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The Gender Gap in National Politics

by Professor Will Huhn on March 7, 2012

in Constitutional Law,Equal Protection,Wilson Huhn

Recent events including the introduction and defeat of the Blunt Amendment in the United States Senate and political commentator Rush Limbaugh's vicious attack on Sandra Fluke in the context of the debate over birth control have highlighted the extent to which the major American political parties have become polarized on gender issues, with women favoring the Democratic Party.  But this was not always the case.  Historically women identified more with the Republican Party.

Here is a historical perspective with data concerning the "gender gap" in national politics.


From the Historical Data page of the website Women in Congress:

The first woman to serve in Congress was Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana, who took office in 1917.

In 1950, the year I was born, nine members of the House of Representatives and one Senator were women.  That year five of the female members of Congress and the lone female Senator were Republicans.

In the 112th Congress 78 members of the House and 17 members of the Senate are women.  Of these, fewer than one-third are Republicans (24 of the House members and five of the Senators).

Supreme Court

From the Justices portion at Oyez:

The first female justice on the Supreme Court was Sandra Day O'Connor, who served from 1981 to 2006.  She was a Republican.  The second, third, and fourth women appointed to the Court are still serving: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Sonia Sotomayor (2009), and Elena Kagan (2010).  All three are Democrats.

Elections for President

There has never been a female President, but there has been a "gender gap" in presidential elections at least since 1928.  Before 1980 women either were neutral or favored Republican candidates for the presidency.  Jo Freeman in Gender Gaps in Presidential Elections notes that women strongly preferred Herbert Hoover in 1928 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.  Since 1980 women have favored the Democratic candidate for the presidency.  Freeman explains:

Historically, it was the Republican Party that was the party of women's rights, and the Democratic Party that was the home of anti-feminism. After the new feminist movement rose in the 1960s-70s, the parties switched sides.

The Center for the American Woman in Politics has published a Fact Sheet The Gender Gap: Voting Choices in Presidential Elections showing how men and women have voted in Presidential elections since 1980.  In 2008 women favored Barack Obama over John McCain by 7 percentage points.

Comparison to the African-American Civil Rights Movement

The movement of women from the Republican to the Democratic Party mirrors what occurred with  African-Americans.  The party of Lincoln was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation and the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and supported equal rights through the 1920s.  Warren Harding, for example, openly advocated equal rights, appointed African-Americans to federal positions, and supported the adoption of the Dyer Bill, an anti-lynching law.  After 1968 the Republican Party moved to the right on civil rights as it became reliant on southern and socially conservative white voters.  Meanwhile during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor worked tirelessly for equal rights for African-Americans, and under the administrations of Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson the Democratic Party moved into the forefront in defense of equal rights on the basis of both gender and race.

Barack Obama's recent phone call to Sandra Fluke is reminiscent of Jack Kennedy's first phone call to Coretta Scott King.  In 2012, an African-American President called a white woman who was the victim of a despicable misogynist attack from a leading national commentator to reassure her that her parents should be proud of her.  In 1960 a white presidential candidate called the African-American wife of the leading figure of the civil rights movement, who had been arrested on trumped-up charges, to reassure her of her husband's safety.  Shortly after Kennedy reached out to Coretta King, Martin Luther King, Sr. told Morris Abram that he had thrown his support to the Democratic candidate because Kennedy had "called my daughter-in-law and wiped the tears from her eyes."  But that is a story worthy of a posting of its own.