Pondering "Women's Issues," Part I

by Lydia Saad, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

The world of politics and media coverage of that world are full of references to "women's issues." The term is used to commend candidates (e.g., "Candidate X is a forceful defender of women's issues") and to lambaste them (e.g., "Candidate Y votes against women's issues"). But if the question, "What is a ‘women's issue?'" ever crosses your mind, read on.

As popularly conceived, women's issues are those that, by virtue of biology or social convention, naturally relate more to women than to men. Pay equity, hiring equity, Title IX laws, sexual abuse, abortion, and even baby-changing tables in public bathrooms (the New York City Council's Women's Issues Committee is considering legislation on that issue) all fall into this category. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem recently included sex education in the list of issues she used to evaluate New York Gov. George Pataki. It can be a subjective list.

A different way to approach this is to identify those issues on which women have a distinctly different viewpoint than men. The standard for the list comes from objective poll data. And as will be shown in this article, the differences between men and women on the issues are far more subtle than the simple notion of "women's issues" conveys. With dramatic differences scarce, what remains are mostly minor attitude gaps on a small list of cultural issues, some of which favor the Democratic Party, and some of which favor the Republican Party. Coupled with women's generally less financially secure position compared to men, the net effect may be what gives a slight advantage to the Democrats with women.

It's All About the Gender Gap

The "gender gap" might be considered a close cousin of the notion of a "woman's issue." The idea of a gender gap has its origins in presidential elections, where in recent years women have supported Democratic candidates to a somewhat greater degree than men have in recent years. This Democratic tilt among women first appeared in the 1980 election between Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, when, according to Gallup's final pre-election poll that year, 44% of women supported Carter, compared to 38% of men -- a six-point gender gap. This gap stretched to nine points in 1984, shrank to five points or fewer in 1988 and 1992, but reopened in 1996 to nine points, and held at roughly this level (eight points) in 2000.

Compared to the wholesale voting differences between black Americans and white Americans, and the large differences often seen between Protestants and Catholics, the gender gap has been fairly moderate. Only in the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore did a majority of men and women support different candidates, with 52% of men favoring Bush, and 53% of women favoring Gore.

Regardless, the persistence of the gender gap in national voting since 1980 has fostered an endless stream of media, political, and academic interest in the motivation behind it. However, uncovering even one "women's issue" to help explain why women are more disposed than men to the Democratic Party is, however, not easy.

Issues on the National Agenda

Gallup's January 2003 inventory of public attitudes about the state of the nation* provides one way to determine if there are important differences in how men and women see the big issues facing the country. The bottom line: there are few major gender gaps in this arena.

As illustrated below, the only large difference occurs on the "moral and ethical climate of the nation," about which women are 12 points less likely than men to say they are satisfied. Moderate differences -- where six points to eight points separate men and women -- are seen on the nation's gun laws, the quality of the environment, the opportunity for people to get ahead by working hard, education, and the position of women in the nation. However, on none of the 28 issues and aspects of public life tested, does a majority of men and women feel substantively differently, where one gender is satisfied and the other is dissatisfied. Thus, according to the data-based standard described at the outset for identifying "women's issues," none of these would qualify.

Recognizing that satisfaction ratings don't necessarily tell the full story of public opinion on all of the items measured, Gallup's January Mood of America survey includes several questions that clarify where Americans stand on a selected subset of issues.

Going by these data, abortion can be ruled out as a women's issue. In addition to the fact that men and women express similar levels of satisfaction with current abortion policies (44% and 41%, respectively), they share a similar perspective on whether abortion laws need to be made more strict or less strict. In fact, women are slightly more likely than men (38% vs. 33%) to say abortion laws should be made more strict -- a position that runs contrary to that espoused by the Democratic Party.

A much wider gulf in attitudes is observed with respect to gun laws, where a solid majority of women, but only 40% of men, favor the more Democrat-oriented position of making these laws more strict.

A fairly large gap in support of greater acceptance of homosexuality, 14 points, also separates men and women, with women taking the more moderate position.

Consistent with women's relative dissatisfaction with "the moral and ethical climate" of the country, women are also more likely than men to say they would like to see organized religion have more influence in the nation.

Next week: Part II considers male/female splits on a variety of commonly debated moral questions, and discusses political implications of the search for a "women's issue."

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 13-16, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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