fb-pixelWhite women skewing conservative is a decades-long trend, but their power may be waning - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Ideas | Tina Cassidy

White women skewing conservative is a decades-long trend, but their power may be waning

1915: From left to right, Mrs James Leeds Laidlaw, Mrs Albert Plimpton, Mrs A Hughston, Mrs Frank Stratton and Helen Rich lead the Manhattan Delegation on a Woman Suffrage Party parade through New York.Paul Thompson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images/Getty Images

IN THE CENTURY since women won the right to vote in America, their power as an electorate has evolved, deeply affecting national policy and ultimately, determining who sits in the White House. But while there is no doubt women have helped choose the winners and define many of our national issues, the ways in which they have done so have been more fiercely delineated by class, race and religion — factors that generally determine their party affiliation — than their gender.

If only anti-suffragists had known what the future would hold.

During the debate over the 19th Amendment in 1920s, the opposition came up with myriad arguments against ratification: that men already sufficiently represented women with their best interests in mind; that women were too easily influenced by males and, therefore, their vote would only be an echo; that women might choose differently than their family, creating discord; that domestic life should have one leader, a structure that would be destroyed if women voted; and, finally, that women were intellectually inferior to men.

It would not be the last time the world was wrong about women voters.


Over the last century, candidates and political operatives have pandered to the female electorate in occasionally absurd ways. (Sarah Palin is a recent example.) They’ve worked hard at exploiting and splitting the vote. But they no longer underestimate the power of mothers, sisters, and daughters in selecting presidents.


WITHIN MONTHS OF winning the vote in 1920, 35 percent of eligible females (9.4 million women) cast ballots in that year’s presidential race, handily electing Republican Warren G. Harding over Democrat James Cox. At the time, the GOP was the more socially progressive party promising to heal America, which had been wounded by a World War and racial strife exacerbated by President Wilson’s segregation policies. It should be noted that many states immediately began disenfranchising black women (as well as black men) through poll taxes and literacy tests. But those who did vote that year — including the leader of the suffrage movement, Alice Paul — were naturally more aligned with Harding’s party platform.


The GOP was a clear early beneficiary of women’s votes. By 1928, Herbert Hoover drew even more women to the party by supporting Prohibition, as did a majority of female voters. Males were not so enthused about the ban on alcohol sales and for the first time in presidential history, more women than men voted for the winner of the White House.

The Great Depression disrupted the partisan voting patterns of women. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, also an early suffrage supporter, proposed a New Deal for relief, recovery, and reform to help suffering Americans survive the economic crisis. His wife Eleanor, a feminist who set the policy agenda for the nascent League of Women Voters, rallied females, giving them permission to work outside the home. Later, she held press conferences (covered by female reporters only) to educate women voters and encourage them to get involved in policy. The strategy was successful. Fifty seven percent of women voted for the Democrat in his first election, according to a Gallup Poll, and their support for Roosevelt remained high through three more elections and the Second World War.

When the war ended, American life changed dramatically for women as they retreated from their factory jobs to the home, their paid work replaced by male labor and a baby boom. But domesticity was not the only cultural trend on the rise. In the 1952 presidential campaign, 54 million women were eligible to vote — double the 1920 numbers, comprising more than half of the voting population. Candidates Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, and Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat, vied for this massive voting bloc, but now with increasingly partisan appeals.


In an attempt to court the female vote, political parties shifted into Madison Avenue mode, selling their candidates like vacuum cleaners to housewives. They deployed hypnotic black and white TV ads focused on Eisenhower’s likeability and his strength as a five-star general, casting Stevenson as the man better to have “a hole in his shoe than a hole in everything he says.” Women’s issues, as defined by the ad men, were not directly about women; they were about family. “Ike,” the TV ads preached, was the type of guy who would help a mother stretch the family budget and keep her kids safe. That year — and in the next election when Eisenhower beat Stevenson again — white women voted for the moderate conservative.

Women of color faced major voting barriers, a trend that continues to the present day.

Understanding the importance of the female vote, John F. Kennedy, the youngest person to run for president and the first Catholic, had a team “that really tried to court [women],” says Robert Self, chair of the Brown University history department. Pregnant Jacqueline Kennedy was unable to travel, so Jack’s sisters joined him on the campaign trail to support his image as a man with female appeal. Meanwhile, Jackie taped a Spanish-speaking ad, as well as a dialogue with Dr. Spock about the importance of funding education (both for more teachers and new schools), and wrote a syndicated column called “Campaign Wife.”


Women voters were split 50-50 on Kennedy and Nixon in the 1960 election, which prompted JFK’s team to focus on growing that number for the future. In 1961, Kennedy put Eleanor Roosevelt in charge of a new organization, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which ultimately played a significant role in reviving a feminist movement. “Kennedy’s team thought it would be sort of an easy, low-cost way to win over more women, especially with an appointment of Roosevelt,” Self says.

What women would have thought of Kennedy in 1964 we’ll never know, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, saw an outpouring of support among females — whether out of sympathy for the assassination of the Democratic president, or a representing generational shift in attitudes about the future of America.

An American suffragette with an umbrella stood next to a baby carriage and wears a sign proclaiming 'Women! Use your vote,' circa 1920.APA/Getty Images/Getty Images

In fact, Johnson’s battle against Republican Barry Goldwater was a watershed moment in defining the political parties in America and how they would each appeal to the female vote. Goldwater was an archconservative who threatened using nuclear bombs in Vietnam, railed against what he saw as the “moral decay” of the nation, and deployed the new “Southern Strategy” to increase political support among white Democratic voters in the South by appealing to the racists among them who were upset over desegregation. The tactic succeeded while also pushing the GOP to the right.


Johnson, on the other hand, championed the Civil Rights Act, anti-poverty policies, and de-escalation in Vietnam. His campaign aired one of the most controversial political ads in history: It showed a little girl plucking petals off a daisy while counting backwards; her words are drowned out by a male voice counting down a rocket launch, and in an instant, the scene is wiped out by an atomic explosion. “We must either love each other or we must die,” Johnson said in the voiceover.

These scare tactics worked; he won an astounding 61 percent of the popular vote. Women rushed to the polls in greater numbers than ever before, including a surge among African Americans, who, to this day, remain overwhelmingly Democrat. One in 20 votes for Johnson was from black women.


BUT WHAT ABOUT the white women? With time on their hands and a deep reach into the hearts and minds of their communities, white women had tremendous influence over the blossoming conservative movement, a phenomenon that has been under-reported and under-analyzed. “Voting isn’t the only democratic behavior,” notes Jane Kamensky, the Trumbull Professor of history at Harvard and the director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. “It’s not the only way citizens move the republic.”

Two recent studies — one looking at suburban Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s, and another focused on Long Island and upstate New York in the 1970s — describe the trend in detail. Both studies make the case that church committees and Parent Teacher Organizations served as early networks comprised of white mothers who held “traditional values” and who had time to organize.

In 1972, a single issue would clinch this conservative movement for the next 50 years: the quest to overturn Roe v. Wade. With that Supreme Court decision, the GOP finally gained a faithful female following, one that would never waiver, regardless of anti-family policies (including the call to scale back economic, educational, and food assistance programs for children once they are born). In fact, the American National Election Study found that in 2016, 85 percent of white Evangelical women looked past Donald Trump’s adulterous words and deeds and voted for him, in great part because he campaigned against abortion rights.

Conservative women often hold anti-feminist views because they accept or even embrace patriarchal gender norms and see the goals of the feminist movement as a challenge to these standards, says Erin Cassese, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Delaware who studies women in American politics as voters and as elected officials. These beliefs mobilized conservative women to stall the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s, even though Republicans such as Gerald Ford and Democrats such as Jimmy Carter supported the ERA.

In the 1980s, these same women would vote overwhelmingly for Republicans; Ronald Reagan (twice) and then George H.W. Bush. Democrat Bill Clinton managed to win back women by 4 percentage points to defeat Bush. In 1996, Clinton widened the gender gap to 11 points over Bob Dole. Some polls said Clinton managed to win by luring lower-earning, non-college educated voters (including women) to his centrist platform.

All the while, a feminist backlash was simmering among white men and women, who, even then, began targeting Hillary Clinton’s professional ambitions during her husband’s first election.


WHITE WOMEN SKEWING conservative is a decades-long trend, but their power may be waning, thanks to demographic shifts. The number of Evangelicals is decreasing; Southern Baptists lost one million members over the last 10 years. To place that statistic in a broader context, a large study by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the US population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016.

The conservative Southern Strategy depends on keeping women of color disenfranchised (see: voter suppression issues, Stacey Abrams, and the race for Georgia governor a few months ago).

In spite of such efforts, women of color are growing as a voting bloc. Since 2010, the number of women of color who are eligible to vote has jumped 70 percent, while the number of eligible white women has only increased 6 percent, according to Aimee Allison, president of She the People, an organization that elevates the political voice of women of color. “That’s the future of the voting base,” she says, adding that more women of color are running for office — even the Presidency — with confidence, because they know they have more voter support from their own community. By 2030 America will be a majority people of color.

With a record 102 women elected in 2018 to the US House of Representatives, five new female members voted into Senate, and six women — all Democrats — running so far for President in 2020, gender dynamics will surely influence the outcome of the next election. Clearly, women have changed every aspect of the electoral process, from defining the issues, to cementing partisanship, to leading the all-important grassroots game and now, dominating the field of candidates. It’s a shame it took a century to get here.

Congresswomen don sufragette white in 2019.Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty Images

Tina Cassidy is a former Boston Globe political reporter who writes about women and culture. Her next book, Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the Right to Vote, will be published on March 5.