On Thursday, Jan. 30, the Grace Conference Room was packed with staff and students from Clark University’s political science department and interested community members eager to hear guest speaker Christina Wolbrecht of the University of Notre Dame.
Wolbrecht’s talk was on research for her latest book titled “A Century of Votes for Women.” The book covers how women have voted in elections over the past 100 years and how perceptions of women voters compare to their actual voting behavior at the polls. Her talk was the first in the William V. Shannon Lecture in American Politics series, hosted by the Clark political science department, which aims to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
Professor Silber Mohamed of the Clark political science department stated, “We were very lucky that Wolbrecht was in the area on the day of her book’s release to the public.”
Wolbrecht, a native of Southbend, Indiana, is a nationally recognized scholar and the author of several other books including “Political Women in American Democracy” (2008) and “Counting Women’s Votes” (2016). She has also co-authored several books which have received national book awards. Wolbrecht serves on the Executive Committee of Women Also Know Stuff, an organization which promotes the work of female scholars in political science.
Wolbrecht explained that, at the start of the twentieth century, there was one central question concerning the ballot for women: What will women voters do?
“What we see in the common historical narrative is that women were not really that interested in taking a hold of their suffrage,” said Wolbrecht. “Women were not turning out to vote in similar numbers as men. In fact, only about one third of women voted in 1920.”
However, Wolbrecht’s book has shed light on the significant barriers which deterred women voters at the time. Wolbrecht continued, “Women, still the main caretakers in the home at this time, were far less likely to leave the home to vote in an election. Moreover, institutional barriers such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and voter registration deadlines meant that women had to organize early and persist through the many hoops in order to cast their ballot.”.
“There were significant discrepancies in the number of women who turned out in elections across the various states,” she said.
Massachusetts, Virginia, and Connecticut saw some of the lowest turnouts in the 1920s, and all three states also had some combination of those institutional barriers. Many northeastern states also held very large first and second generation immigrant populations which made political organization a difficult task.”
Another common misconception addressed by Wolbrecht in her talk was that women who did vote, voted for the same candidate as their husbands.
There were not the same sophisticated polling methods that are used today to explain why people vote the way that they do. In the 1930s, George Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion and started making models of the American electorate. He eventually predicted the first election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
Even with the rudimentary polling information provided by Gallup polling in the 30s, however, there is an inaccurate account of women. Wolbrecht explained that this was the result of systematic underrepresentation of women in Gallup’s polls. She stated that women were weighted less heavily than men because it was widely accepted that women voted the same as their husbands.
A sampling of data pulled by Wolbrecht seemed to suggest that women “took direction from their husbands” in deciding whom to vote for. Previous data indicated that women were far more likely to have discussed politics with a family member.
However, Wolbrecht reminded the audience that women did not leave the house often and men were rarely idle in the household. A woman’s conversation on any given topic was likely with a family member, but not necessarily always with their husband, while men were most likely to hold their conversations outside the home at work.
All of this research demonstrates that women are a diverse voting block, which, even in the 20s could not be generalized. The experiences of women across America varied then as much as they do today, and any assumptions made by the American public about the way women vote are unlikely to accurately represent the diversity of opinions among women.
During the 2016 presidential election, article headlines predicted the massive gender gap in votes for Clinton versus Trump, but, in the end, there was barely a gap at all. In a graph depicting the difference between women and men who voted Democrat in 2016, there was a strikingly subtle blip in the graph, suggesting that there really wasn’t the kind of support among women for Hillary Clinton that many polls suggested.
Moreover, Wolbrecht attempted to breakdown the idea that women are more likely to vote for a Democrat than men. Across data that compared all women to all men, Wolbrecht concedes that the data suggests this claim. However, when looking at white women — the majority of women voters in America — they vote Republican at a similar rate as men. The takeaway for Wolbrecht was that it is important to remember that women are a diverse group of voters with different political goals.
Wolbrecht expertly and diplomatically answered questions from the crowd. Concerns among the group included the impact of the electoral college on voter representation, modern voter identification laws, and whether there will be the same female voter mobilization efforts in the 2020 election.
One hundred years after the 19th Amendment was signed into law, there is still a lot to learn about voter practices, especially the critical contribution of women voters to American politics.