Is There Really a Bias Against Women in Politics? History Suggests Otherwise
Article published Monday, May 26, 2008, at Fox News.
By John R. Lott, Jr.
Are women really discriminated against in politics? Sen. Hillary Clinton surely thinks so.
Indeed, she believes this year’s presidential campaign has shown that sexism limits women’s influence in politics. She claimed last week that “every poll I’ve seen shows more people would be reluctant to vote for a woman [than] to vote for an African American.”
It’s possible that Democrats are particularly sexist, but with women making up the majority of voters, one would think that politicians were ignoring women at their own peril.
In 2004, women made up 54 percent of voters. At least through early February of this year, women made up a much greater share of Democrat primary voters — accounting for between 57 and 61 percent of the vote in primaries and caucuses.
But whatever difficulties Clinton might be having, it seems that the policies adopted are much more important than who puts them into action, and the evidence indicates that women have long gotten their way.
Academics have for some time pondered why the government started growing precisely when it did. The federal government, aside from periods of wartime, consumed about 2 to 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) up until World War I. That was the first war in which government spending didn’t go all the way back down to its pre-war levels. Then in the 1920s, non-military federal spending began steadily climbing.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal — often viewed as the genesis of big government — really just continued an earlier trend. What changed before Roosevelt came to power that explains the growth of government? The answer is women’s suffrage.
For decades, polls have shown that women as a group vote differently than men. Without the women’s vote, Republicans would have swept every presidential race but one between 1968 and 2004.
The gender gap exists on various issues. The major one is the issue of smaller government and lower taxes, which is a much higher priority for men than for women. This is seen in divergent attitudes held by men and women on many separate issues.
Women were much more opposed to the 1996 federal welfare reforms, which mandated time limits for receiving welfare and imposed some work requirements on welfare recipients. Women are also more supportive of Medicare, Social Security and educational expenditures.
Studies show that women are generally more risk-averse than men. This could be why they are more supportive of government programs to ensure against certain risks in life.
Women’s average incomes are also slightly lower and less likely to vary over time, which gives single women an incentive to prefer more progressive income taxes. Once women get married, however, they bear a greater share of taxes through their husbands’ relatively higher incomes — so their support for high taxes understandably declines.
Marriage also provides an economic explanation for why men and women prefer different policies.
Because women generally shoulder most of the child-rearing responsibilities, married men are more likely to acquire marketable skills that help them earn money outside the household. If a man gets divorced, he still retains these skills. But if a woman gets divorced, she is unable to recoup her investment in running the household.
Hence, single women who believe they may marry in the future, as well as married women who most fear divorce, look to the government as a form of protection against this risk from a possible divorce: a more progressive tax system and other government transfers of wealth from rich to poor. The more certain a woman is that she doesn’t risk divorce, the more likely she is to oppose government transfers.
Has it always been this way? Can women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries help explain the growth of government?
While the timing of the two events is suggestive, other changes during this time could have played a role. For example, some argue that Americans became more supportive of bigger government due to the success of widespread economic regulations imposed during World War I.
A good way to analyze the direct effect of women’s suffrage on the growth of government is to study how each of the 48 state governments expanded after women obtained the right to vote.
Women’s suffrage was first granted in western states with relatively few women — Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896). Women could vote in 29 states before women’s suffrage was achieved nationwide in 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
If women’s right to vote increased government, our analysis should show a few definite indicators. First, suffrage would have a bigger impact on government spending and taxes in states with a greater percentage of women. And secondly, the size of government in western states should steadily expand as women comprise an increasing share of their population.
Even after accounting for a range of other factors — such as industrialization, urbanization, education and income — the impact of granting of women’s suffrage on per capita state government expenditures and revenue was startling.
Per capita state government spending after accounting for inflation had been flat or falling during the 10 years before women began voting. But state governments started expanding the first year after women voted and continued growing until within 11 years real per capita spending had more than doubled. The increase in government spending and revenue started immediately after women started voting.
Yet, as suggestive as these facts are, we must still consider whether suffrage itself caused the growth in government, or did the government expand due to some political or social change that accompanied women’s right to vote?
Fortunately, there was a unique aspect of suffrage that allows us to answer this question: Of the 19 states that had not passed women’s suffrage before the approval of the 19th Amendment, nine approved the amendment, while the other 12 had suffrage imposed on them.
If some unknown factor caused both a desire for larger government and women’s suffrage, then government should have only grown in states that voluntarily adopted suffrage. This, however, is not the case: After approving women’s suffrage, a similar growth in government was seen in both groups of states.
Women’s suffrage also explains much of the federal government’s growth from the 1920s to the 1960s. In the 45 years after the adoption of suffrage, as women’s voting rates gradually increased until finally reaching the same level as men’s, the size of state and federal governments expanded as women became an increasingly important part of the electorate.
But the battle between the sexes does not end there. During the early 1970s, just as women’s share of the voting population was leveling off, something else was changing: The American family began to break down, with rising divorce rates and increasing numbers of out-of-wedlock births.
Over the course of women’s lives, their political views on average vary more than those of men. Young single women start out being much more liberal than their male counterparts and are about 50 percent more likely to vote Democratic. As previously noted, these women also support a higher, more progressive income tax as well as more educational and welfare spending.
But for married women this gap is only one-third as large. And married women with children become more conservative still. Women with children who are divorced, however, are suddenly about 75 percent more likely to vote for Democrats than single men. So as divorce rates have increased, due in large part to changing divorce laws, voters have become more liberal.
Women’s suffrage ushered in a sea change in American politics that affected policies aside from taxes and the size of government. For example, states that granted suffrage were much more likely to pass Prohibition, for the temperance movement was largely dominated by middle-class women. Although the “gender gap” is commonly thought to have arisen only in the 1960s, female voting dramatically changed American politics from the very beginning.
*John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.