The Roots Of The Modern Gender Gap

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Once again, the “gender gap” is in the news. Only a little more than a month into 2012, women voters are showing a clear preference for more liberal political candidates. President Obama’s support among women of all ethnic backgrounds remains stronger than it does among men. Even among Republicans, women are much more likely than men to support the most moderate candidate left in the GOP primary, Mitt Romney, over his more conservative rivals.

But perhaps we need to ask an equally important question: Why do so many men increasingly lean Republican? The answer lies in anti-feminist backlash, but it also lies in male insecurity.

The discrepancy in how women and men vote has a long history in American politics, dating back to the first presidential elections after the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. From the beginning, that gap was less associated with party affiliation than with support for women’s rights. In 1928, women supported Republican Herbert Hoover by a wider margin than did men. The GOP in that era was more progressive on women’s rights and less beholden to Catholic social conservatives than the Democrats. Similarly, female voters threw their support to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956; Ike was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood.

It wasn’t until 1980, when Christian conservatives succeeded in taking over the GOP platform, that women emerged as a key Democratic party voting block. While women have been more likely than men to vote Democratic in every election since, even within the Republican party they have shown a tendency to support more moderate candidates than have GOP men. As polling from Florida showed just days ago, Newt Gingrich’s inability to defeat Mitt Romney is inextricably bound up with his abysmally low support among women.

So why do women tend to be more liberal? Why are men—especially white men—moving to the right across the political landscape? As women draw closer to economic parity with men, shouldn’t the gender gap be closing? One answer lies in men’s and women’s differing sense of what modern men’s role can and should be.

The Republican party has made much of the rhetoric of family values over the past 30 years. That tends to irk those who resent the politicization of kinship ties. The conservative message is clear: People ought to rely on their families, rather than the state, for support. For those with a sentimental and exaggerated view of what a family can provide, this makes good and comforting sense. 

Conservative Republican appeals to men are filled with nostalgia for an era when women could not afford to be as choosy as they seem to be today. The historian-turned-gadfly-candidate Newt Gingrich rarely misses an opportunity to point out that, since the 1960s, liberals have carefully substituted the state for the husband in the lives of American women. Strong public institutions (as well as contraception and access to abortion) reduced women’s dependency on men. As women gained greater autonomy, they no longer felt as compelled to settle for unhappy or abusive marriages. In the traditionalist imagination, this liberation led to abortion, divorce, and promiscuity.  

The end result of women’s emancipation has been, as conservatives like Charles Murray and Mary Eberstadt have argued, the psychological dislocation of American men. Raised to be “good providers,” young men cannot possibly compete with a “Leviathan” state that provides far more to women and children. The much-exaggerated contemporary masculinity crisis is the inevitable consequence of robbing men of their natural and primary source of self-esteem, the ability to provide for their families. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that more men than women vote Republican in this country for this very reason. Whether they are able to articulate it or not, I suspect a great many men sense that the weaker the state, the more dependent women become upon them. The fewer publicly-provided alternatives to getting married exist, the more likely women are to put up with unhappy marriages, and the less likely they are to have any heft with which to demand that men make necessary changes. The stronger the social safety net, the more options women have for raising children without men; those women who do choose to raise children with men will do so by choice rather than necessity. And when you have a choice, you can begin to demand a degree of mutuality and accountability from a partner that you could not otherwise demand. No wonder so many angry men vote Republican, and sing the praises of the “free enterprise” system. No wonder so many more women vote Democratic, or failing that, for the least reactionary Republican available.

The reality is, of course, that strong public institutions liberate people to make life choices based more on wants than necessity. People get married later because where strong public institutions flourish, marriage becomes less about survival and more about compatibility and companionship. Where marriage becomes one choice among many, where even monogamy is one among several competing options for relationship, people are freer than ever to make decisions rooted in desire.

That so many men vote for candidates who want women to have fewer choices surely reflects men’s resentment of women’s liberation. More than that, however, it reflects men’s own constrained sense of self-worth. A society where women aren’t dependent upon us is a society where we can be loved for who we are and not merely what we can provide. We are more than our capacity to earn and to protect. But as the enduring gender gap indicates, too few men believe it.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

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