The Political Gender Gap is Exploding
Changing Patterns of Religious Identity, Education, and Marital Status May Be Responsible for the Growing Divide
In my latest piece for FiveThirtyEight, I wrote about the shifting trajectory of public opinion on abortion and how young people today, particularly young women, are notably more supportive of abortion rights than previous generations of young adults. There’s also a growing political rift between men and women. Young women today are much more liberal than young men. In fact, young women have become significantly more liberal over the past decade whereas the political identity of young men has remained largely unchanged over time.
Rise of Unmarried Women
There are a few reasons for the increasingly liberal politics of young women. One explanation may lie in their marital status. Compared to previous generations of young women, far more women under the age of 30 today are unmarried. Only 15 percent of young women today are married compared to more than one-third of young women two decades ago.
Why does this matter? Research has shown that unmarried women feel more connected than their married counterparts to other women—a phenomenon known as “linked fate”— and it can lead them to support more liberal policies. In their fascinating 2017 study, Christopher T. Stout, Kelsy Kretschmer, and Leah Ruppanner argue that “women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women’s economic dependency on men. Thus, it is within married women’s interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status.” This phenomenon of “linked fate” was not found to be evident among men, so even though young men are also less likely to be married compared to older generations, their marital status may have less of an impact on their politics than for women.
The Growing Education Divide
Over the past several decades, women’s educational attainment has far outpaced that of men’s; “Women in the United States have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-1980s,” writes Derek Thompson in the Atlantic.
“American colleges and universities now enroll roughly six women for every four men. This is the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education, and it’s getting wider.”
The education divide between men and women has become more politically relevant because of the stronger connection between educational attainment and political behavior. In recent elections, college graduates have become a much more loyal Democratic constituency. And on a range of issues, college-educated Americans are more liberal than those without a Bachelor’s degree.
There are a number of reasons why a college education may lead one to adopt more liberal views, but one oft-overlooked is how obtaining a college degree affects your social life. Having a college degree increases the likelihood you’ll live in or near a city, and that you’ll work and become friends with other college graduates, who are more likely to be left-of-center than those without a college degree. The political context one lives in exerts a powerful effect on their own views. As Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris noted recently in an interview with the New York Times: “If you live in a community which is more liberal, there’s a self-reinforcing ratcheting effect.”
Declining Religious Affiliation
Historically, younger Americans have consistently expressed less interest in religion than older Americans, but young people today have much less experience with religion growing up than previous generations once did. While no age group has been unaffected by the growth of the religiously unaffiliated, young adults, and especially young women, have experienced the most dramatic change in religious identity. In 2021, 38 percent of young women reported being religiously unaffiliated, a nearly five-fold increase from the late 1990s: In 1998, only 8 percent of young women were religiously unaffiliated. This matters because religious commitment is linked to political ideology. Americans who participate in regular religious practices or embrace traditional religious beliefs express more conservative views.
Sexual Identity and Attraction
One of the most significant differences between young men and women is their approach to sexuality and sexual identity. A recent survey found that young women are significantly more likely than young men to say they are physically attracted to individuals of the same gender. In fact, only 56 percent of young women are exclusively attracted to men, compared to three-quarters of young men who say they are only attracted to women.
Overall, young people today are far more likely to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer than at any previous time—according to Gallup, approximately one in six members of Gen Z identify as LGBT. But it’s young women who are most responsible for the rapid growth of LGBTQ identity. And while it would not be surprising that the politics of LGBT Americans are more liberal when it comes to LGBTQ issues, recent work has shown that “LGBT Americans are distinctively liberal … in their general political predispositions, electoral choices, and attitudes on a wide range of policy matters.”
Politics in the #MeToo Era
But it’s not all about demography. The #MeToo movement catalyzed a major shift in the public’s understanding of sexual harassment and misconduct as well as a renewed appreciation for its ubiquity—In a 2018 survey, eighty-one percent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in their lifetime. A couple of years ago, I wrote about how the MeToo movement was transforming the politics of young women.
“The #MeToo movement has served as a powerful unifying force for women. Unlike other issues that affect women — like the gender pay gap, which primarily affects working women — sexual harassment crosses lines of culture, class and generation. … However, the #MeToo movement has had a more profound effect on younger women than older women. Compared with older women, young women are more likely to say the movement has affected how they think about sexual harassment and assault. It is also informing their political priorities, namely the election of more women to political office.”
Of course, the constellation of forces pushing young women left is by no means a permanent guarantee. Political positions are not static and evolve as we age for a variety of reasons. None of this is to presuppose that young women will rush to embrace traditional gender norms or roles if they get married or raise children, but our social circumstances are shown to exert considerable influence over our behavior and beliefs. For now, it appears young women are poised to become a powerful political force, one that will shape the fortunes of both political parties for years to come.