What was that book about women being from Venus and men being from Mars? Recent polling data suggests that tongue-in-cheek title may reflect real differences. (And no, I don’t mean “differences” in the “viva la difference!” sense.)
Thomas Edsall’s columns in the New York Times are always heavily indebted to academic research. In a recent one, he considered what research tells us about the political gender gap. Here’s his lede:
In one of the most revealing studies in recent years, a 2016 survey of 137,456 full-time, first-year students at 184 colleges and universities in the United States, the U.C.L.A. Higher Education Research Institute found “the largest-ever gender gap in terms of political leanings: 41.1 percent of women, an all-time high, identified themselves as liberal or far left, compared to 28.9 percent of men.”
While there is a lot of research confirming the existence of that gender gap, a problem with surveys of this sort becomes apparent from Edsall’s description of another poll. This one asked the following question: “If you had to choose, which do you think is more important, a diverse and inclusive society or protecting free speech rights.”
Male students preferred protecting free speech over an inclusive and diverse society by a decisive 61 to 39. Female students took the opposite position, favoring an inclusive, diverse society over free speech by 64 to 35.
There are all kinds of things wrong with this question, not least the absence of a third option that would allow respondents to indicate they found these values to be equally important. But the biggest problem with using this framing to demonstrate that men and women are politically different is what we know about levels of civic literacy.
I am absolutely confident that few of those surveyed really understand how communications are protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, and against whom.
And that brings me to a persistent gripe I have about Americans’ love of labeling opinions “left” and “right” based on questions of this sort. Not only have the definitions of liberal and conservative changed rather markedly over the past decades (I have the same basic political philosophy that made people label me “very conservative” in 1980, and now I am routinely identified as liberal/pinko/socialist), but a number of policy preferences don’t neatly fall into a black and white, liberal/conservative framework.
I will concede that–at this time– there is a significant political gender gap, and it seems to be growing. Differences in party identification have been evident since the early 1980s, and as Edsall says, we can now see that “the political engagement of women is having a major impact on the social order.”
When Edsall asked a couple of scholars to be more specific about the nature of that impact, most responded that most women are less violent and warlike than most men.
“We find that the evidence is consistent with the view that the increasing enfranchisement of women, not merely the rise of democracy itself, is the cause of the democratic peace.”
Put another way, “the divergent preferences of the sexes translate into a pacifying effect when women’s influence on national politics grows” and “suffrage plays a direct and important role in generating more peaceful interstate relations by altering the political calculus of democratic leaders.”…
There are broad value differences between men and women. Women score higher on values defined by care, fairness, benevolence, and protecting the welfare of others, reflecting greater empathy and preference for cooperative social relations.
The column highlighted gender differences with respect to the use of force–differences in how the sexes approach conflict and competition, and how, as more women have entered the political realm, the lived experience of those women has contributed to what scholars term “the feminization” of government and politics.
I don’t want to quibble with the scholarship displayed in this column, which is sound, but permit me a caveat.
As with all studies and polls, these conclusions are at best snapshots–accurate (assuming that they are) at a particular point in time. As women enter more fully into national life, including political life, we tend to get more like the men with whom we interact.( I’ve run across some pretty belligerent/warlike women…)
And of course, this goes for the men, too, who benefit significantly from interacting with us. (I don’t like the term “feminize”–sounds wimpy. How about “humanize”?)
I don’t think women are necessarily more “liberal.” I think our life experiences may have made at least some of us a bit more human--and I think we’re making you guys a bit more human too.
And unfortunately, there’s probably not much of a gap when it comes to the ability to accurately describe the operation of the Free Speech Clause…