Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux: There's no such thing as "woman voter"
We need to bust gender myths about women and elections, she says
Editor’s Note: Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux (@ameliatd) is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Her work has been published in a variety of outlets, including National Journal, FiveThirtyEight and New York Magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The female voting bloc: fable or fact? With time marching on toward November’s election, each day brings new speculation about how, why or whether “women” will vote come fall. But let’s get real: Few who speak of “the women’s vote” are ever specific – or even accurate.
Here are five myths about women – and men – that really should be banished from this race (hopefully, forever).
Myth 1: Women voters are taking a back seat to the real story, that 2016 will be – or already is – the year of the angry white man
Supposedly, 2016 is the year of the angry white man, at least according to political commentators looking to explain the ascendance of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, especially among blue-collar white men in struggling industrial states like Michigan and Ohio.
But the truth is, it doesn’t matter how upset all these white men are – there just aren’t enough of them to sway a presidential election.
A look at the data shows that the number of white Americans has been steadily declining as a proportion of the electorate over the past few election cycles, which helps explain why Mitt Romney lost even though he won 62% of white male voters.
Then there’s the fact that women outnumber men among registered voters, and have turned out in higher numbers than men in every presidential election since 1980. And anger? Men don’t have a monopoly on that, either. In an Esquire/NBC News survey conducted in January, 58% of white women and 44% of non-white men say that they get angry more often today than they did a year ago, compared to 51% of white men and 32% of non-white men.
Myth 2: Women only vote with their ‘woman card’
Since Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy last summer, two predictions have followed her campaign: either women voters will flock to her because she could be the first female president, or they’ll shun her – in spite of her gender – for being hawkish or untrustworthy.
Both of these assessments, however, rest on the false assumption that women feel an innate obligation to vote for fellow women.
Women, overall, are more likely than men to support a big, activist government, so it’s no surprise that large numbers of women can be found in both the Sanders and Clinton camps. According to one recent poll, women are slightly more likely than men to say that it’s important for them personally to see a woman in the White House, but another survey shows that the role of government is an area where party affiliation trumps gender (no pun intended).
Democrats, regardless of their gender, are far more likely than independents or Republicans to say they hope the U.S. elects a female president in their lifetime. So while for some voters, casting a ballot for a female candidate could be an added bonus, it’s safe to say that the women who are lining up behind Clinton – and donating to her campaign in record numbers – aren’t just there because of sisterhood.
Myth 3: ‘Women’s issues’ are somehow separate from ‘economic issues’
Look at a list of voters’ top priorities for the country, and so-called “women’s issues” – an amorphous category that usually includes topics like abortion, birth control, equal pay, subsidized child care and paid maternity leave – will rarely make the top ten. Instead, women, like men, prioritize issues like the economy, national security, education, and health care.
It’s past time to stop creating artificial boundaries between “women’s issues” and core political issues like the economy and health care. After all, raising the minimum wage is a “women’s issue,” since women represent about two-thirds of minimum-wage workers.
And a “women’s issue” like maternity leave is an economic issue, since low-wage workers are least likely to have paid leave of any kind, and a lack of maternity leave can reduce mothers’ earnings in the long run. Recent data on women’s priorities in congressional races confirm it: it’s health care, stupid (and the economy, and terrorism and economic inequality … you get the idea).
Myth 4: The ‘marrieds’ and the ‘singles’ all vote the same way
Unmarried women – presumably with a copy of Rebecca Traister’s “All the Single Ladies” tucked in their handbags – are increasingly being touted as a formidable political force. But expecting unmarried women to have similar priorities or voting patterns is ludicrous.
The affluent, college-educated, childless, city-dwelling characters on “Girls” or “Sex and the City” may reflect a dominant cultural narrative about unmarried women, but reality is far more complex. According to a 2014 Census Bureau survey, more than one-third of unmarried women have given birth within the past year – and only about one-quarter of unmarried people over 25 have a college degree.
And although conventional wisdom would suggest that unmarried women are more concerned about issues like access to contraception or increases in the minimum wage, these aren’t universal priorities. Here’s something you might not know. Seniors make up 17% of single adults in the U.S., and because women tend to live longer than men, many of them are women.
It’s pretty unlikely that birth control is swaying their votes, but since women are almost twice as likely as men to live in poverty during retirement, they’re probably very concerned about the candidates’ stances on Social Security. Not a plot line you’ll see on “Girls,” but an important story nonetheless.
Myth 5: Conservative women will automatically flee ‘The Donald’ in disgust
Many conservative women have expressed horror at Trump’s sexist attitudes toward women, and in March, a Republican-led anti-Trump super PAC ran an attack ad that simply featured women reading Trump’s own quotes aloud. But not all women have turned on Trump – and some are actively supporting his campaign, even after what we’ve all read about his derogatory words and actions toward his love interests and female employees alike
As political scientist Melissa Deckman noted in a recent column, for conservative women, Trump’s policies on issues like immigration and the economy are simply more important than his comments about women.
And others say Trump has received more attention for his attacks on women than on men. Theyth say if he’s a bully, he’s an equal-opportunity bully. Where Republican women’s loyalties will fall remains an important question – but there’s no guarantee that conservative women who are disturbed by Trump’s attitudes toward women will defect to the Democrats.
Especially now that Trump is laying Bill Clinton’s past at Hillary Clinton’s campaign doorstep, the conservative women who condemned Hillary in the 1990s for standing by her man may be singing that refrain once again.
As Election Day draws closer, one thing is clear: Trump’s female supporters will continue to frustrate efforts to neatly pigeonhole what women want – or how they vote.
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux (@ameliatd) is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Her work has been published in a variety of outlets, including National Journal, FiveThirtyEight, and New York Magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.