In 1919, people were talking about it, and in 2020—when we are this month celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment—we still haven’t figured it out: How much are married women influenced by their husbands’ vote?
The May 1919 issue of Ladies Home Journal ran a story with the headline, “Does the Wife Vote Like Her Husband?” One unidentified man thought he had the answer. “On moral issues the women vote independently–and always will,” he declared. “On political questions they vote with their husbands.” The article identifies moral issues as “education, health, prohibition, closing houses of ill-repute, the income tax” and local issues. Uh, it seems like that covers just about everything important.
But in any case, we’re pretty sure this confident expert on women’s voting behavior (before there even was a real track record of women’s voting behavior) couldn’t imagine that the consternation about women’s independence (or not) at the ballot box would still be going on in the 21st Century.
Last week, Marie Stolis published a piece in Vice under the headline, “The Decades-Long Debate Over Whether Women Vote Like Their Husbands.” The story is comprehensive, prompted presumably by the 19th Amendment anniversary and a notorious statistic—which has been debated, but still sticks—that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016.
The (White) Husband Effect
Just to be clear, the conversation these days over voting influence within a marriage is almost exclusively centered on white women. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is an obvious and regrettable tendency to put racial blinders on when discussing gender, as if what is true for white women is true for all. Also, Black women are a more consistent voting bloc, not the “swing” vote that politicians vie for. But this means they’re often taken for granted, which is certainly a mistake for Democrats since it was Black women who pushed so many progressive candidates across the finish line in the 2018 mid-terms.
So what is about white women that suggests they are malleable to their husband’s views?
Hillary Clinton acts as if she knows what the problem is. “[Democrats] do not do well with white men, and we don’t do well with married, white women. And part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should,” Hillary Clinton said after her loss in 2016.
The way she puts this isn’t a very flattering picture of white women, ignoring the possibility that Clinton didn’t make an effective case for these women’s votes. But still Clinton has a point. Research shows that white women usually choose Republicans in presidential elections and have done so since 2004. Plus, a majority of white women without college degrees have backed the Republican in every presidential election since 2000.
On the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment
Writing in 2018 in the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit relates disturbing accounts of husbands (white husbands) literally intimidating their wives on politics. These stories come from progressive door-to-door campaigners, and the men in them come off like Archie Bunkers, speaking for or over their timid wives. In these anecdotes, many doors are slammed.
The accounts seem a bit self-serving, though Solnit does bring up a very relevant question for the 2020 election about “whether voting by mail takes away the privacy of the voting booth and the ability for women to act on their beliefs without consequences.”
What’s much more likely happening is a subtler form of influence. For instance, I know several smart women who are at heart sensible moderates, but whose husbands are devoted to Fox News. Truly, if Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are all you hear, then your sense of reality can easily be distorted. You have to have the time and determination to look up balancing opinions and facts, something I’m afraid these friends don’t have.
It’s About the Money
Some theorists offer practical explanations for why white women are more prone to vote with their husbands. “White women are much more likely to be married than women of other demographic groups. And married women are more likely to support traditional values, both culturally and economically,” says Eugene Scott in the Washington Post. Plus, it’s conceivable that wives in many of these marriages are from the same socio-economic class and religion as their husbands, which would make them predisposed to vote similarly.
Probably the best explanation is economics. “Women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women’s economic dependency on men. Thus, it is within married women’s interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status,” wrote Kelsy Kretschmer, an Oregon State University assistant professor, in a study examining women’s voting patterns. Other studies have come to similar conclusions.
Julie Kohler, a senior advisor at Democracy Alliance, a progressive donor network, explains why many white women seem to vote against their self interest, meaning against Democrats who are talking about reproductive rights, maternity leave, equal pay, and other issues that directly impact women’s lives. “The gender pay gap, for example, has the practical effect of privileging men’s careers—particularly white men’s—over women’s and yoking white women’s economic interests to their husbands’,” Kohler wrote in The Nation in 2018.”So for some married white women, a vote for the Republican candidate may appear to be the self-interested choice.”
We can’t help but wonder, with the economic collapse we’re now experiencing, how this theory of marital voting patterns will play out this November. And that maybe in these times—when the threads of the social fabric are coming undone and need to be remade in a new, more humane way—a wife’s vote should be influencing her husband’s.