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Research and Resources on Women and US Politics (February 2017): Sex, Socialization, and Political Beliefs

By Melinda A. Mueller

Sex, Socialization, and Political Beliefs

Research demonstrates that men and women are socialized to think and behave differently about politics, resulting in a wide range of gender differences, including political knowledge, ideological views, and policy preferences. The roots of these differences are complex. In The Political Battle of the Sexes, Leslie Caughell explained that biological differences may play a role—interacting with other factors—in shaping how men and women approach political issues. One major factor in shaping men’s and women’s political behavior is socialization—the process by which a person develops their political attitudes and beliefs. While this process is life-long, considerable impacts occur during childhood and adolescence.

Research indicates that family plays a vital role in shaping beliefs about politics. In their survey of college students, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox found that while families were generally similar in terms of political discussions and news consumption, parents were more likely to encourage young men than young women to consider political careers (Lawless and Fox 2013). They also concluded that college exposes more young men than young women to political information, and that young men are more likely to enroll in political science classes, discuss politics with peers, and participate in campus politics. Additionally, Lawless and Fox found that young men are more likely than young women to play organized sports, instilling in them a more competitive nature and focus on winning.

Other research concurs with Lawless and Fox’s study, especially considering the role of family and educational systems. One group of authors concluded that politically active mothers can influence their daughters positively in terms of party identification, voting, and political activism (Gidengil, O’Neill, and Young 2010). In a similar vein, recent research demonstrated that both parents play important roles in shaping gender role attitudes about politics, but the relationship between mothers and daughters can be especially strong, particularly when evaluating the women’s movement and major candidates like Hillary Clinton (Filler and Jennings 2015). In a survey of high school students, female respondents exhibited lower levels of political knowledge compared to their male counterparts, and researchers found that females were more likely to learn through dialogue with their parents, while male students learn through debate and discussion (Wolak and McDevitt 2011).

However, other research questions the very nature of political knowledge studies, which typically gauge respondent’s fact-based familiarity with elected officials and current political controversies. A Canadian study found that women may obtain a different form of political knowledge, based more on government services and programs than on power structures (Stolle and Gidengil 2010). The authors conclude that the very concept of political knowledge is gendered and biased toward men.

Beyond childhood and adolescence, political socialization continues, with transformative events shaping people’s views throughout their lives. For instance, longitudinal research on the lives of women from 1965 through 1997 concluded that becoming a mother can have a transformative impact on women’s political attitudes, shifting them in a slightly more conservative direction for policy preferences (Greenlee 2010). Greenlee updated this research in her recent book, The Political Consequences of Motherhood, concluding that motherhood does play a role in women’s attitudes—mothers and non-mothers do hold different views on some issues, but these differences are interconnected with political and personal factors. For instance, a mother’s attitude about social services can depend heavily on the personal issue of whether that mother is married or single.

Socialization studies aim to explain why women’s political behavior differs from men. Scholars have long been aware that women respondents were more likely than men to support government social service programs, affirmative action, and gun control, and less likely than men to support defense spending and the use of military force (Conway, Steuernagel, and Ahern 2005). Norrander pointed to financial resources as a key indicator of women’s support for social services, since women are on average more likely to be living in poverty than men (Norrander 2008). At the same time, research demonstrated that sex may not be as unifying a variable as race, religion, or ideology, which can be stronger indicators of women’s political beliefs (Huddy, Cassese, and Lizotte 2008; K. Dolan 2008).

New research aims to determine the roots of these differences. In The Political Battle of the Sexes: Exploring the Sources of Gender Gaps in Policy Preferences, Leslie Caughell studied the interactions of biology, socialization, feminist consciousness, and political knowledge as they shape policy preferences, concluding that all four sets of factors play a role in influencing foreign and social policy preferences. Her analysis, based on public opinion surveys and data simulations, demonstrated that biological differences—measured through income level and threat perceptions—along with political knowledge, are major factors in determining sex differences in foreign policy attitudes. For social issues, Caughell found that the level of feminist consciousness and sex role socialization can also play important roles in determining political beliefs.

Research also examines the role of intersectionality when studying sex, policy preferences, and political socialization. For instance, Bejarano’s study of Latino public opinion concluded that first generation Latinas were slightly more conservative than first generation Latinos. However, among later generations, Latinas were more likely than their male counterparts to develop a political identity and to lean to the left ideologically (Bejarano 2014). In Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making, Nadia Brown examined the role that racial and gender identity play together to shape African American women’s political lives, often leading to higher levels of political ambition compared to white women, and a strong connection to policy issues that affect racial minorities and women. In related research on race and political participation, Brown concluded that socio-economic status is insufficient in explaining why African American women and Latinas have been successful in winning elected office, and demonstrate a strong commitment to civic life, arguing that more research is needed to better understand the race-ethnicity-gender connection.

Finally, one growing area of research explores political behavior among conservative women. Since women tend to associate with the Democratic Party, studies that aggregate women tend to disregard women in the Republican Party. Voting behavior research concluded that while evangelical women did not vote for Obama in 2008, they did vote for Al Gore in the 2000 election, suggesting that sex may play a role in shaping how conservative women view presidential candidates (Deckman 2014). A similar study of southern white women demonstrated the importance of intersectional studies, as surveys indicated that southern women were more likely than their white male counterparts to hold liberal views, and to support Democratic policy goals, such as using government to solve problems (Ondercin 2013).

Works Cited