Editor’s Note: This post was written by Samantha Coons, Aubrey Kirsch, Amanda Knipple, Keshawn Langhorn, Marlena Mareno, and Emily Radigan.
Women hold a population majority in the United States, making them very important when it comes to electing a new president. Women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980. In 2012, 7.8 million more women showed up to vote than men. With a woman candidate in each primary race this cycle, gender identity politics has gotten more attention than ever. An important aspect of this primary cycle is recognition of the fact that gender is a big deal.
It is often thought that women are more likely to hold ideals similar to the Democratic Party, as opposed to the Republican Party. Women do typically affiliate with the Democratic Party, with 37% voting left compared to 24% voting Republican. However, that is still a substantial number of Republican women. The perspective of the GOP consisting of only “old white guys” often turns women away from the GOP, and a candidate such as Donald Trump, with his outlandish and extremely offensive remarks, only fuels this fire. It is true that Republicans are more likely to be older and recent research shows that the most Republican demographics are white and religious. But why are women turning away from the policy options presented by the GOP? A major concern for women is a woman’s right to choose, which is supported by the Democratic Party platform. On the other hand, the Republican Party opposes abortion and instead supports adoption and the practice of abstinence. This policy stance is seen as stripping women of their female rights regarding their own bodies, prompting many women to align with Democratic values.
If it is not on the issue of abortion, many women agree with the Democratic Party on social platforms. They tend to support an increase in federal funding of healthcare, more benefits for same-sex partnerships, and hold a rising concern for the increasing costs of education. Women are also cited for having concerns with income inequality, government spending, and the cost of living. Access to Planned Parenthood, paid family leave, and a minimum wage increase are also important issues for women. Of these examples, not one stance mirrors the platform of the Republican Party. This is a known problem. After Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, Republican leaders undertook a GOP autopsy, where they strategized ways to mobilize more voters to their party. This included more outreach to minority voters. The report also stated that, on social issues, the party should attempt to be more “inclusive and welcoming” so as not to discourage minority and women voters from the party. As of now, because it is embedded in the Democratic Party’s identity that women parallel its views, it is more likely that uninformed women voters will gravitate toward the left.
There are many differences in the demographics of GOP women and Democratic women. With regards to identity politics, Democratic women are more likely to be concerned with seeing a woman president. Democrats, in general, are also more racially diverse than Republicans. The most Democratic demographics are black women of various age groups. Since the 1980’s, Democrats have won the women’s vote in presidential elections and it has largely been seen as the party of women. Prior to this, the Republican Party held this label and was very active in the areas of women’s rights. Currently, if the GOP seeks to take the White House, they will need to mobilize more women voters. In order to relinquish the “old white male” label, the GOP must “consider the female vote” and address issues women demand answers to. The GOP has seen improvement in this area, with the emergence of Carly Fiorina in the race.
Some have argued that Carly Fiorina is the anti-Hillary. This is an interesting argument, especially when comparing their stances on pressing issues in the women’s rights field. Perhaps the best example of this is a woman’s right to choose and the involvement of Planned Parenthood. Hillary Clinton, a strong proponent of women’s rights, is endorsed by Planned Parenthood. Clinton has taken a pro-choice stance on abortion, stating that women deserve access to safe and legal abortions. Her campaign has made a big deal out of supporting women’s rights, knowing that it is a huge issue for many voters. In contrast, Fiorina is a pro-life woman who is opposed to the work that Planned Parenthood does. She has said that, if given the chance, she would dismantle Roe v. Wade. She was highly involved in the debate surrounding the video that allegedly showed a fetus being harvested for its organs. She used this to argue that Planned Parenthood should be defunded. Some critics said that most of her campaign was built around the issue of abortion.
A large part of Fiorina’s downfall may also have been that she couldn’t escape the conversation around gender and comparisons to Clinton. Like Clinton in 2008, Fiorina tried not to make gender a central part of her campaign, but it came up constantly. This is opposite to Clinton’s 2016 campaign; when confronted about the “gender card,” Clinton pronounced “Deal me in,” if the “gender card” is about protecting women’s issues. Fiorina took a different approach, which perhaps served as a detriment to her. However, some argue that Fiorina’s campaign was significant because it was the start of unqualified women running, like men have been doing for years.
While there is somewhat of a gender gap between Hillary Clinton and the leading GOP nominees in potential matchups, there are also divisions between Democratic female voters and their support for Clinton. This primary cycle, Democratic women have to choose between voting for the first female nominee or the first Jewish democratic socialist nominee. The division which pervades the Democratic nomination contest this year is constant: age. Clinton is pulling in older supporters as the millennial vote is in Bernie Sanders’s hands. Other identifiers further pronounce this divide. Women with higher incomes tend to support Clinton and those with lower incomes support Sanders. Older women have more savings and normally stable jobs, as well as their partner’s income. Traditionally, higher incomes are associated with political conservatism, but this pattern is less pronounced among the ultra-wealthy. This is why it is no surprise to see stars like Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift signing on to support Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders is popular with younger women. Those who make less money are more likely to support the more liberal candidate. Millennials are flocking to the Sanders camp; college students and those with large student debts no doubt belong in the lower socio-economic range. There is a gender imbalance in the effects of student loan debt, as well–53% of female college graduates still bore debt one year after graduating, compared to 39% of males. In a New Hampshire exit poll, those with middle to lower class incomes voted for Sanders, assisting his win of the state, while those with higher incomes supported Clinton. Because young women are disproportionately affected by student loan debt and pay inequity, they unsurprisingly align themselves with the far-left leaning Sanders, who promises extreme economic reform. Sanders’ voters rate economic inequality as the most important issue facing the country, providing another reason for his support among lower-income women. Among Democratic women, those 30 years or older tend to vote for Clinton in the primaries. This is because they have a higher socio-economic status due to more stability, are employed, and are often married which brings in a second income and increases their status. Single women tend to have a lower economic status, are younger, and more liberal, thus more supportive of Sanders.
This division also transcends to feminism. Hillary Clinton is a feminist. She has always fought for policies that improve women’s rights. In Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign, she did not make a big deal about gender: this time, it has become a central focus. However, Clinton has always supported and advocated for women’s issues that are at the forefront of feminist political agendas, such as reproductive rights, wage equality, and women’s healthcare. Many feminist and equality organizations such as EMILY’s list, Planned Parenthood, Feminist Majority, NARAL Pro-Choice, Human Rights Campaign, and the National Organization for Women, have all endorsed her over Sanders; they share a conviction that she will fight the hardest for women’s issues. This time, Clinton has faced a generational divide in how feminists view her. Her main supporters have been older women who view her as their last chance to have a woman in office. The policy issues that she has put to the forefront of her campaign are not prioritized by young feminists.
So why are young feminists flocking to Sanders? Earlier this year, Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright – two influential feminist political figures – made comments regarding young activists’ overwhelming support for Sanders. Many young feminists were offended by the insinuation that they should vote for Clinton because she is a woman. Steinem and Albright’s comments, while misguided and misworded, were not entirely wrong. Sexist narratives still prevail because Clinton is now seen as establishment and old news (although this wasn’t always the case), and Sanders is seen as the “cool” and “hip” candidate. However, many feminists are voting for Clinton for a plethora of reasons, including, but certainly not limited to, the issue of identity politics.
A common explanation as to why Clinton isn’t winning young feminists is “they just don’t get it” – “it” being that older women stood toe-to-toe with the patriarchal political and social systems for decades in order to have this opportunity. Older and younger women have different priorities in their policy preferences. Older women remember the overt sexism they previously faced, while younger women have grown up with less sex discrimination against them and are concerned with things that are more personally pertinent, such as the economy.
This sensitive subject does not seem to hurt her in the polls, as she is still the frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination. She would like to have all women vote for her in the election, but she understands that younger women tend to be more liberal than she is. She is a candidate who conforms to the Democratic establishment and what the mass public wants in a president. This would suggest that her inability to attract young feminists comes from the fact they believe she is not an advocate for them. Clinton is running at a time where millennial women’s votes are based less on gender, as seen in voter polls. They want a candidate who prioritizes the needs of the young just as much as the old. We live in a post-trust era and having many years in politics, it is hard for younger voters to see the benefits she has brought to the table.
Young feminist Sanders supporters point to his intersectionality that makes him a better feminist candidate. While Sanders has more radical and progressive economic plans, that is his main focus. Clinton is stronger in many aspects of intersectionality, such as gender race, age, and nationality. Sanders’ chief platform is his economic policy, representing the view that inequality stems from economic inequality. However, Clinton realizes, from a feminist perspective, that inequality has systemic roots and is committed to promoting equality in all realms, a true intersectional perspective. While the candidates do have their policy differences, during their time together as senators they voted very similarly. Clinton has pushed harder for feminist issues, while Sanders has let them take a backseat to his fiscal policy. She has introduced legislation, launched initiatives, and brought to attention to women’s issues continuously, while Sanders has merely supported them.
As a woman, Clinton is held to a higher standard than any male candidate would ever be. This is a trend with female candidates, especially presidential ones. Every decision she makes is critiqued, and unfortunately, the focus is often not on policy. As a woman in a male-dominated field, Clinton has had to consistently prove her worth in even the smallest of issues. While other candidates are best known for their policies (or lack thereof), Clinton is widely known for being off-putting. Often commented on is the way she talks, dismissed as shouting whenever she raises her voice – while Sanders is praised as passionate when he shouts in front of an audience. Her appearance is often the focus of commentary and can hurt her, whereas Sanders’s disheveled look actually helps him.
This raises fundamental questions on how men and women are perceived. Men are often expected to be tough and commanding (skills valued in the presidency), while women are still perceived as emotional when they exhibit characteristics valued in leadership. Media polls suggest that even today people are more likely to vote for a man. For some Americans, it seems rational to claim that we are living in a postmodern society where gender no longer matters, but from the treatment of Hillary Clinton, we can tell that this is untrue. Between interviews with Clinton’s hairstylist and commentary on her wardrobe, there is still a long way to go in treating Clinton like other candidates.
The age and gender divide the Democratic primary contest has produced poses several problems for Clinton. She has not been able to win the youth vote in key states such as Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. Clinton has overwhelmingly taken the vote of older women in many states, but younger women in many states have opted for Sanders. In Nevada, South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio, Clinton has won the plurality of women voters in exit polls. In New Hampshire and Vermont – which Sanders overwhelmingly won in general – he won 55% and 83% of the female vote, respectively. Regardless of the Democratic candidate in the general election, the fact that women are more likely to participate could potentially sway the vote to the Democratic Party.
The U.S. is ranked #22 on gender equality; while we score high on economic opportunity and education for women, we score low on political empowerment for women. The female population has the opportunity to be just as successful in the business world and just as educated as their male counterparts, but there is something holding women back from entering the political arena. We are still a far cry from equality in terms of women in politics, but in this cycle, we have seen vast improvements. Having two women actively running for president, with two distinctively different views, has opened the door for many women to become more politically engaged on both ends of the spectrum. While the Democratic Party has recently been seen as the party of women, having a female GOP candidate proves that women also have different opinions when it comes to politics and that they are not only beholden to the Democratic Party.