The Electoral Costs and Benefits of Feminism in Contemporary American Politics

Abstract

Sexism and feminism are often seen as opposing belief systems on a single dimension in American politics. Gender scholars, however, have noticed that these forces are not equal and opposite. The 2016 election represents a critical case for examining how gender-related attitudes and identities push and pull voters. Hillary Clinton was the first female presidential nominee of a major party and a self-proclaimed feminist facing an opponent considered by many to be hostile to women. As such, many observers predicted a substantial increase in the gender gap. However, the gap did not widen much compared to previous races, and nearly half of women chose Trump. Why? We argue that sexism – as commonly measured – mixes attitudes about women in general with those about feminists in particular. When feminism becomes salient, as in 2016, attitudes about this subgroup become more relevant to the vote. Relying on three studies – a 2016 survey on SSI, the 2018 CCES, and the 2016 ANES, we assess the role of anti-feminist attitudes and feminist identity across gender, race, and party. We find that sexism directed against feminists powerfully dampened support for Clinton across genders. However, feminist identity was much less common in the electorate, and had little effect on men’s votes. Thus, although countervailing, these two forces are not equivalent. In 2016, the benefit of appealing to feminists was overwhelmed by the cost of activating voters who intensely dislike the group. These results reveal a consequential imbalance in the power of sexism and feminism in U.S. politics.

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Data Availability

Data and code for replication are available on the Political Behavior Dataverse at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/J8TLGX.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. US Elections, How Groups Voted.

    https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/how-groups-voted-2016.

    The New York Times, Election 2016: Exit Polls. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.html.

  2. 2.

    CNN, November 23, 2016. https://www.cnn.com/election/2016/results/exit-polls.

  3. 3.

    While we often refer to differences between men and women in this paper, we do not conceptualize gender in a binary way. Unfortunately, our surveys only asked for self-reported gender in a binary sense. Future studies should explore the political consequences of non-binary gender identification.

  4. 4.

    Reilly, Katie, “Beyoncé Reclaims Hillary Clinton's 'Baked Cookies' Comment at Rally.” Time, November 5, 2016. https://time.com/4559565/hillary-clinton-beyonce-cookies-teas-comment/.

    Gibson, Megan, “Hillary Clinton wants you to call her a feminist.” Time, June 12, 2014. https://time.com/2864425/hillary-clinton-hard-choices-feminist/.

  5. 5.

    The sample, though not randomly drawn, was balanced on partisanship. Eligibility was restricted to U.S. citizens 18 or older. Nearly 54% of the sample was female, 70.1% was White, and 62.9% self-identified as Christian (15.8% as Evangelical). The sample was relatively well-educated, skewed older, and the median sample income was close to that of the U.S.

  6. 6.

    These studies are observational. Therefore, results reveal correlations between anti-feminist attitudes and feminist identification, on the one hand, and vote choice on the other.

  7. 7.

    This study contained a pre-registered experiment with an emotional induction task (EGAP ID 20160625AA). Unfortunately, the manipulation suffered from failure to treat: many respondents ignored the task. The results are therefore analyzed cross-sectionally. Robustness checks using only the control condition reveal substantively similar results (Tables A11-A14, Appendix).

  8. 8.

    Conceptually, hostile sexism is intended to capture attitudes about women pushing for gender equality and empowerment in the public sphere. Some items in the scale mention feminists explicitly, while others mention women in general. We focus on items that directly invoke feminists, comparing them with those that invoke all women (Tables A23-A24, Appendix).

  9. 9.

    Race is accounted for in the subgroup analyses presented below.

  10. 10.

    The question wording for all these scales is provided in the Appendix.

  11. 11.

    See also Tables A1-A2, Appendix.

  12. 12.

    This difference in the impact of negative attitudes toward feminists between men and women does not reach statistical significance (Table A19, Appendix).

  13. 13.

    We could not examine differences by race in this study since there were too few African American respondents.

  14. 14.

    We also ran models controlling for political ideology (see Tables A7-A8, Appendix). Anti-feminist attitudes still dominated in these models, among all subgroups except Democratic women.

  15. 15.

    See Tables A5-A6, A9-A10, and A20, Appendix.

  16. 16.

    Marital status and parental status were not asked in Study 1. They are included here to account for the potential impact of having children – specifically daughters – on gender attitudes in politics (Glynn & Sen, 2015). We also include employment status, as this may affect attitudes toward gender roles (Cassidy & Warren, 1996). Ethnocentrism is not included in the CCES, so we use the four-item racial resentment battery. Finally, the CCES does not measure authoritarianism, so we are unable to control for it.

  17. 17.

    The larger, more representative sample of the CCES study allows us to run all these fine-grained subgroup analyses, which we were not able to do in Study 1 due to power limitations.

  18. 18.

    We also ran models including political ideology (Tables A21-A22, Appendix). Anti-feminist attitudes remained a large, positive predictor across all subgroups, including Black men.

  19. 19.

    See Table A25, Appendix.

  20. 20.

    Importantly, much of this difference is driven by the impact of feminism among non-White women, reinforcing the importance of an intersectional approach. This pattern holds when controlling for ideology (Tables A28-A29, Appendix).

  21. 21.

    See Tables A26-A27, Appendix.

  22. 22.

    Again, see Tables A26-A27, Appendix.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Nancy Burns, Elizabeth Cole, Donald Kinder, and Suzanne Mettler for helpful conversations and insightful feedback.

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Oceno, M., Valentino, N.A. & Wayne, C. The Electoral Costs and Benefits of Feminism in Contemporary American Politics. Polit Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09692-z

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Keywords

  • Sexism
  • Feminism
  • Gender gap
  • Political identity
  • Public opinion
  • Voting behavior