GENDER POLITICS: YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHIN' YET
If the results of the 1996 White House race prove anything, it's that the gender gap in politics is wider than ever. Indeed, this may have been the first Presidential election in the U.S. where the winning candidate, whether Democratic or Republican, did not receive a plurality of the votes cast by both men and women. Although Bill Clinton easily won most of the women's votes and was especially strong with both young and older women, Bob Dole received slightly more of the votes by men and ran particularly well with white men.
I believe the decline of stable family life is the main reason why the economic and political interests of women and men are diverging so sharply. Given that these demographic trends are not about to reverse themselves, the successful appeal of Bill Clinton to women may be a harbinger of increasing emphasis on gender politics and growing battles between men and women for a larger share of the public treasury.
The alteration in families during the past four decades can be seen from trends in the composition of households: Married couples with children were almost three-quarters of all U.S. households in 1960, whereas now they represent a little over half. Unmarried female heads--many with dependent children--have grown to almost 30% of all family units. Similar trends are found in Britain, Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe.
The sharp decline of intact families is explained mainly by the explosion in divorce rates and the rapidly rising gender gap in life expectancy. Divorces were hardly typical in 1960; now, almost half of all first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The number of older women who live alone also has grown rapidly, since women account for about 60% of all those over age 65. Most younger married women can expect to spend some time as single heads of households when they get older, because they divorce or are widowed.
CATHOLIC VOTES. Although Dole was well aware that he badly trailed Clinton with female voters, the Republican Party tried to appeal during the past campaign to the traditional married household by emphasizing family values, opposing abortion, and supporting middle-class tax cuts and larger deductions for children. They did succeed reasonably well with members of intact families, including ''soccer moms.'' Contrary to many predictions prior to the election, married women apparently gave Clinton only about five percentage points more votes than Dole.
Clinton, too, stressed family values and family policies, but he also appealed to women with favorable stands on so-called women's issues. He not only strongly supported the general right of women to abortion but also vetoed a bill that would have outlawed some late-term abortions. In doing the latter, he even curried outrage from officials of the Catholic Church and opposition from many women who support abortion under normal circumstances. Nevertheless, Clinton won a majority of Catholic votes. He supported gun control, and repeatedly claimed that the Republicans would gut Social Security and medical care for the aged, programs that help many more women than men.
SINGULAR SUPPORT. Almost all younger female household heads must work to support themselves and their children. The President appealed to these and other working women by supporting affirmative-action programs for women and minorities, child-care subsidies for women who work, and job leaves when necessary to care for children and sick parents. Clinton also appointed women to federal judgeships, his Cabinet, and his economic and foreign policies teams.
As a result of these moves, and perhaps for other reasons as well, Clinton was much more popular with divorced and other single women. He received over 60% of the votes cast by unmarried women, compared to 28% for Dole.
Gender-based politics also has been growing in other nations with comparable trends in family structure to those in the U.S. Social Democratic and Labor parties of Europe appoint many women to Cabinet positions. These parties advocate child-care subsidies for working women, government support of children in female-headed households, social security for divorced wives of retired men, and generous medical and other subsidies to the elderly. By contrast, Conservative parties stress family values, marital tax deductions, and other programs that cater to the traditional, intact family.
Political conflict between the sexes should be even more important in the future, when it is fully appreciated that women--especially unmarried women--won the election for Bill Clinton.
By GARY S. BECKER
Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.