A Great American Gender Bender? US Election 2016
Women's Vote Gives Clinton An Advantage. Coauthored by C. Elizabeth Leach
Posted Nov 05, 2016
Coauthored by C. Elizabeth Leach
As Americans enter the 21st century, we have been leaning on diverse set of candidates for the highest office—a businessman, a social democrat, and a woman civil servant.
Electing the first black American president took more than two centuries, yet political polarization is "at a post-Reconstruction high in the House and Senate."
Now, as Americans seem ready to entrust the first woman candidate, we have the widest gender gap in modern political history. Women are voting for Hillary Clinton and men for Donald Trump in unprecedented numbers.
What is driving these landmark changes? The twin engine of social transformation is the demographic reality and the forces of globalization, gradually transforming the United States of America (US) into 'a global village.'
Trumping the Woman Card
While trying to make sense of the current election, the issue is not just what Trump is calling “the woman card.” A tweeting satirist described an imaginary Trump book report, “The Hunger Games are rigged, folks. Everyone knows Katniss won because she played the woman card. Nasty woman. Very rigged.”
The women’s vote has existed almost a century, yet women, despite their numbers, do not always vote their gender into office. Race trumped gender in 2008 Democratic primaries, an interesting phenomenon given African Americans secured the right to vote (Fifteenth Amendment, 1870) before women (Nineteenth Amendment, 1919).
"Presidential candidacy reflects hard-fought gains in gender equality so widespread" that younger women do not feel the urgency to crash the gender barrier. However, any hints of "war on women" might create an upsurge at the ballot box for a woman presidential candidate, especially, when she is running against an alpha-male with a reported history of alleged assault.
Brain evidence also suggests that women and men react differently to affective messages.  When confronted with a threat to the community or 'fight or flight' signal of the amygdala, women react by gathering in groups (Stronger Together). Women are better at reducing stress, feeling safe by connecting. Men have the opposite response, withdrawal to themselves and prepare to fight (America First; Make America Great Again).
When challenged, men may more quickly display a combat mentality, whereas women tend to connect to the circle of life. Brain evidence suggests the corpus callosum is thicker in women, enabling them to use language and emotional centers in both hemispheres: this capacity is important to respond to the issues of today—not only of the US but the global village.
Widest Gender Gap
Despite a century of women's rights activism, rampant discrimination remains. Many say they are ready—at least in theory—to elect a woman president, but will they actually vote for a qualified candidate who happens to be the first woman on a major party ticket? We shall find out on Nov 8, 2016.
When we examine the gender gap, we find that men still dominate. Women perceive the electoral environment as highly biased, receive fewer suggestions to run for office; can be more impacted by modern campaign politics when running; and some still face traditional child-rearing or household pressures.
Starting in the 1980s, women have strong preference for democratic candidates, ranging from a 4% to 11% gender gap. In 2012, women preferred Obama by almost 10% margin compared to Romney (55% vs. 44%). A larger percentage of women are self-identified as Democrats. Women also view democratic presidents more favorably than men do. The 2016 projections of the gender gap between Hillary vs. Trump range from 11% to 22%.
Women’s voter turnout has been higher than men’s since the 1980’s. In 2012, almost 10 million more women voted than men (71.4 vs. 61.6 million). Eligible women voters went to the polls in higher proportions in 2012 than eligible men voters (63.7% vs. 59.8%). Finally, almost 10 million more women registered to vote than men in 2012 (81.7 vs. 71.4 million). On the basis of early voting patterns, an upsurge in the woman's vote appears to give Hillary Clinton an advantage.
Based on the 2012 and 2014 turnout data, black women are the most reliable voting segment followed by Latinos, young people, and unmarried women. Women invariably feel concerned about the economic well-being of their families, drawing them to the polls in higher numbers.
As Kelly Ditmar points out in her research, "Women and men are political actors with distinct political preferences. ... in vote choice, party identification, and presidential performance ratings." Nate Silver predicted recently, the electoral map will look "blue" if only women voted and almost completely turn "red" if men had their way.
From Glass Ceiling to Glass Houses
In many societies, the bias over centuries has been for men to wield the power, and one may construe that forces against powerful women arise to reinforce patriarchal structures. As a bevy of recent researchers confirms, women who gain in power are often increasingly disliked—subjected to “distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success.”
Comparative politics suggests the first woman head of state follows a rough path in office. Women of power across the centuries have often met with dire circumstances, extreme hardship, or even at times unfortunate ends to their power or their lives. When considering history in Doomed Queens, Kris Waldherr reflects, “Despite the perks of royalty, it’s usually not good to be queen.”
The US began as a country borne of a revolution against aristocracy. Citizens of a representative democracy may be inclined to vote against family dynasties. Yet, Stephen Hess has shown American democracy has gained from political dynasties, from the Adams to the Clintons. Or, not realizing patriarchy’s undertow, the more cynical may actually find appealing the fictional offer of England's Queen for the US to rejoin the UK from Borowitz's clever satire.
Still, many democracies around the world have let in at least one woman head of state only to quickly shut the door behind her. The ambivalence Americans feel over electing a woman candidate -- reflected in the ugly, sexist debates -- may not subside on election night even if Hillary wins. Congressional investigations have commenced to bloody her footsteps into the oval office, including the reopening of email investigations.
First woman heads of state can expect to face unprecedented depths of suspicion and misogyny. Recent examples include the charges against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil by male peers with their own questionable pasts, and the misogynistic ousting of Julia Gillard in Australia in 2013.
"The fastest way to lance a country’s anxieties about women and power is to appoint a female leader," suggested an editorial.
In polytheistic India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, women democratic leaders have become strong symbols of feminine power—Shakti or Bodhisatvva. Nevertheless, as women in South Asia have accrued more influence, the female leader often seems "dangerous", sometimes meeting deadly ends (Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi) or extended house arrest or exile (Ang Sang Suu Kyi and Sheikh Hasina).
Western democracies emerged from Judeo-Christian heritage, with monotheistic cultural history, where the image of the sacred feminine is usually marginalized. Women rarely assume powerful positions in religion and politics as spiritual archetypes, more often seen as sex symbols, facing daunting challenges to win the patriarchal "hunger games." To appease male power brokers and govern effectively, a first woman president must have a coterie of male sponsors and collaborators in the men's club.
Recent examples from EU democracies provide a path forward -- Merkel in Germany, as well as Thatcher and May in UK.
The Dalai Lama recently remarked that “the Western woman can save the world.” We can imagine that the world is calling for women—with brains, power and consciousness of the body politic--to balance the scales of globalization, widen the circle of democracy, and help heal the planet.
Dr. Dinesh Sharma is an author, consultant, and social scientist with a doctorate in psychology and human development from Harvard University. He is an Associate Research Professor at the Institute of Global Cultural Studies, SUNY Binghamton, and Fordham University's Industrial Organization and Leadership program in NYC. His recent books include "Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia" (2012), "The Global Obama" (2014) and "The Global Hillary" (2016).
Co-author: C. Elizabeth Leach is Principal of Awareness Communications LLC. She is graduate of Brown University with a concentration in Religious Studies and holds a master's degree from New York University School of Social Work.