The gradual political shift to the left by women voters in Europe and the Americas is a remarkable and significant indicator of the push for greater gender equality. Sociologists point out that the shift of women to the left is striking because only a few decades ago they had voted to the right of men.1 After they had become eligible to vote in 1928 (ending the prolonged struggle of the UK’s suffragettes) women were crucial in helping to keep the Conservatives in power. In the 1950s Winston Churchill won because more women voted Tory than men [by more than 14%]. Ironically, their loyalties began to shift with the fall of the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister. With the greater feminine concern for health care, education and benefits in the election of Blair in 1997, the shift in the UK was complete.
A similar scenario was experienced in the US over the past three decades, where more women have voted for Democrats. Some sociologists have traced this development to the decline in marriages and the rise in divorce which has made women poorer and men comparatively richer.2 Others contend that the rise of female employment in the labor market has made women more likely to favor the left by increasing their awareness of labor market discrimination as well as the demand for state subsidized child care. Whatever the reasons, Romney received less than 45% of the overall women’s vote in his race against Obama in 2012.
In an editorial page article in the Guardian, Seumas Milne wrote that women are significantly more hostile to cuts in benefits, pensions, health and education than men.3 It is important to note here that women make up two-thirds of the public sector work force in the UK and three-quarters of the National Health Service and local government. This has also increased the power of women in the trade unions. The consequence has been an historic shift in the political scene over the past three decades. Women of today are far more vocal in their opposition to the use of force, are more supportive of environmental reforms, are on average in favor of progressive taxation and generally endorse the benefits of the welfare state.
Politics often seem contradictory to common sense. I remain puzzled as to how Republicans in the US and Conservatives in the UK, fully aware of the continuing shift to the left in the voting pattern of women, are doing so little to make their expressed desire to reduce the size of government more electorally acceptable. Prime Minister David Cameron is painfully aware of his unpopularity among his country’s women with an election coming up in the UK next May. What has he promised them? To cut one million public servants by 2017! Now there are more females today working for the government than men and new jobs will be difficult for the women dismissed by the Tories to find. How can reasonably intelligent politicians move so blatantly against their own and the electorate’s best interests? Or are they in some kind of irrational state of denial about the political shift in the allegiance of women?
In the United States it seems most likely that Hillary Clinton will run for the presidency on the Democratic ticket, but the Republicans have done absolutely nothing over the past six years to make their platforms more popular to women. Obama won his second term because of the votes of women who felt more secure with a President who was committed to public services. Today the right wing of the Republican Party wants to cut benefits to a bare minimum. It does not take a brilliant mathematician to recognize that this will almost guarantee electoral defeat. However, the Tea Party, endorsed by sectors of the corporate world, has maintained its gender hostile agenda.
Despite these political shifts by women, their systematic under-representation in the legislatures of democracies continues. They are not helped in either England or the US because female politicians seem to self-select into offices with a high turnover. On the way up the political ladder, the attrition rate is dramatic. Although about a quarter of women hold jobs in state legislatures in the US and in local councils in the UK, when it comes to the House of Representatives and the House of Commons this figure falls to under 20 percent. “As long as females are the default care-givers, they face an uneven playing field,” conclude sociologists Iversen and Rosenbluth, because markets will discriminate against them.4 There are exceptions, however. The deliberate and rational approach of Angela Merkel in Germany, who has become the most powerful leader in the European Union, has gained the reluctant acceptance of both genders irrespective of her political position on the right.
The notion that women in politics function with greater collaboration and effectiveness than men, has long been an appealing but empirically unproven proposition. This past year, however, the 20 women in the US Senate (16 of whom are Democrats and only four Republicans) have been running something of a lab test: These female Senators now chair or sit as ranking members in ten of the Senate’s twenty committees and have been responsible for passing a majority of the bills despite the intense rancor of right-wing Republicans. There is a deep sense that more unites these women personally than pushes them. “One of the things we do a bit better is listen,” said North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
In the midst of the political deadlock in the Senate last autumn, Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins took to the Senate floor and, refraining from partisan blame, proposed a plan to end the political gridlock. “I ask my Democratic and Republican colleagues to come together. We can legislate responsibly and in good faith.” Senate Appropriations Committee chair, Barbara Mikulski (a Maryland Democrat) agreed saying, “I am willing to negotiate. I am willing to compromise,” and a few minutes later a democratic Senator said, “I am pleased to stand with my friend from Maine, Senator Collins.” Looking for common ground and ways to work together resulted in a plan that led to genuine talks between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to end the government shutdown.5 In recognition of their contribution to politics, the women Senators were invited to dine with President Obama in the White House. Going around the table, Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California) remarked that 100 years earlier they would have been meeting outside the White House gates to demand the right to vote. President Obama retorted: “A hundred years ago I’d have been serving you.”
Women are more likely to support activist government spending across a range of welfare programs than men. In the UK, women have disproportionately felt the consequences of Cameron’s austerity program which seriously cut back on services and jobs in the public sector.6 In addition, cuts in maternity pay, legal aid, and child benefits as well as wage freezes and pay caps have resulted in increasing numbers of women, half of whom are now members of the trade unions, protesting against gender discrimination. Single women, in particular, are at the forefront because they have to rely on outside options in case they need economic support.
Women are thus rapidly changing the political landscape around the world. With 50% of the adult population and even a greater percentage of the over 60s eligible to cast their ballots, their impact in the coming decades will steadily increase. How men will react is unclear but it is likely that they will try to cover their insecurity. Beyond that, the possible election of a woman as President of the most powerful nation in the world would alter voter engagement and perspective. It would certainly lead to greater representation of women in legislatures around the world. Such a universal shift towards greater gender equality could well result in the much-needed improvement in global relations which until now have been dictated by men.
1Torben Iversen and Frances Rosenbluth, Women, Work, &Politics, (2010) p.115
2Lena Edlund and Rohini Pande, in a paper to Columbia University, October 11, 2001
3Seumas Milne, “Women are now to the left of men. It’s a historic shift,” The Guardian, March 6, 2013, p. 31
4Edlund, op.cit. p.169
5“The Last Politicians,” Time, October 28, 2013
6“Ladies in red,” The Economist, April 19, 2014, p.29