A Century of Votes for Women
Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder
Cambridge University Press, 2020
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Years of struggle for women’s suffrage finally bore fruit when the amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. Women across different races and classes fought for the right to vote, but after ratification, it was mostly white, well-off American women who were able to cast ballots. The national press printed headlines that said these women would determine the next presidential election. Instead, it took several decades for women’s voter turnout to rival that of men, and it took years before the enfranchisement of women of color was realized. In 2020, there still has not been a woman president or vice president, though there is still the opportunity for that to change this November.
In their new book, A Century of Votes for Women, political scientists Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder look back at the voting trends of women during the past century. With voting data, they show that women tend to vote according to the circumstances around them, just like men. “Despite women’s historic exclusion from the electorate, differences in gender socialization, and women’s distinct position in the social and economic structure,” the authors write, “women and men generally cast ballots for the same parties and candidates.” Though they note that since 1980 women have been more likely to vote Democratic, they emphasize throughout the book that “women are not a cohesive voting bloc.” While women’s voting patterns vary over the decades, their idealized place in the national consciousness, according to newspapers and political polls, does not: Women voters continue to be characterized by electoral analysts as white, semi-affluent mothers with values “primarily derived from home and family.”
Our nation and our political leaders still too often ignore the struggles of women when they are of color, of lower economic status, or without children. The ensuing image of womanhood then becomes a white mother who is raising children in well-manicured suburbs. Wolbrecht and Corder note that the working-class “waitress mom” made a brief appearance after the convention speech of Al Gore, who recalled his own mother—who was briefly a waitress before becoming a lawyer—when he pledged not to raise the retirement age for Social Security to 70 years old. After 9/11, the “security mom” became the new “frame du jour,” depicted as concerned primarily with the education and safety of her children. Wolbrecht and Corder write, “Public policy choices related to education and health care are repeatedly cast in terms of the needs of children, not women themselves.” Campaigns thus appeal to women voters consistently through their roles as mothers; hence, pollsters so often talk about women voters as “moms.”
In contrast to the security mom is the NASCAR dad, who appeared as a shorthand in the lexicon during the 2002 midterms. NASCAR dads leaned Republican and were defined as typically Southern, white, and middle-aged. And yet, despite their dad title, Wolbrecht and Corder note that unlike moms, “their political interests were rarely conceptualized in terms of fatherhood.” Fatherhood was not the defining or primary role for these men like it was for women.
The authors trace this gendered understanding of suffrage, citizenship, and labor to the United States’ early history. Women—or at least white women—were identified as “naturally delicate and physically weak.” Citizenship and politics, by contrast, were for strong, strapping (white) men. The authors point to the work of historian Linda Kerber on “Republican Motherhood,” which relegated some American women to the domestic sphere, where the public dimension of their work was to raise “virtuous sons” and encourage “their husbands to be good citizens.” In the nineteenth century, the Cult of True Womanhood emerged as a popular conception of the differences between the sexes. “Women were believed to be naturally characterized by piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity,” they write. “Inherently devout, women were responsible for passing on religious values and practices to their husbands and children.”
The authors describe how women who were reformers and activists in the nineteenth century took on social problems like education, health, and poverty. In this way, they were responding to what was considered appropriate spheres of female influence. Kentucky, for instance, gave white widows the right to vote on school boards in 1838—ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention was held. Education was an area where women had clout because they were responsible for raising children. Women’s involvement in these once exclusively male governmental projects expanded the definition of what services the government should provide, and women continued to be active in causes such as Prohibition and in advocating for expanding social services during the New Deal.
Between 1964 and 1976, women’s turnout increased due to the gradual enfranchisement of African American women and the greater proportion of women who had become politically active after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The turnout gap between the sexes was erased, and some gendered voting, such as women’s disapproval of the use of force, became apparent. Political scientists were also able to discover a curious truth in American politics: Women don’t vote for other women on the basis on sex. The problem is not that women were unqualified. The fact of the matter, as the authors illustrate by breaking voting patterns down by race, household, and socioeconomic status, is that women simply do not constitute a voting bloc and will therefore not vote for a single candidate or issue en masse. Women tend to vote according to their proximate social circumstances, often mirroring the voting patterns of their neighborhoods, counties, and states.
The 1970s to some extent masked U.S. electorate differences among women because support for women’s issues—like equal pay—was so wide. Bipartisan support rapidly yielded a number of advancements for many American women. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which prohibited sex discrimination in educational contexts. The next two years brought the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion, and the Equal Credit Opportunity of 1974, which ended sex discrimination in the credit market.
During the presidential election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, feminist activists drew attention to the “gender gap,” which Wolbrecht and Corder define as the “difference between the political behavior of women and men.” Despite its political origins, it’s now used widely to talk about the gender disparities in a host of issues, from wages to healthcare. After 1980, feminist activists noted that women were less likely to vote for the Republican Reagan, and they blamed Reagan’s “anti-feminist positions,” while also hoping “to create political pressure in favor of women’s rights.” Both Republicans and Democrats scrambled to target their messaging to women voters in order to close the gender gap. The selection of Geraldine Ferraro as a vice presidential candidate in 1984 was an attempt by Democrats to deny Reagan a second term. In 1988, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush referred to a “kinder, gentler nation” in his nomination acceptance speech. The authors write that his words were “viewed as an appeal to those voters, especially women, alienated by extreme conservatism.”
Women were more likely to vote and more likely to vote Democratic in the 1980s and 1990s. They also made significant strides in advancing women to some—though certainly not all—of the highest political offices. The year 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman” because five women were elected to the Senate. By 2007, Democrat Nancy Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the House. In 2008, two women ran unsuccessfully for higher office: Democrat Hillary Clinton for her party’s presidential nomination, and Republican former Governor Sarah Palin for vice president.
By 2016, Democrats and Republicans showed different priorities in electing women. Wolbrecht and Corder cite a 2018 CBS News poll that showed 77 percent of Democratic women thought that it was “very important” to elect more women to political office, but a scant 19 percent of Republican women agreed. That gap in priorities is evident within Congress. There are currently 105 Democratic women in both chambers of Congress, while there are only 22 Republican women.
Along with an increase in the number of women elected to Congress, there has been an increase in the number of eligible women voters, particularly among women of color. Black women had the highest rate of turnout of any racial or ethnic gender category in 2008 and 2012. Black women also remain the most staunchly Democratic voters, and more scholarship is needed to explore their voting patterns and activism for suffrage. From 2000 to 2016, across all ethnic and racial categories, women were more likely to vote than men.
So, if women are now better at men at turning out the vote, why are we still talking about security moms and not a woman president? The authors talk about how Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign against Donald Trump claimed gender criticism as a “badge of honor,” which was exemplified by such moments as her retort to Trump’s accusation that she was playing the “woman card.” Clinton famously replied: “If fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!” Wolbrecht and Corder write that women’s turnout in 2016 was at least 3 percentage points higher than that of men. Clinton, however, was unable to swing enough women’s votes to win, backing up the recurring argument that women are not a voting bloc. Clinton did win the majority of all women’s votes, and more than 98 percent of Black women voted for her, but a majority of white women voted for Trump.
A Century of Votes for Women does not deal extensively with religious voters or how faith plays a role in the political views of women in post-suffrage eras. Its index does not have an entry for “religion” or even “Protestantism,” despite pointing out that the movements for women’s suffrage and Prohibition were largely viewed as Protestant-led. We know, however, that a majority of white evangelicals and white Catholics—including the women among them—voted for Trump, just as we know that 96 percent of Black Protestants voted for Clinton. And it is true that within some faith traditions, women are not encouraged to be in ordained leadership. According to a recent report by Eileen Campbell-Reed, visiting associate professor at Union Theological Seminary, the percentage of women of all races on the faculty of religious seminaries—less than 25 percent—parallels that of women in the U.S. Congress, despite women turning out to church in large numbers—just like they turn out to vote. The two largest religious denominations in the United States—Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists—do not ordain women. While clergy members have featured prominently in both the campaigns of Obama and Trump, media headlines for Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, often highlight how seldom she talks about her faith, despite the fact that she often does mention it.
Many Americans have not yet reconciled how to let women lead. As Wolbrecht and Corder show, women have had the vote for a century, and it has taken time for women to represent a potential “gender gap” at the polls. Their book provides a good survey of the many facets of the American electorate through the years, though the methodology of generalizing political attitudes from campaign slogans and political polls could be more fully fleshed out. Perhaps 2020, a century after men voted for women to vote, is the year women will vote more women into office.
Janelle Peters is currently a visiting assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University and a writer based in Los Angeles.