Before women in the U.S. even had the right to vote, people believed that married women would just cast ballots like their husbands. A century later, the questionable theory continues to stick.
Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
2020 election

The Decades-Long Debate Over Whether Women Vote Like Their Husbands

Even before women in the U.S. had the right to vote, political strategists assumed married women would just cast the same votes as their husbands. A century later, the questionable theory continues to stick.
August 3, 2020, 6:25pm

100 years ago, American women legally gained the right to vote. Yet today, many women and non-binary people in the U.S.—and around the world—still aren't counted at the polls. The 19th in 2020 is a short series about some of the obstacles they face.

The first time Lisa Bond voted in a presidential election, she went the same way as her parents, casting a ballot for Ronald Reagan in his 1980 bid for office. Four years later, she voted for his reelection, this time because of her new husband and in-laws, who were loyal Republicans. She was 22 then and had never left Orange County, California—at the time one of the most reliable conservative strongholds in the country.

“I was, let’s say, uninformed,” Bond said.

Bond kept up with local races and formed her own opinions about issues affecting her community, but she deferred to other people in her life when it came to national politics. “I aligned with my husband and his family because they seemed more informed, and that’s more or less where my information was coming from,” she said.

That ended when she and her husband divorced in 2005. Without a spouse to convey the political goings-on of the moment, Bond began to educate herself and slowly, her views evolved. Though she’s still a registered Republican, she now describes her political orientation as “straddling the middle.” In 2016, she voted for Hillary Clinton. This November, she plans to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

For more than a century, political scientists, scholars, pollsters, politicians, and members of the media have constructed elaborate theories around the voting patterns of married women, and particularly married white women like Bond. Historically, married white women have voted similarly to their spouses, usually white men, and have been much more conservative than their unmarried counterparts, according to Page Gardner, the founder of the Voter Participation Center, an organization dedicated to mobilizing unmarried women voters.

The belief has long been that married women are more conservative than their unmarried counterparts in part because they are swayed by their husbands. This archetype looms over contemporary electoral politics, making married women—often collapsed into the broad category of white women voters—an object of fixation for Democrats in recent years. Grassroots organizers, campaign staff, and (perhaps most of all) other women have worried over how to move this constituency to the left. But while spouses can influence each other’s votes—either explicitly or implicitly—what at first appears to be an ironclad typology begins to come apart when examined more closely. It may be that women’s age, level of education, and socioeconomic circumstance are better indicators of how married women vote than marriage alone.

While spouses can influence each other’s votes—either explicitly or implicitly—what at first appears to be an ironclad typology begins to come apart when examined more closely.

“It’s very difficult to say, ‘This is how unmarried women vote’ and ‘This is how married women vote,’” said Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics. “There’s a lot more at play, just as there is with men.”

The idea that women voters might be influenced—or compelled—by their husbands’ political views dates back to before women got the right to vote a century ago, and it was even used strategically by some suffragists to make their case. According to Christina Wolbrecht, the co-author of A Century of Votes for Women, a camp of early suffragists argued, somewhat counterintuitively, that since women would likely vote the same way as their husbands, they would merely double the vote, rather than dramatically shift the landscape of electoral politics, as some feared.

When some of the first voter polls were published in the 1940s and 1950s, data seemed to suggest that these words of consolation were based in truth: White women voted similarly to white men. Many political scientists used these findings to lend credence to the theory that women were simply mirroring their husbands and were unable, or uninterested, in forming their own political opinions.

This narrative quickly became dominant, even as it came under fire for being paternalistic as well as largely unsubstantiated. Party officials as well as more skeptical political scientists and scholars argued that polling was far from conclusive. Rather, it suggested a somewhat impossible chicken-or-the-egg problem. Did a woman vote like her husband because they were married, or did she marry her husband because they shared a worldview—and probably a class position, religion, and racial identity too? Dittmar pointed out that the findings could easily be interpreted to mean almost the exact opposite, and lead researchers to the conclusion that women were influencing their husband’s votes. “You could look at the same data and say, ‘Well men marry women who share their ideology,’” Dittmar said.

A camp of early suffragists argued, somewhat counterintuitively, that since women would likely vote the same way as their husbands, they would merely double the vote, rather than dramatically shift the landscape of electoral politics, as some feared.

Following a 1956 survey cited by Wolbrecht, the pollster George Gallup (for whom the Gallup poll is named) argued that the takeaway was dubious at best, asserting that the notion that women vote in the mold of men appeared “destined for the scrap heap.”

But to the scrap heap it did not go: Wolbrecht said it was common to see activists quoted in newspaper articles claiming, This is going to be the year women no longer vote like their husbands.

Married women’s voting patterns became a major talking point once again in 1983. After studying exit polling from the midterms that took place the year before, Martin Plissner, a political commentator for CBS News, found that single voters favored Democratic candidates by a margin of 26 percentage points, while married voters did so by a much slimmer margin of just 4 percentage points. Plissner predicted that a similar dynamic would play out in the 1984 elections, and suggested that married voters were more likely to vote for Reagan. Like Bond, millions did, with 63 percent of all married voters—both men and women—voting for Republican candidates down-ballot. This disparity became known as “the marriage gap.”

When Gardner, then a Democratic political consultant, studied the marriage gap in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, she could see that it was a gendered phenomenon as well. Looking at exit polling, Garner noticed that 56 percent of married women favored George W. Bush as compared to just 37 percent of unmarried women. The numbers were almost the exact reverse for Gore: 60 percent of unmarried women favored the former vice president versus 37 percent of married women.

The marriage gap has grown in every election cycle since 1984, except for the last one, when it slightly shrunk. Despite the now widely referenced and debated statistic that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016, married women had actually become more Democratic, and some single women had become less. (Forty-seven percent of married women voted for Trump in 2016 as compared to the 53 percent who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, according to a Ballotpedia analysis.)

Yet the well-worn trope about married women’s voting habits returned. Frustrated by some women’s apparent skepticism of her politics, Clinton and her supporters often explained her failure to capture more of the women’s vote by suggesting that those voters’ political opinions had been shaped by the men in their lives.

The marriage gap has grown in every election cycle since 1984, except for the last one, when it slightly shrunk.

During the Democratic primary, feminist icon Gloria Steinem insinuated that young women who backed Bernie Sanders did so to appease or impress men. “When you’re younger, you think: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie,’” she said at the time. Steinem met significant backlash for the comment, which she said was taken out of context; she later added that she understood why women would be angered by someone framing their vote as a form of male appeasement. “If I had only said what the Twitter-length version said I’d said, I’d be mad at me too,” she told TIME.

After losing to Trump, Clinton continued to float a similar theory to account for the fact that her Republican opponent had notoriously won majority support among white women. While doing press for her memoir What Happened, she paraphrased a warning she received from Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg during her campaign: “[Women] will be under tremendous pressure—and I’m talking principally about white women,” she told NPR. “They will be under tremendous pressure from fathers and husbands and boyfriends and male employers not to vote for ‘the girl.’”

There’s some evidence that indicates concerns about husbands’ influence over the political views of their wives aren’t completely off-base. In a 2016 post on the parenting site Scary Mommy, contributor Alice Seuffert wrote about her experience with phone banking, and her surprise upon hearing some women on the other end of the line tell her that their husbands tell them how to vote. The same year, writer Lyz Lenz reported on evangelical Christian women who were keeping their plans to vote for Clinton a secret from their families and communities, to avoid judgment and social alienation.

Then, shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, New York magazine contributor Rebecca Traister recounted several instances of apparent voter intimidation she’d heard of from progressive grassroots organizers across the country involving married couples. In one such case, a canvasser for then-Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke said that when she knocked on one couple’s door to make her pitch, the husband yelled, “We’re not interested!” while the wife silently mouthed “I support Beto” before abruptly closing the door. Other organizers told Traister that some women rushed to get to the door before their husbands to intercept any campaign pitches.

Explicit coercion is not widespread enough to account for married women’s voting habits as a group. More common is its more subtle, though no less pernicious, analog—that is, the way society has arranged itself over centuries to tether women’s fates to their husbands.

But experts say this sort of explicit coercion is not widespread enough to account for married women’s voting habits as a group. More common is its more subtle, though no less pernicious, analog—that is, the way society has arranged itself over centuries to tether women’s fates to their husbands.

The enduring pay gap, for example, means men still earn more than women on average, making it more likely that husbands contribute more household income. “That yokes women’s economic interests to their husband’s,” said Julie Kohler, a senior advisor at the progressive donor network Democracy Alliance.

If a woman’s financial stability is tied to her husband’s, she might vote the same way as him to advance those interests, since it is to her benefit as well to do so. Some political analysts believe that usually means voting more conservatively, since married women may see their husband, rather than the government, as a source of financial stability, whereas single women are generally thought to be more reliant on social safety nets for economic support.

“Some of these patterns may be more of a reflection of social inequities than actual interpersonal dynamics,” Kohler said.

Even so, Kohler and others said these generalizations can easily be proven to be imprecise. It’s hard to know exactly why anyone votes the way they do, and when it comes to married women in particular, political scientists still face many of the same questions they did a century ago.

“There is still debate among scholars about how much of [married women’s voting patterns] are due to marriage in and of itself, and how much of what is reflected in the marriage gap is a combination of both ideology and education,” Dittmar said.

The more conservative you are, the more likely you are to marry, Dittmar explained, which provides one explanation for why married women tend to be more conservative. And the more educated you are, the less likely you are to marry, which could help explain why unmarried women are more progressive (since polling shows more highly-educated people tend to vote Democrat). There’s an age component as well: Women who are married tend to be older than unmarried women, and older people in general tend to be more conservative than young people.

And of course, women might also simply choose to marry someone with whom they share political views. Research shows that 55 percent of couples share a party registration, and that those couples are actually more likely to turn out to vote than mixed-partisan couples.

Wolbrecht said this phenomenon may be explained by the loosening strictures around marriage as an institution, which have given women more agency when it comes to choosing a mate. Whereas once women’s romantic prospects were constrained to people who lived nearby, or someone their parents picked out, now they can cast a wider net and choose someone more compatible with them—and get a divorce if things don’t work out.

“Women have an exit option now,” she said. “Women aren’t just getting married to the guy next-door because that’s the only option they have. We think that probably means men and women [who are partnered] have more similar political interests.”

Despite the still-unsettled debate over married women’s voting patterns, the constituency has become a major focus for both parties. The idea of the married woman voter has over the years become virtually synonymous with the idea of the white woman voter—and white women are usually who politicians refer to when they talk about women voters at all.

That has had real consequences for whose interests are prioritized by political campaigns. Since white women, and particularly white married women, have been viewed as a “swing” constituency, presidential campaigns often put them at the core of their messaging. Bill Clinton tried to interpellate the “soccer mom” during his bid for office in 1992, and George W. Bush referred to this figure as the “security mom” during his post-9/11 reelection in 2004. These investments in white women voters can come at the expense of other constituencies, like Black women, who have become accustomed to feeling marginalized by the two-party system.

“Some of these patterns may be more of a reflection of social inequities than actual interpersonal dynamics.”

Though Democrats might viciously fight over the Black woman vote in primary season, they often forget about them during the general election, when campaign strategies centering swing voters usually win out. When politicians do gear their messaging toward Black women, it’s often at the eleventh hour, said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights, an organization that empowers Black women in politics.

“Black women voters are the foundation of a winning coalition, particularly for the Democrats,” Carr said. “But at the end of the day Black women have put more into our Democracy than we’ve gotten back.”

Despite the fact that investing in Black women voters promises to yield more returns for Democrats—since 1954, a majority of white women have only supported the Democratic candidate in two presidential elections—the party continues to place its focus on white women. This cycle, Joe Biden has pinpointed the “suburban Facebook empathy mom” as the group of voters he needs to beat Trump. All In Together, a nonpartisan organization focused on mobilizing women voters, recently emphasized “the Guardian mom” as a critical swing voter, whom the group defines as white married women over the age of 50 who live in the suburbs.

In truth, Dittmar said, the soccer mom, security mom, empathy mom and Guardian mom are all creations—ideal types that don’t necessarily correlate to reality. “Candidates, campaigns and even the media focus on [these archetypes] because you’ve created them as this panacea of what’s going to make the difference,” she said. “When in fact they don’t represent a single group at all.” Dittmar said the same is true of our conception of married women voters.

But neat narratives can overshadow thornier ones. While at first blush, Bond’s story seems perfectly congruent with the tales of husbands foisting their political views onto their wives—a prime example of a woman whose spouse made her more conservative—it is not the whole truth.

Bond said her post-divorce self-education did play a role in her political evolution. But her children also grew up, and became much more progressive than she had raised them to be. As they developed their own political beliefs, she began to look into the issues and candidates they talked about together, which included universal health care and Bernie Sanders. She left Orange County, that conservative bastion, five years ago, and now lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, which leans Democrat.

When she thinks about why her politics have changed over the years, it’s hard to point to any one factor. Marriage is complicated, and so is life. The reasons women vote the way they do can’t be reduced to a question of whom they sit across from at the dinner table every night.

“A lot of it had to do with not having to rely on someone else,” Bond said of her political journey. “But my views just evolved. I think even if I were still married to my husband, things would have taken this course.”