The gender gap—the difference between how men and women vote—represents on average a seven point gulf between the sexes during presidential elections. Though there was evidence of some voting differences between the genders as far back as the 1960s, many political scientists date the emergence of the modern gender gap to the 1980 election, which served as the culmination of years of change in women’s lives. By then more women were working, more were single and living on their own. The women’s movement reinforced the growing sense that women’s political interests could and should be different than those of their husbands and fathers.
And then Ronald Reagan came along. According to Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University, two of Reagan’s stances in particular alienated women. One was his hawkishness; women tend to report lower levels of support for defense spending and use of military force. The other was Reagan’s efforts to trim back the welfare state. As Carroll points out, women are more likely to be the recipients of government aid. They are more likely to be poor, more likely to be old, and more likely to be single parents. (Surprisingly, it does not appear that “women’s issues” like abortion rights or the Equal Rights Amendment were then, or are now, a major driver of the gender gap, according to political scientist Karen Kaufmann. Public opinion polls show men and women closely track one another in their views about abortion, for instance.)
So did women move away from Reagan and his party in disgust? No. Rather, women’s emerging belief in their own political entitlement permitted them to stay right where they were. “Reagan struck a chord with men, so men moved in a more Republican direction while women stayed put,” Carroll says. And in the wake of Reagan, Carroll says, the parties remained more polarized, helping to harden men and women’s party identifications. Kaufmann, of the University of Maryland, has looked at long-term election study data from 1952 to 2004 and observed that men’s support for the Democratic party declined from the mid-’70s through the eight years of Reagan’s presidency, and has remained at that lower level, with small fluctuations, ever since. In contrast, she writes, women’s voting and party identifications look about the same as they did 50 years ago.