Why So Many Conservative Women Love Rick Santorum

santorum.jpg

Despite his anti-feminist views, Rick Santorum has still managed to cultivate a faction of female Conservative supporters. But how? Hugo Schwyzer points to Santorum’s “soft patriarchy” as one possible answer to that question.

Why do so many women love Rick Santorum, arguably the most anti-feminist major party political candidate in a generation? The New York Times tried to answer that question this past weekend, but missed a key element of the former Pennsylvania senator’s appeal: Santorum embodies what one sociologist calls “soft patriarchy.” By simultaneously embracing traditional gender roles and a decidedly modern emotional vulnerability, Santorum represents a new ideal of conservative Christian masculinity—one that has noticeable appeal to at least one female demographic.

As the Republican Party launches an extraordinary assault on the entire spectrum of reproductive rights—from contraception to abortion—the gender gap by which women favor Democrats continues to grow nationally. Though that gap goes back to the 1920s, it has proven remarkably consistent. Female voters as a group tend to lean toward candidates who support women’s rights. But even at its most dramatic, that gap represents a tendency rather than a gendered dichotomy. Since the coming of suffrage, there has always been a small but not insignificant minority of women who have embraced socially conservative, anti-feminist male candidates. This year, that faithful remnant seems to have fallen hard for Rick Santorum, a candidate whose opposition to abortion in all circumstances and whose frothy indignation at the very mention of gay marriage put him outside even his own party’s mainstream.

As the Times reported, an astonishing 73% of Republican female voters said that Santorum understood their problems and their aspirations; only 52% said the same for Romney. That trust discrepancy is rooted in the sense that Santorum lives out the very same conservative family values he espouses on the campaign trail. While Romney (himself a father of five, married 43 years without scandal) has made a series of nakedly political moves to the right in the past few years, Santorum has been a model of consistency, showing no sign of deviating from the same principles he has always espoused. 

To see why this appeal has such resonance with his female fans, a quick history lesson.

One of the great narratives of the past 60 years in American life has been what Barbara Ehrenreich calls men’s “flight from responsibility.” That tendency has always been part of American life (look at 19th century stories like Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn, which feature as their protagonists men of various ages running from the civilizing influence of women.) That trope got more explicit in 1953, when an era-defining magazine whose title might have better been written as “Play, Boy!” first hit the newsstands. Hefner celebrated what he thought was most men’s secret (or not so secret) desire to evade the tedium of monogamous marriage and fatherhood for as long as humanly possible. 

As pop culture would have it, Hefner seems to have succeeded all too well. Hardly a week goes by without an article bemoaning the end of men or suggesting that in the future, it is women who will bring home the largest slices of the proverbial bacon. Movies and television shows feature middle-aged men acting like overgrown teenagers; average middle-class white male adolescence seems to have become a 25-year project. Never mind that much of this is thinly-disguised anti-feminist backlash, designed to drive home the lie that women’s empowerment is at the root of male irresponsibility; across the political spectrum, an astonishing number of folks buy into the idea that we have a masculinity crisis.

Guys are not what they used to be, as TV shows like Mad Men so effectively remind us. For many of us, that’s a truth to be welcomed; the fact that more men than ever are both emotionally available and entirely comfortable with women in positions of power is worth celebrating. At the same time, there are many—particularly on the religious right—who are discombobulated and upset by these rapidly shifting gender roles. What they dislike most is the sense that egalitarianism has made both their families and their nation less secure. To put it simply, these social conservatives believe that because feminists have devalued men, men have in turn devalued their responsibility to protect their marriages and their nation.  

Alone among the Republican candidates, Rick Santorum has made this point about the erosion of masculinity a central theme of his public career. (See his 2005 book It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good). The women who support Santorum know it: When they talk about the nation needing “a renewal of its moral compass,” they mean a return to the traditional idea of husband as head of the family.

In the Times piece, many of the women most passionate about Santorum cited his marriage and his seven children as their primary reasons for supporting the candidate. Santorum, as they seem to see it, has lived a life of running toward family responsibilities rather than away from them. To that mindset, Rick and Karen’s decision to fight to save their daughter Bella, born with Trisomy-18, isn’t just evidence that the couple are pro-life. It’s proof that Santorum is a man who doesn’t shy away from the kind of burdens that seem to overwhelm other men.   

Like Don Draper of Mad Men, Rick Santorum’s image suggests a bygone era. Except that Rick is real, and what he reminds us of has less to do with debonair swagger and more to do with a kind of simple moral tenacity (some would say fanaticism) that’s worlds away from Romney’s waffling, Gingrich’s cerebral musings, or Obama’s tireless cool. For his fans of both sexes, there’s a sense that they support Rick partly because they wish so desperately that more men were like him. The women in the Times article seem almost wistful, perhaps stirred by the longing for husbands as passionate about their own families as Santorum is about his.

At the same time, Santorum’s emotional vulnerability is thoroughly modern. He’ll never be as glib as Gingrich, as rich as Romney, or as elegant as Obama—and he knows it. That doesn’t matter, he seems to be saying; I can out-feel them all. He doesn’t just center his family in his speeches, he seems to center his feelings about them.  

Santorum’s priorities align with what sociologist Bradford Wilcox calls the “soft patriarch” model of male leadership increasingly popular among younger evangelicals and conservative Catholics. As Wilcox explains it, these “soft patriarchs” embrace rigid gender roles; they believe husbands should be the heads of the family. But unlike their grandfathers, they also believe in public and private displays of psychological investment in their families. Soft patriarchs expect their wives to submit, but they also do more “emotion work” to make those wives and children feel appreciated. Wilcox, himself an outspoken conservative, claims that “the women most affected (as a result of living under male headship) seem to be enchanted, rather than alienated, by their encounter with this family strategy.”

Looking at the entire nation, Santorum turns off far more women than he attracts; his numbers among Democratic and Independent women (as well as “moderate” Republican women) are dismal. But the same thing that alienates the many clearly enchants the few. In this era when so many men seem reluctant to embrace marriage and family, Santorum’s almost manic embrace of private responsibility has become a very public—and very effective—campaign strategy.

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.

Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Related Links: