilized in the vote for president. Perhaps it can be, so long as presumptions about the failures of women – voters as well as candidates – do not get in the way.
One hundred years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, women might still save American democracy. But only if we don’t underestimate them.
Ellen Carol DuBois is distinguished research professor at the University of California Los Angeles and the author of several history books about the U.S. suffrage movement, including the forthcoming “Suffrage Women’s Long Road to the Ballot Box.”