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Gender Gaps in Presidential Elections
by Jo Freeman

Published as a letter to the editor of P.S.: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 32, No. 2, June 1999, pp. 191-2.

It is simply not true that differential voting between men and women was an "unremarked phenomenon" prior to 1980 (Sigel, 1999, 5). On the contrary a good deal of the political commentary on women in the Twentieth Century was devoted to real and speculative analyses about how women voted, or might vote.
The 8 % gender gap in 1980 was larger than any previously measured, but it was not the first. Prior to 1980 there were two presidential candidates for whom women voted at notably greater rates than did men: Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower.
The election of 1928 could well be called the "year of the woman voter." Throughout the 1920s, the mass of women had been relatively apathetic about politics, enthused by only a few local candidates and none of the national ones. But Hoover was so popular that he became known as "the woman's candidate." (McCormick 1928, 22; Smith 1929, 126; Barnard, 1928, 555). Some of his popularity derived from his role as Food Administrator during the Great War, and some from the importance of Prohibition in the election of 1928. Hoover was Dry, Smith was Wet, and it was commonly assumed that women wanted Prohibition to be enforced. Women registered to vote in record numbers, and the Republican Party's Women's Division was "besieged by unprecedented numbers of women who wanted to participate in the campaign." (Morrison 1978, 84). Hoover was endorsed by the National Woman's Party, the only major party Presidential candidate to be endorsed by a specifically feminist organization prior to 1984.
When the dust settled both private and public commentators were impressed with women's greatly increased turnout to vote, and with their strong support for Hoover. While scientific polling did not yet exist, straw polls recorded a gender gap. Robinson's review of these polls concluded that the Hearst poll was the most accurate; it had predicted that 60 percent of women and 56 percent of men would vote for Hoover. (Robinson 1932, 92). Private reports to the RNC and to FDR estimated larger differentials, some that women were ten percent more likely than men to vote for Hoover. Indeed these observations repeatedly emphasized the strong, conspicuous support of women for Hoover. Women were credited or blamed for the fact that Smith got a majority in only five Southern and one border state, and even lost New York, while the Democratic candidate for Governor, won. (Summary of reports in the FDR and Hoover Presidential libraries; Morrison 1978; Lichtman 1979, 163, 291-3; Harvey 1995, 253; NYT, Nov. 8, 1928, 9:2-3).
Attention to women faded in the election of 1932, dominated as it was by the Depression, and fewer observations were recorded. However, when Gallup surveyed expected voters in 1936, he asked those who had voted in 1932 to declare their choice. Of those who said they had voted, 63 % of the men were for FDR, but only 57 % of the women. Only 35 % of the men said they voted for Hoover, compared to 41 % of the women. (AIPO (Gallup) Poll #53)
This differential voting pattern faded to less than two percent in Presidential elections until 1952. Polls of voters done before and after that election found women were five percent more likely to vote for Eisenhower than were men, though both gave him a majority. Republican women gleefully claimed that women had elected him President (Priest 1953), and this belief soon became "firmly enshrined among American political lore." (Shelton 1955, D:1) Lou Harris' analysis of the Roper/NBC polls found a difference in male and female votes of 9% for those with high incomes, 6% for those with middle incomes, and 3% for those with low incomes, with women in all three groups more likely to vote for Ike. Harris attributed this to more women than men blaming the Democratic party for the Korean War, inflation, and corruption in Washington. (Harris 1954, 112-3, 116, 222). By 1956 the press was once again paying attention to the woman voter. The New York Times sent reporters into several states to find out why women favored Eisenhower. (NYT Oct. 1956: 9, 22:3; 14, 49:2; 22, 1:3, 20:3; 23, 1:3; 26, 16:1. Brown 1956; French 1956). In the 1956 election the gender gap increased to 6%, though more men as well as women voted for Eisenhower than in 1952.
The election of 1960 saw women once again fade from political sight. Some of this was due to the ongoing campaign of the DNC to downplay the idea that there was a woman's vote, and some was due to the rise of new issues. The gender gap dropped to between 2 and 3 % in 1960 -- too small to be statistically significant but implying that women still voted more frequently for the Republican candidate. The GOP women's division proudly declared that in the last three Presidential elections a majority of women voted for the Republican Party, and a majority of Republican votes came from women. (WD-RNC 1962) In 1964 as in 1960 the gender gap of 2 to 3 % was too small to be significant, but it was notable because, for the first time, women were more likely than men to vote for the Democratic Presidential candidate. In 1968 43 % of both men and women said they voted for Nixon. But men were 4 % more likely to vote for George Wallace (16% to 12%) while women were more likely to vote for Humphrey (45% to 41%). (Lynn 1979, 409) In the same polls, the traditional relationship between SES and party preference disappeared. High SES white women were three percent more likely to vote Democratic than low SES women. (Ladd and Hadley 1978, 240). In 1976 the gender gap was back to 5 %, but now women favored the Democratic candidate. (Lynn 1979, 409)
What's notable about this history is not merely that there was a gender gap prior to 1980, but that the pattern shifted. Previously the Republican Party had been the beneficiary of woman suffrage; subsequently the Democratic Party was. Furthermore, this change correlates with different attitudes by the national parties toward women and women's rights. While partisan differences were not large prior to 1980, they were present. Historically, it was the Republican Party that was the party of women's rights, and the Democratic Party that was the home of anti-feminism. After the new feminist movement rose in the 1960s-70s, the parties switched sides. (Freeman 1987)


Brown, Nona B., "Women's Vote: The Bigger Half?" New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1956, VI:28, 63-7.

French, Eleanor Clark, "Key Political Force -- The Ladies," New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1956, VI:14, 32, 34.

Barnard, Eunice Fuller, "Madame Arrives in Politics," 226 North American Review, November 1928, pp. 551-6.

Freeman, Jo, "Whom You Know Vs. Whom You Represent: Feminist Influence in the Democratic and Republican Parties", in The Women's Movements of the United States and Western Europe: Feminist Consciousness, Political Opportunity and Public Policy ed. by Mary Katzenstein and Carol Mueller, Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1987, pp. 215-44.

Harris, Louis, "Women: A New Dimension in Politics," Chapter VII in Is There a Republican Majority? Political Trends, 1952-1956, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954, pp. 104-117.

Harvey, Anna L., The Legacy of Disfranchisement: Women in Electoral Politics, 1920-1932, Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of Politics, Princeton University, 1995.

Ladd, Everett Carll, and Charles D. Hadley, Transformations of the American Party System, New York: Norton, 2nd ed. 1978.

Lichtman, Allan J., Prejudice and the Old Politics: The
Presidential Election of 1928
, Chapel Hill: U. North Carolina Press, 1979.

Lynn, Naomi, "Table 3: The Vote by Sex in Presidential Elections, 1952-1976", from "American Women and the Political Process," in Women: A Feminist Perspective, ed. by Jo Freeman, Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 2nd ed. 1979, pp. 404-429; relying on Gallup Opinion Index, Dec. 1976, report no. 137.

McCormick, Anne O'Hare, "Enter Women, the New Boss of Politics," The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 1928, pp. 3, 23.

Morrison, Glenda E., Women's Participation in the 1928 Presidential Campaign, Ph.D. Dissertation, Dept. of History, University of Kansas, 1978.

Priest, Ivy Baker, "The Ladies Elected Ike," 76 American Mercury, February 1953, pp. 23-8.

Robinson, Claude E. Straw Votes: A Study of Political Prediction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.

Shelton, Isabelle, "Spotlight Pinpoints the Woman Voter, Though '56 Campaign Is Still Off Stage," Women's World column, The Sunday Star, May 15, 1955, D-1.

Sigel, Roberta, "Gender and Voting Behavior in the 1996 Presidential Election: Introduction," 32 PS: Political Science and Politics, March 1999, 126-8.

Smith, Helena Huntington, "Weighing the Women's Vote," 151 Outlook and Independent, January 23, 1929, pp. 126-8.

Women's Division, Republican National Committee, Win With Womanpower, 1962, 16 page pamphlet.

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