The Gender Gap as a Tool for Women’s Political Empowerment: The Formative Years, 1980–1984
Suffragists argued that women would vote differently from men and use their votes to bring about policy-related change. Nevertheless, persistent and widespread differences in the voting choices of women and men only became evident after the emergence of the contemporary women’s movement. What is now referred to as the “gender gap” in voting first came to public attention following the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Scholars, mostly political scientists, have conducted considerable research on the gender gap, most of it quantitative and focusing on possible explanations for the gender gap. In this chapter, Susan Carroll explores both the politics surrounding the gender gap and the deployment of the gender gap as a political tool. Organizations and activists involved in the Second Wave of the women’s movement were critical in identifying and publicizing the gender gap in the early 1980s. Eventually though the gender gap became an important tool in the final push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and in their efforts to secure a female candidate on the Democratic presidential ticket in 1984. Similarly, the gender gap became a tool in the political right’s attempts to undermine feminism in the 1980s. Forces on the right of the political spectrum argued, for example, that the gender gap was a temporary phenomenon and/or that it was not the gender gap, but rather the marriage gap, that was important. Today, the gender gap continues to play a central part of electoral strategies, no candidate can afford to ignore gender differences in support, and women are successfully elected to state and national offices. In addition to improving equality, the gender gap clearly remains one of the important legacies of Second-Wave Feminism.