How Gender Shapes Public Opinion in American Politics

In this blog post, we interview experts about the gender gap in American politics as it relates to public opinion and policy issues. This post is a curated conversation, moderated by CAWP Research Associate Claire Gothreau, with gender and politics experts intended to illuminate gender differences across a variety of policy attitudes. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Political science research has shown there are significant gender differences in public opinion and policy attitudes. For example, women are more likely than men to support gun control measures, access to abortion, and increases in spending on social welfare programs. Women tend to be less supportive than men of the death penalty, use of military force to solve international conflict, and more stringent immigration policies. These gender differences extend to policy issues that are particularly salient like attitudes towards the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, polling data shows that women were more supportive of the $1.9 trillion stimulus relief bill. Why are there systematic gender differences in attitudes towards public policy issues? What are the factors that drive these differences? How do other factors like partisanship and racial and ethnic identity play a role?

I spoke with two experts – Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte (Augusta University) and CAWP Visiting Practitioner Kimberly Peeler-Allen about the dynamics of these gender differences and how they shape the contours of American politics. This interview sheds light on what gendered patterns in public opinion look like in the United States, what underlying factors drive these patterns, and how gender interacts with other identities to effect political attitudes. For more information and data on gender differences in public opinion, see our Gender Differences in Public Opinion Fact Sheet.

Gothreau: We know there are systematic gender differences in attitudes toward certain issues like gun control, reproductive rights, spending on social welfare programs, and many other public policy issues. Can you talk about some of the factors that drive these differences? Why does gender correlate with so many political attitudes and what has your research revealed about these differences?

Lizotte: There are a number of theories for gender differences in issue preferences. Some of these explanations only apply to certain gender gaps in public opinion, while others could apply to most or all of the documented gaps. For example, differences in anxiety, risk aversion, and threat perceptions apply to the gaps on gun control and the use of military force. Women’s propensity toward higher levels of anxiety, risk aversion, and perceived threat could drive their desire for stricter gun control laws and their opposition to wars. Among authoritarians, who are sensitive to threat, women are more likely to favor gun control while men are less in favor of restrictions on access to guns (Lizotte 2019). Among individuals with higher levels of perceived terrorism threat, women are less supportive of the use of torture to prevent future terrorist attacks while men are more supportive (Lizotte 2017). This explanation could also apply to differences in climate change attitudes. 

Other theories such as gender socialization, feminist consciousness, and value differences could apply to all the established gaps in public opinion. Gender socialization likely leads women to be more caring and men to be more assertive, which could explain differences on a multitude of policies (Eagly et al. 2004). Feminist consciousness, or an awareness of gender-based inequities, may lead individuals to support equality and anti-hierarchical policies (Conover 1988). In my forthcoming work, I find that women are more likely to identify with feminism than men. My own research finds a great deal of support for the values explanation that women’s higher endorsement of pro-social values accounts for a substantial portion of the gender gap on defense spending, social welfare spending, gun control, justification of war, death penalty, environmental policy, racial resentment, LGBTQ rights, and gender equality (Lizotte 2020). These theories could also explain why gender correlates with so many political attitudes.

Gothreau: How do factors like partisanship, as well as race and ethnicity impact the gender differences we’ve discussed? Why do these gender gaps among sub-groups exist and how important is it for us to be attentive to sub-group gender differences opposed to gender differences in the aggregate?

Peeler-Allen: What the data shows overall, is that gender is not a uniform lens that policy positions can be viewed through. The totality of one’s experiences which are informed by race, ethnicity and partisanship are far more influential in determining the support or opposition to a variety of positions. Though there are similar gender trends on issues and the gender difference is generally proportional across the ideological spectrum, the level of overall support or opposition is more uniform within partisan silos. When data is disaggregated further to show the breakdown by race and ethnicity, we see similar trends that racial or ethnic experiences have even more impact or clustering effect for both men and women on a variety of issues such as economic opportunity, equity, and reproductive rights.  

Women do not live bifurcated lives where their gender and race do not intersect. It is also important to note that racial or ethnic groups are not monolithic, however, the gulf between divergent views within a racial or ethnic group are not as wide the more a population is segmented. Because we live in a society that has been built on the construct of whiteness as the dominant culture, for many non-white women, it is their race or ethnicity that informs their positions on a variety of issues equally or more so than their gender. When analyzing data that reflects the opinions of women, it is critical that the question of which women and how many of them is taken into consideration to determine how broadly the data can be applied.

Lizotte: Investigating how partisanship and other identities impact gender gaps in public opinion undermines the notion that women are all the same in their political perspectives. Depending on the issue area, gender differences may transcend partisanship and also exist across many sub-groups or the gender gap may be driven my certain sub-groups of women. Work shows that on the question of an activist role of government Republican women significantly differ from Republican men favoring a greater role for government (Lizotte 2017). Women are more likely to identify as Democrats compared to men, but most of the documented gender gaps in public opinion are not simply a result of this partisan gap. Of course, Republican women differ from Democratic women in their opinions on most issues, but importantly Republican women often differ from Republican men and Democratic women from Democratic men.  

Concerning other sub-groups, the differences between sub-groups of women frequently surpass the aggregate gender gap in size. For example, Black women are much more supportive of social welfare spending than white women (Lizotte 2020). These sub-group differences exist because other demographic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, income, education, religiosity, etc. exert an influence on public opinion. Hence, it is only logical that women from different sub-groups would diverge somewhat in their opinions. In my own work I find that in addition to being more supportive of social welfare spending than white women, Black women are also significantly more supportive than Black men. In contrast, being white is associated with more conservative opinions cross-pressuring white women for whom gender has a liberalizing influence; this results in white women being more liberal than white men but less liberal than Black men and Black women on most issues. More intersectional research is needed to understand how these other identities impact gender gaps. 

Gothreau: How do you see these different public opinion issues animating activist groups? Are the patterns we see in the data consistent with what you’ve observed while working on campaigns and for Higher Heights and the ERA Coalition?

Peeler-Allen: Much of the movement work I have been involved in has been energized by the understanding that many policy positions enjoy wide overall support, at varying levels, across the ideological spectrum. Activists in many spaces see opportunities to build on shared views on issues such as economic opportunity, equity, and reproductive freedom to advance policy change. It is that understanding and the ability to effectively articulate broad support for issues, counter to what may be seen as the vocal minority in opposition, that has led to advances or at least the maintaining the status quo on progressive policy.

The work of Higher Heights, the ERA Coalition and other organizations that I am involved in has been effective because they have each focused the totality of the life experiences of the women they seek to serve. In the case of Higher Heights, it was necessary to create a political home for Black women that was focused on the intersection of race and gender because all women do not share the same experiences. To have a space that does not frame the experiences of Black women through the lens of whiteness allows them to take on the challenges and opportunities to expand their political engagement in an environment that is grounded in the cultural nuances they face. 

The ERA Coalition has garnered support across the country to finally codify the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution by deliberately breaking out of the narrative that has been adopted over the last several decades-- that the ERA only benefits white women-- through working to center the experiences of women of color and other marginalized people in their story telling and advocacy. It is through those efforts that more and more Americans, regardless of gender, see how their lives will benefit from the codification and implementation of the ERA. 

Gothreau: You both make it clear how there can be some danger in just looking at the aggregate gender gap as it relates to public opinion because there are so many interesting patterns among sub-groups. As Mary-Kate notes, certain sub-groups of women are sometimes driving the overall gender gap. Simply looking at the aggregate gender gap number can lead to flawed inferences. Kimberly also problematizes framing the experiences of Black women through the lens of whiteness. Given these limitations and concerns, is the concept of the “gender gap” still useful? If not, is there a different framework that would better reflect the nuances of political attitudes among women? 

Lizotte: Although the gender gap varies in size across issue areas and subgroups of women, the concept of the gender gap is still useful. Gender informs how individuals are socialized and treated in society as well as how individuals evaluate public policy, the political parties, and political candidates. Even though gender differences are much smaller than public opinion differences between racial, ethnic, and other groups, because women make up slightly more than half of the population and are more likely to vote than men, the gender gap can and does have substantial political consequences. Moreover, on many issues the gender gap exists within most or all subgroups. For example, the gender gaps on defense spending, gun control, the right to adopt for members of the LGBTQ community, and social welfare spending and services are significant among white and Black Americans, all age cohorts, those with and without a college degree, and those with above and below the median income (Lizotte 2020). In my opinion, this universality of the gender gap for some issues and elections highlights the continued utility of the concept of the gender gap. This is not to say that researchers, pollsters, and the news media should oversimplify how they think about and discuss the gender gap by disregarding the differences between subgroups of women. 

Peeler-Allen: The broadest understanding of the concept of a “gender gap” as it relates to political attitudes may indeed be obsolete. As researchers continue to unpack the influence of race, ethnicity, education, income, religiosity etc. on the opinions of women, continuing to refer to the gender gap in broad terms is an oversimplification. Many researchers once referred to the experiences or opinions of women of color in a monolithic frame. Recognizing how that leads to further marginalization of historically underrepresented groups by not taking into consideration cultural nuance, many are now providing more context to their analysis by outlining the experiences and opinions through a racial and ethnic framework. 
 
No simple rubric exists that can provide an accurate analysis of what data truly shows about the opinions of women. On any given issue, attention must be paid to the additional factors that inform opinions as discussed above. When subjects are placed into sub-groups based on these factors, it is only then that common trends of opinion among women can be properly discerned and accurately presented.

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  Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University. Her research focus is on gender differences in public opinion, voting, and party identification. She has published on the gender gap in attitudes toward gun control, torture, military interventions, healthcare, social welfare spending, and abortion. She has also published on the effects of various factors such as prior experience and physical appearance on candidate evaluations of women candidates. Her work has been published in various journals and edited volumes. Her book, Gender Differences in Public Opinion: Values and Political Consequences, with Temple University Press was published in March 2020. 
 

Kimberly Peeler-Allen has been working at the intersection of race, gender and politics for over 20 years.  Kimberly is the Co-founder of Higher Heights, the leading national organization dedicated to building Black women’s collective political power from the voting booth to elected office.  She is currently a Visiting Practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University where she serves as an advisor on CAWP’s election analysis, and guest lectures in various graduate and undergraduate courses. Kimberly serves as Board Chair of the ERA Coalition, Co-Chair of Higher Heights for America PAC and is a board member of the Fund for Women's Equity and NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation.

 

Claire Gothreau is a Research Associate at the Center for American Women and Politics. She works on data collection, management, and analysis at CAWP. She received her Ph.D. from Temple University in 2019. At Temple, she was the Assistant Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab where she specialized in the collection of physiological data. Dr. Gothreau’s research interests are in American politics with a focus on gender, political psychology, and experimental methodology. She is also interested in the intersection of politics, psychophysiology, and human behavior. Her most recent work explores how objectification impacts women’s political engagement and perceptions of women political candidates.