ONE OF the myths that Kate O'Beirne skewers in "Women Who Make the World Worse," her shrewd and refreshing new book on the modern women's movement, is the myth of the gender gap -- the potent edge that Democrats are supposed to have over Republicans when it comes to attracting women's votes.
For decades, writes O'Beirne, feminists have been brandishing the gender gap. Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the National Organization for Women, published a triumphant book about it in 1984: "Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President." But on Election Day that November, Democrat Walter Mondale was flattened by Ronald Reagan's 49-state landslide, despite Mondale's historic choice of a female running mate, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro. Reagan won 62 percent of the male vote and 56 percent of the female vote -- a six-point gender gap, but probably not what Smeal had in mind.
Of the last seven presidential elections, Republicans have won five -- three times with more women's votes than the Democrats. For all the rhetoric about the mighty gender gap -- Democratic strategist Ann Lewis once called it "the Grand Canyon of American politics" -- Republicans seem to bridge it without difficulty.
That's because women aren't monolithic voters, as O'Beirne emphasizes, and they don't march in lockstep to the beat of liberal drums. The best evidence of that is the electoral gap that really does matter in American politics -- the gap separating married women from those who are single.
Unlike the gender gap, there is nothing illusory about the marriage gap. Married women are more likely to vote Republican; unmarried women are more likely to vote Democratic. In the most recent presidential election, unmarried women voted for John Kerry by a 25-point margin, while President Bush won the votes of married women by an 11-point margin -- a marriage gap of 36 points.
"Want to know which candidate a woman is likely to support for president?" asked USA Today in 2004, as the Kerry-Bush race was heading into the home stretch. "Look at her ring finger."
Why? What is it about wedlock that makes women more Republican -- or about the absence of wedlock that makes them more Democratic? Here are three hypotheses:
Financial protection. Single women, especially if they have children, are more likely to be dependent on the government for welfare, Social Security, and other economic benefits. A majority of unmarried women, 54 percent, have household incomes below $30,000, double the percentage of married women with incomes that low. With greater reason to be anxious about economic security, single women tend to support a more active and paternalistic role for government -- the traditional Democratic view. Married women, by contrast, are much less likely to depend on government support. Instead, many come to see the welfare state and its tax burden as a threat to the well-being of their family, making them more likely to vote Republican.
Children and cultural values. Married parents with children are less likely to support the party whose policies make it harder to shield their children from corrosive cultural influences. "Kerry did not have a single message that resonated with married parents," the scholar Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote after the 2004 election. "He opposed the right to parental notification for minors' abortions, condoned partial-birth abortion, and said not a single word about television's graphic depictions of sex, violence, [and] murder." Democratic leaders, too, often seem bemused by the kind of Americans who "put religious bumper-stickers on their cars and struggle to 'work on their marriage' while keeping their kids away from sex, drugs, and alcohol, as well as the lesser lures of body piercings, tattoos, gangsta clothes, and other pop fashion."
Male influence. Women are significantly less likely than men to follow national and international affairs, a knowledge gap that researchers have documented for decades. In a new survey conducted for Women's Voices, Women Vote by the Democratic polling firm of GQR Research, a large majority of nonvoting single women -- 70 percent -- said they "find politics and elections so complicated that it is hard to understand what is really going on." That helps explain why single women are much less likely to vote. It also explains why married women more often adopt their husband's political outlook -- which tends to be more conservative -- than the other way around.
Of course there are many voters who don't fit these patterns. But this much seems clear: Democrats gain when women stay single, Republicans benefit when they marry. Marriage may be good for society as a whole. But only the GOP has a political incentive to say so.