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Opinion | The Gender Gap Obscures More About Politics Than It Reveals

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By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C. on politics, demographics and inequality.

The phenomenon of the gender gap — the fact that women as a whole are more supportive of the Democratic Party than men are — masks significant divisions in the American electorate.

Nicholas Winter, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, addresses this issue head on in “Gendered (and racialized) partisan polarization!,” a chapter in the 2020 book, “Community Wealth Building and the Reconstruction of American Democracy”:

A focus on gender gaps misses important ways that gender structures party competition because the politics of gender does not, generally speaking, divide men from women. Rather, it often engages questions of women’s and men’s roles, rights, and relative power; it pits those defending traditional gender arrangements against those advocating for egalitarian gender arrangements. In other words, the politics of gender divides supporters of gender egalitarianism and feminism — male and female — from gender traditionalists and anti-feminists of both sexes.

Research by Winter and other social scientists demonstrates that competing ideas about the role of men and women, at home and at work, shape our political life. They do not set men against women as much as produce two opposing coalitions, each made up of both men and women.

It almost goes without saying, but men and women who support traditional gender roles for men and women lean strongly toward the Republican Party; men and women who question traditional gender roles and who are sympathetic to women’s rights lean strongly to the Democratic Party.

The public reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v Wade last month reflects this divide. A June 24-25 CBS/YouGov survey found that women disagreed with the Dobbs decision 67-33 while men disapproved by 51-39. The gap is there, but we need to think about it in different terms.

The emergence of these two coalitions adds to our understanding of the pervasive polarization between left and right that dominates American politics. And it doesn’t just divide the electorate; it also has a huge impact on public policymaking.

While there are modest gender gaps in partisanship, voting and policy views, Winter wrote, “these pale compared with the differences among men and among women in views on gender roles and feminism. And gender roles and feminism have increasingly structured elite partisan debate.”

In an email expanding on the points he made in his book chapter, Winter wrote “that a voter’s personal masculinity/femininity (and views on same)” interacts with partisanship so “that people (men or women) who support traditional gender roles tend to favor the Republican Party and people who either reject or at least do not valorize traditional gender roles (men and women both) favor the Democratic Party.” The focus “is on the voter’s views about how gender should be organized (i.e., the belief that men should be masculine, act masculine, and hold masculine roles; women should be feminine, act feminine, hold feminine roles).”

The gap between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans toward the women’s rights movement has widened in recent years, Winter notes:

From 1970 through 2016, Democrats rated feminists and the women’s movement higher than did Republicans. This difference was modest — between 5 and 10 degrees — through the 1970s, then increased steadily from 10 degrees in 1980 to almost 20 degrees in the mid-1990s. After closing slightly, partisan polarization in ratings of feminists reached their most polarized level yet in 2016. That year, Democrats rated feminists at 67 degrees, compared with 43 degrees among Republicans, a difference of about a quarter of the 101-degree rating scale.”

The same pattern Winter describes can be found on a wide range of politically salient issues. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers issued a report, “Gender Gap Public Opinion,” based on poll data from the 2016 and 2020 American National Election Study, the 2018 General Social Survey, the 2020 Cooperative Election Study and the June 2020 AP-NORC Center Poll.

On the question “Should the federal government make it more difficult to buy a gun?” there is a significant 12-point gender gap, with 55.6 percent of women saying it should be more difficult to buy a gun compared with 43.6 percent of men. The gap between Democratic and Republican men is, however, more than three times larger, at 51.3 points, while the gap between Democratic and Republican women is larger still, at 54.4 points.

The question “Should federal spending on aid to the poor be increased, decreased, or kept the same?” produced a modest five-point gender gap with 53.8 percent of women saying it should be increased compared with 48.8 percent of men, but the gap between Democratic and Republican men was 52.5 points and between Democratic and Republican women it was 50.3 points.

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