Why women vote the way they do
6/4/2002 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
Politicians have long known that women's votes are to a large
extent determined by whether they are married or not, and whether they work
outside the home or not. Married women, especially homemakers, tend to vote
Republican, while working single women tend to vote Democratic. New research
is helping to explain why this is the case.
Both values and economics explain why marriage and work have
political implications for women. A recent study by economist Mahshid
Jalilvand of the University of Wisconsin, for example, found that religion
was relatively more important for women who do not work outside the home
than for women who do, while economic and political issues were relatively
more important to working women than nonworking women.
Other studies show clearly that divorce has a strong tendency to
make women vote Democratic. According to a new paper by economists Lena
Edlund and Rohini Pande of Columbia University, this is mainly because
divorce generally reduces the standard of living for women, while increasing
it for men. "Marriage tends to make a woman more Republican, whereas divorce
tends to make her more Democratic," they conclude.
Thus basic politics is one reason why Republicans wanted a tax
credit for children, in order to make it easier financially for mothers to
stay at home with their children, and why the Bush administration has been
strongly pushing a federal initiative to encourage marriage and discourage
divorce. Both efforts help encourage Republican voting among women.
Ironically, however, it turns out that another Republican
initiative, which would strengthen work requirements for those on welfare,
is pushing in the opposite direction. According to a June 3 report in The
New York Times, the 1996 welfare reform legislation, which instituted work
requirements for welfare recipients for the first time, has had the effect
of reducing marriage rates among women.
It turns out that once women were forced off welfare and into
jobs, two things happened. On the one hand, many did so well on their own
that they no longer felt as much economic pressure to marry. On the other
hand, they are now so busy with work and child-raising, they have no time
Economic pressures are also affecting the marriage patterns of
middle-class working women. According to a new paper by economists Eric
Gould and Daniele Paserman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, increasing
wage inequality encourages women to wait longer and search harder for a
well-to-do mate. This may be the result of increased earnings by females,
increasing numbers of whom now make more than their male counterparts. From
an economic point of view, marriage has little to offer such women unless
they can greatly increase their standard of living by marrying especially
It is not only economists who are making interesting findings
about women and marriage. On May 29, Cornell biologist Kevin McGraw
published a study that used personal ads in various newspapers to determine
what male characteristics were attractive to women in different American
cities. In general, he found that the bigger and more expensive a city is to
live in, the more women are interested in finding a man able to provide them
with material comforts. Words suggesting this include "financially stable"
and "professional" in personal ads.
By contrast, women living in smaller, less expensive cities tend
to put more emphasis on emotional aspects or the personal interests of
potential mates, and less on materialism. Thus, in cities like Los Angeles
and Boston, material resources rated more highly, while in Montgomery, Ala.,
and Kansas City, things such as being a good listener and having shared
hobbies count for more.
One of the funny things to jump out from the McGraw study is
that women rate men's physical appearance higher in Washington, D.C., than
anywhere else. Forty-two percent of personal ads listed attractiveness as
the primary male attribute. Only a third of Los Angeles women did so and
just 21 percent in Montgomery. Washington women also ranked dead last in
their need for emotional support and well below most large cities in a
desire for well-to-do men, based on their personal ads.
I can only speculate that because Washington has such a high
number of very well-paid professional women, many need neither financial nor
emotional support from a relationship. In a sense, therefore, they are more
like men in their relationship requirements. They are primarily interested
in physical attractiveness because they can afford it, and because it
advertises their wealth and power to their peers. A woman stuck in a
low-paying, dead-end job in the middle of nowhere can't afford to be so
If single working women are becoming more like men in terms of
their interests in the opposite sex, as a result of their rising incomes,
eventually they may become more like men in their voting, as well.