Women officially won the right to vote just a few months before the 1920 presidential election, and as soon as the 19th Amendment was ratified, suffragists were predicting a sea change in American politics. One activist even proclaimed that “the women’s vote is going to be a tremendous factor in this election.”
And that did happen, eventually. In the century since women’s suffrage, women have transformed our politics — in particular, they’ve become a force to be reckoned with inside the Democratic Party. Of course, many women — especially white women — still vote Republican, but in election after election, it is the Democratic Party that has added more women to its ranks.
It was a “women’s wave,” after all, that swept Democrats into the House in 2018, including a record number of female Democratic lawmakers. And this week, Democrats will officially nominate Sen. Kamala Harris as their vice presidential candidate, just the fourth woman to ever be on a major party’s presidential ticket.
But it took a surprisingly long time for women to become the electoral force that suffragists predicted. After the passage of the amendment, women were not broadly mobilized, and in many places, women of color continued to face barriers to voting. This meant that the first women to vote were largely white, wealthy or living in states that made it easier for women to vote. It wasn’t until 1980, for instance, that equal shares of men and women cast a ballot. That was also the first election where there was an observable gender gap in the presidential vote.1 According to exit polls, that year less than half (47 percent) of women voted for Ronald Reagan compared to 55 percent of men. And since then, the gap has largely expanded, with women becoming an increasingly large and influential base for Democratic candidates.
“It’s a pretty stunning effect,” said Elizabeth U. Cascio, an economist at Dartmouth and the co-author of a recent paper on the gender gap. In her research, she and colleague Na’ama Shenhav gathered voter turnout data in presidential elections, finding women went from being 10 percentage points less likely to vote than men in the 1940s to being about 4 points more likely to vote in 2016. At the same time, she added, women became increasingly likely to identify as Democrats, compared to men.
So what happened to make women turn out at a higher rate than men — and stick with the Democrats while many men have abandoned the party for the Republicans?
The first question is easier to answer. It took several decades for women to vote at the same rate as men, but once they did, they actually became more engaged voters. Now, it’s routine for women to turn out at substantially higher rates than men.
“It’s a story of generational replacement and change,” said Christina Wolbrecht, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and the co-author of “A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage.” Before 1920, women hadn’t just been denied the right to vote — they had also been told over and over that voting and politics were for men. Reliable data about women’s voting patterns in the 1920s and 1930s is scarce, but according to Wolbrecht, some women in the years after suffrage never stopped believing that voting simply wasn’t their job.
That wasn’t how later generations of women saw the world, though. To most women born in the mid-20th century, voting seemed like an entirely natural thing to do. By the 1980s, it was so natural, in fact, that women were consistently voting at higher rates than men. That shift was driven in part by Black women: Despite facing systemic barriers to voting through the mid-1960s, they turned out at rates similar to white men — and only slightly lower than white women — by the mid-1990s.
But that story of generational replacement doesn’t explain why women became an increasingly important fixture of the Democratic base, starting with the 1980 election. Before that year, men’s and women’s voting patterns looked pretty similar — they voted at almost exactly equal rates for the Republican and Democratic candidates in the 1972 and 1976 presidential elections, for instance. That’s why it was so shocking when in 1980, an 8-point gender gap emerged between the share of men and women who voted for Reagan, with 55 percent of men backing him but just 47 percent of women.
So what happened? Simply put, prior to 1980, it hadn’t been as clear which party was more naturally aligned with most women’s views on policy issues. But in that election cycle, the Republican Party took a sharp right turn on a number of issues that mattered to women, including issues like spending on the social safety net, the environment, and the role of government. (The GOP also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment for the first time that year in its party platform.) And while a majority of men, who had been increasingly drawn toward the Republicans as the Democrats grew more liberal on issues of race, ended up in Reagan’s column, a majority of women did not.
As the parties became more and more polarized over the next few decades, this gap grew larger too, as women and men’s political allegiances continued to drift apart. “The issues that women tend to care about have largely been embraced by the Democratic Party,” Cascio said.
Other factors may have also helped drive this shift. For starters, several experts told us, women were increasingly likely to join the workforce, particularly in public sector jobs like teaching, which may have reinforced their support for a robust government safety net. At the same time, rising divorce rates, declining marriage rates and changing eligibility requirements for social welfare programs like Medicaid made many women more dependent on government support, which may have also drawn them to the Democratic Party, the party increasingly branded as supportive of big government. And according to a 2017 study, single women are more likely than married women to see themselves as connected to other women, which in turn predicts a more liberal ideology, especially for white and Latina women. (Black women tend to be liberal regardless of their marital status.)
Black women’s support for Democratic candidates was also a crucial part of this shift. “Black women have consistently and strongly supported the Democratic Party for decades now,” said Chaya Crowder, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. But that’s not because the Democrats have done a particularly good job of engaging with Black women, or worked to win their votes. Instead, according to research by Crowder and her co-authors, Black women are especially likely to see voting itself as an important and urgent act. One reason they’ve continued to vote Democratic, despite the party’s long history of lackluster outreach, is that their policy goals are almost always more aligned with those of the Democrats.
Over the past few years, there’s evidence of yet another crucial shift in women’s political allegiances too: More white women are moving toward the Democratic Party. The gender gap in 2018 was the largest in at least two decades, for instance, with a bigger share of white women voting for Democrats than in 2016.
This year, that trend could accelerate even further, thanks to President Trump’s presence on the ballot, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests continuing to unfold around the country. According to an analysis of likely voters in Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape surveys conducted from July 23 through August 12, women are much likelier to support Biden over Trump, while men are fairly evenly divided between the two candidates. Biden is also slightly ahead of Trump among white women — which is noteworthy, because a majority of white women supported Trump in 2016.
Of course, we’re still several months away from the election, and these numbers could change. But even before the pandemic hit, Trump’s lagging support among women sparked speculation that Republicans face a tough road with female voters. For instance, Trump’s favorability among women overall is very low, according to the Nationscape data. Of likely voters, only 37 percent of women said they had a favorable view of the president, while 56 percent said they have a favorable view of Biden. Likely male voters, on the other hand, tend to have a rosier view of Trump — 46 percent of men said they have a favorable view of the president — and a less positive impression of Biden. Just 51 percent of men said they had a favorable view of Biden.
Additionally, several experts told us that there are good reasons to believe that Biden is on track to see record high support among women, including white women. Mary-Kate Lizotte, a political science professor at Augusta University who studies the gender gap, told us that for many women, the fallout from the pandemic could underscore their support for a strong government safety net and draw them toward Biden. Faced with school closures and a historically high unemployment rate, Lizotte said, many women could feel especially inclined to support a party that promises significant government support. Meanwhile, Erin Cassese, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, said that with Harris on the ballot, sexism is likely to be a prominent issue, as it was in 2016 — which could help widen the gender gap even further.
The Black Lives Matter protests could also galvanize more women to turn out for Biden, according to Lizotte and Crowder, because women have been active in the protests and tend to score lower in racial resentment — a widely used measure in political science to capture racist attitudes — and tend to have more liberal perspectives on issues around race.
One big question, though, is whether women will turn out at high rates this year, with their kids out of school and the ordinary rhythms of life and work in disarray. Lizotte said she thinks it’s possible that these barriers might deter some women from voting.
But it’s even likelier, she said, that women might be more motivated than usual to turn out. “These issues are so personal and so dramatic and so likely to affect women,” she said. “Some of those people who haven’t been consistent voters might feel like it’s actually worth their time.”
And if that happens, women will do a lot to determine the fate of the 2020 election, just a few months into their second century of suffrage.