How Women Vote: Separating Myth From Reality

Suffragists said women voting would transform politics. Here’s how women have wielded the ballot in the past century, according to a political scientist

woman holding child and voting, both wearing masks
A Virginia woman votes early in the 2020 general election. Sarah Silbiger via Getty Images

A century has elapsed since the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote at the federal level. But no single analysis of those 100 years can explain “the women’s vote,” as it’s impossible to summarize half of the country’s population with one political narrative.

That aside, for political scientists and historians, a dive into how the women’s vote has shaped elections and campaigning offers fascinating insights into presidential politics. Initially, in the years after suffrage, women’s turnout at the polls lagged, but since 1980, a higher proportion of women vote in presidential elections than men. Women also differ from men in their political choices, a fact that should put to bed the myth that that’s persisted for a century—that women vote just like their husbands. This idea taps sexist assumptions about men’s domestic control and women’s political disinterest, rather than the simple reality that marriages are founded on shared values.

Since the 19th Amendment’s ratification, women’s slight preference for the Republican Party waned as more non-white Americans joined voter rolls and as more women entered the workforce, attained higher levels of education and delayed marriage. In the decades after 1920, all the way through the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, racist laws kept many women from voting. Indigenous Americans did not receive voting rights until 1924. State ballot restrictions, like literacy tests and poll taxes, kept black Americans, Hispanic and Asian Americans, the poor and descendants of immigrants from casting their votes. Today, women, especially women of color, are a reliable Democratic voting bloc.

The changing world altered the women’s vote, and now the women’s vote changes elections. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, for instance, showed women voters favor Joe Biden to Donald Trump by 31 percentage points. Today’s divide clearly shows women’s allegiance to Democrats—but it also reveals men’s allegiance to Republicans, a trend that doesn’t garner nearly the same attention.

Below, dive into more truths about how the women’s vote has influenced American politics and how the “gender gap” seen today came to fruition.

Why do people think there’s a “women’s vote”?

Individual women understand their gender identity in countless different ways, but social scientists—and regular people—also think about women as a group, one with distinct policy preferences. This notion has some truth: Ideas about appropriate gender roles mean that women and men have different lived experiences, which shape women’s awareness of problems and their preferences for solving them. For instance, women are more likely than men to perform caretaking roles— like raising children—and both historically and today they are more likely than men to want stronger healthcare, housing, education, childcare and anti-poverty programs. These differences shape the “women’s vote.”

Women’s preferences are shaped by other identities too, like race, class, educational status and age. Even so, the notion of the “women’s vote”—the idea that women vote differently from men—sways public imagination. In very broad strokes, there’s truth to this notion. In 1920, observers expected the influx of women voters to benefit the Republican Party. Back then, the GOP supported many goals of the Progressive movement, such as improved living and working conditions for the poor. Republican stances on social welfare shifted following the civil rights era, with the contemporary GOP opposing many priorities that receive support from most women voters, from abortion rights to gun control. Now in 2020, headlines decry the Republicans’ “women problem.”

What was the women’s like vote before suffrage?

Even without voting rights, women have long participated in politics. In the early American republic, “female politicians”—educated, white women such as Mercy Otis Warren and Judith Sargent Murray—read, talked and wrote essays about politics, and their ideas influenced husbands and sons. The Democratic-Republicans and the Federalist factions consciously cultivated women’s support, as election activities wouldn’t happen without women making banners, preparing food, and spurring men to participate.

In New Jersey, state legislators took revolutionary ideals about political equality to their logical conclusion, describing electors as “he and she” in a 1790 state law. Women who met the property requirements (usually widows) voted in New Jersey until 1794, when the legislature reversed course. From about 1840 onward, many states allowed women to vote in school board or municipal elections. The Wyoming and Utah territories granted women suffrage in 1869.

And throughout the 19th century, women led movements seeking social reform. They advocated successfully for anti-prostitution and temperance laws, and they secured married women’s property rights alongside suffrage in local and state elections. The white, literate and economically advantaged women advocating these reforms did not always see themselves as political actors, but they honed political skills and exercised policy influence nonetheless.

Once accorded the right to vote by the 19th Amendment, did women turn out at the ballot box?

Observers of the 1920 presidential election believed that women failed to show. States did not record turnout in the 1920s, and polling as a science did not emerge until the 1940s, but nevertheless, American textbooks repeated claims about suffrage’s “failure” for generations, even without data.

In their 2020 book, political scientists Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder use archival data and statistical inference to corroborate the conventional wisdom, but with an important caveat. While one-third of voting-age women turned out in 1920, compared to two-thirds of voting-age men, women’s turnout varied by state. In more competitive places, like Kansas and Missouri, over 50 percent of women headed to the polls–just like today, when more voters turn out in swing states.

Legal restrictions, like literacy tests and poll taxes, also reduced turnout in the aftermath of the 19th Amendment, in the Jim Crow South but also in some northern and western states. These measures disproportionately affected women, especially women of color, who were more likely than men to be poor and uneducated.

Women’s turnout increased as legal barriers fell and cultural mores about women’s political participation shifted. By 1960, the presidential election turnout gap had shrunk to ten percentage points, with about 70 percent of women voting compared to about 80 percent of men.

women holding VOTE signs
Members of the National League of Women Voters in 1924. ProQuest via Getty Images

Why do women turn out more today?

Women’s turnout began keeping pace with men’s turnout by the mid-1970s. In the 1976 presidential race, roughly the same proportions of voting age women and men went to the polls—about 59 percent. Women eked out a small, clear lead four years later.

If suffrage was the “first wave” of women’s activism, the 1960s was the “second wave.” Men still dominated electoral politics, but second wave feminism scored policy victories, from Supreme Court decisions striking down differential treatment to Congress’s passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Women were mobilized by these changes even if, like conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, they did not support them.

With this mobilization, the turnout gap in presidential elections flipped. By 1984, women voted about two percentage points more than men, and the gap widened in the late 1990s, reaching about 4 percentage points, where it has remained. In the 2016 race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, voting-eligible women turned out at 63.3 percent compared to men at 59.3 percent. Women vote more than men in midterm elections too, even though turnout declines in midterms overall.

What about turnout among women of color?

The turnout gap today appears across all racial and ethnic groups. Black, Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander and white women all vote more than men of their respective groups. The largest gap appears among black Americans: Black women voted six percentage points more than black men in 1984, widening their lead to 9 percentage points in 2016.

Black women are among the most engaged members of the electorate. Today, state laws requiring voter identification and limiting early voting combine to depress turnout, especially among voters who are poor, work long hours and lack transportation to the polls. Those most affected are women and people of color. Yet in 2016, black women turned out only slightly less than white women (63.7 percent compared to 66.8 percent), and when Barack Obama ran in 2008 and 2012, black women turned out more than white, Latina and Asian women. That women of color, particularly black women, vote at such high rates reflects their persistence, one sustained by decades of activism around civil rights.

When and why did women start casting their support for Democrats?

In the 1950s and the 1960s, policy differences between women and men—such as women’s greater opposition to the Korean War—did not translate into differences in vote choice, because the parties did not distinguish themselves on these issues. But soon after, women’s lives began to change profoundly. The Supreme Court legalized birth control and abortion. Congress acted on equal rights, passing Title IX of the Higher Education Act in 1972 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978. Though some reforms proved controversial for traditionally minded (and usually white) women, equal rights measures related to employment and education enjoyed bipartisan support. Both parties appealed to women on equality issues.

The women’s vote diverged from the men’s vote beginning in 1980, when the two parties began staking different positions on women’s issues and social issues. Ronald Reagan is credited with pushing the Republican Party to stand against abortion and for the traditional family, compelling Democrats to adopt the pro-equality stances favored by the women’s and civil rights movements.

The diverging party platforms on women’s issues coincided with other important changes, like women of color’s increased access to the ballot box and broader social and cultural shifts in American society.

Today’s gender differences in party support stem from these shifts. The Republican and Democratic parties take opposing stances on many issues, not just women’s rights. Overall, women express more support than men for many policy priorities associated with the Democratic Party, from preserving the Affordable Care Act and implementing gun control to fighting climate change and addressing discrimination against black and LGBTQ Americans. Differences in gender role socialization and men’s and women’s lived experiences still bring women into closer contact with hearth and home, making many women attune to issues of vulnerability and care.

What is the “gender gap” in the news today?

Even though women and men might favor the same candidate, they tend to do so by different margins. The “gender gap” captures this within-candidate difference. In 1980, women began turning out more than men—and they also favored Reagan less than men (47 percent to 55 percent). The contemporary “gender gap” was born.

The Democratic Party has maintained its edge with women voters ever since. In 2016, women voters preferred Hillary Clinton 13 percentage points more than men voters. Conversely, they disliked Trump more than men: 41 percent to 52 percent.

Trump still won, which pointed to another important factor: divisions among women. The election post-mortem suggested that while the majority of women hadn’t cast ballots for Trump, white women had, echoing political science research that racial differences help explain a large part of the gender gap.

Hillary Clinton indeed swept black women, winning more than 90 percent of their vote. While she narrowly lost the white women’s vote overall, educated, young and single white women rejected Trump, showcasing how race intersects with other important identities, like socioeconomic status.

Do women voters favor women candidates?

In survey and experimental research, political scientists find that, even when controlling for party, women voters prefer women candidates more than men voters do. Take one 2019 study conducted during the Democratic primary. The researchers presented respondents with hypothetical match-ups between a male contender and a female contender, controlling for other candidate attributes like age and ethnicity. Women and men participants preferred a female candidate—but the women picked the female contender over 20 percentage points more than the men. The same held true when it came to actually voting in the primary. Despite their ideological proximity, Bernie Sanders struggled to attract women voters while Elizabeth Warren counted more women supporters than men.

Yet in general elections, party drives vote choice. Trump won Republican women in 2016. Researchers studying congressional races, meanwhile, confirm that women prefer women candidates—but they find scant evidence that women cross party lines “just” to vote for women.

Apart from election results, how have women used the franchise to achieve legislative victories?

Since 1920, women have made their influence felt. Immediately after suffrage, Congress passed the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act, which funded public health programs that reduced maternal-infant mortality. Long a demand of social and moral reformers, the passage of the 19th Amendment helped elevate this women’s issue to lawmakers’ attention. Then, between the New Deal to second wave feminism, important changes to welfare and employment policies benefited women, even as occupational segregation and wage discrimination persisted.

But second wave feminists would fall short of one victory: the Equal Rights Amendment. Introduced to Congress in 1923—and in every session thereafter—the amendment, which aimed to ban laws that treated people of differently based on their sex, was finally passed by Congress in 1972. Ratification failed when the 1982 deadline arrived and advocates came up three states short.

A new generation of women legislators in non-ratifying states took up the cause, introducing the ERA repeatedly. Finally, the Nevada state legislature signed in 2017, followed by Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020. The ERA’s constitutionality now lies with the courts. As legal scholar Julie Suk writes, the Equal Rights Amendment would be the only part of the U.S. Constitution “instigated by women, written by women, and justified by women.”

How has the number of women in elected office changed over the past century?

The ratification of the 19th Amendment did not immediately transform women’s access to elected office. Some women were elected even before 1920, at the local and state level, and the first woman elected to the U.S. House—Jeannette Rankin of Montana—entered in 1917. Fewer than 10 women served in the House of Representatives in the 1920s and 1930s, and the U.S. would not elect a woman senator until 1932. Sixty years later, when an all-male Senate committee interrogated Anita Hill about sexual harassment, the numbers remained similarly low: 2 women senators and 29 representatives.

In response to the Anita Hill hearings—and the oft-cited belief that Hill would have received better treatment had women senators been present—a record 245 women ran for Congress in 1992. This “Year of the Women” resulted in four women senators, and 48 women representatives. Women’s numbers continued inching up, but until 2018, women never comprised more than one-fifth of Congress. The recent jump occurred as scores of Democratic women, especially women of color, entered the 2018 midterms in response to Trump’s election. In this second Year of the Woman—during which 529 women ran in total—women conquered 26 percent of the Senate and 23 percent of the House.

These recent gains are concentrated among Democrats. Historically and today, most elected women and nearly all women of color are Democrats. Of the 101 women serving in the U.S. House in 2020, 88 are Democrats. In the 2020 race, women comprise 47 percent of House Democratic nominees, but just 23 percent of House Republican nominees. Those are record-breaking figures for both parties, although most Republican women are running in heavily Democratic districts.

Generally, Democrats perceive women’s absence from politics as problematic more than Republicans. In a 2018 Pew Research survey, 84 percent of Democratic women agreed there were too few women in office, compared to just 44 percent of Republican women.

To what extent is politics still seen as “a man’s world?”

Whether politics is a man’s world depends on what “politics” means. As in earlier eras, men dominate elected office, but women lead social movements. Three women founded Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo has transformed national conversations about sexual harassment and sexual assault. The 2016 Women’s March made U.S. history by turning out record numbers of people to protest on a single day.

Researchers still find that women express less political interest and less political knowledge than men—but these measures capture just one slice of political activity. (Women are also less likely than men to guess answers, meaning surveys overestimate how little women know.) Almost no gender differences appear in new forms of political engagement, such as reading, sharing and discussing politics on social media. And women are gaining on men on other measures, like donations. In 2016, women comprised 37 percent of donors contributing $200 or more, and they are 44 percent of donors in 2020, with several weeks remaining.

So while this year’s presidential election will leave the highest class ceiling intact, women exercise political power in and out of the voting booth. Suffragists felt that women could not be equal without voting rights, and women have used the vote to demand more equality and to make themselves central players in elections. The Democratic party depends on the support of women and women of color. Of course, women don’t speak with one voice, but from voting to mobilizing to donating, their influence and their preferences can decide elections.

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