New research shows how gender expectations shape our politics
The recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade sent political commentators into a frenzy trying to predict how this will reshape American politics. the original Roe vs. Wade decision (and the most recent Dobbs vs. Jackson decision, cancellation Roe versus Wade) concerns many aspects of American life, including the extent to which the government can dictate what a person does with their own body, and also whether these decisions, especially regarding abortion, are best left to the state or federal governments.
Source: Illustration adapted by John Cottone / Original illustration by Sagearbor; Wikimedia Commons
More broadly, however, the reversal of Roe vs. Wade primarily involves the intersection of gender and politics. For decades, political commentators like David Brooks and Jude Wanniski have said that America has a “mommy party” (the Democratic Party) and a “daddy party” (the Republican Party), and that the narrowing of the political beliefs of people with feelings for their mother and father may seem like an oversimplification, recent research findings validate this perspective.
Earlier this week, New York Times journalist Thomas Edsall presented these findings, including original research by political scientist Monika McDermott and additional research summarized by Nicholas Winter, presented in the book Building Community Wealth and Rebuilding American Democracy.
According to McDermott’s (2016) findings, whether one is male or female, “the more ‘masculine’ an individual is, the more likely they are to affiliate with the GOP and vote for Republican Party candidates. .and the more “feminine” traits a person possesses, the more likely they are to affiliate with the “Democratic Party”.Therefore, it is not the gender itself, as once believed, but rather the attitudes of a person towards the masculinity and femininity that best predict their political leanings.
But what do we mean by “masculinity” and “femininity”? McDermott (2016) equates “femininity” with being “understanding, sympathetic, warm…compassionate, gentle…loving, sensitive to [the] needs of others, and tender; and she equates “masculinity” with being “willing to take risks, energetic, [having a] strong personality, assertive, independent…aggressive, dominant, [and] ready to take a stand. »
Nicholas Winter’s assessment (Edsall, 2022b) goes further noting “that people (men or women) who support traditional gender roles tend to favor the Republican Party and people who reject or at least do not traditional gender roles (both men and women) favor the Democratic Party.
In an article on a similar topic in March, Edsall (2022a) pointed to findings by political scientists Melissa Deckman and Erin Cassese that echo those offered by McDermott and Winter. Deckman and Cassese reported that a sizable majority of Republican women (57%) in 2016 believed “America has become too soft and girly”, while only a small minority of Democratic women shared this belief. Similarly, Republican men were also significantly more likely than Democratic men to believe the country had become “too soft and too feminine.” These findings are complemented by those of Bradley DiMariano, who found that Republican men and women have significantly more favorable attitudes toward authoritarianism — being led by a “strongman” — than their respective Democratic counterparts.
In a previous article on gender and politics, I speculated on the causes of the phenomenon described above. My personal and professional experiences lead me to believe that the different socialization processes that boys and girls go through shape our values as adults. For thousands of years, traditionally male environments have socialized children (mainly boys, but also some girls) in such a way as to prepare them for the burdens that typically fall on men: hunting, warfare, and heavy physical labor. Traditionally feminine environments have socialized children (mainly girls, but also some boys) in such a way as to prepare them for the responsibilities that generally fall to women: child-rearing and domestic chores.
Whether one is a boy or a girl, if an individual believes that the traits they naturally embody are a good thing match the environment in which they were socialized, they are likely to adopt the rules, expectations, and norms (RENs) of that environment and defend them ardently. But if the traits they naturally embody are bad match the environment in which they were socialized, they will likely reject RENs from that environment with great fervor.
In my clinical work with adolescents, I can attest to the fact that there is nothing more uncomfortable than being an effeminate individual (boy or girl) in a strong male environment or a masculine individual (boy or girl) in an openly feminine environment, although the consequences are very different.
Sissy boys in strong masculine environments are often physically bullied, bullied, and called gay slurs, while sissified girls in these masculine environments are often sexually exploited. As for masculine girls in feminine environments, although they are generally not physically bullied, they are often cyberbullied or ostracized for various reasons due to their lack of femininity. Masculine boys in feminine environments are often overly disciplined for being too “aggressive” or have their “male privilege” regularly invoked for behaviors that would go unnoticed in a masculine environment.
Isn’t it obvious that these teenage experiences can lead to strong political leanings later in life?
It is imperative that we understand how attitudes towards gender influence politics because, as Steven Pinker reminds us in his paradigm shifting book, The best angels of our nature (2012), the world has been moving, albeit slowly, towards greater femininity for at least 2,000 years. While there are some who oppose this push toward feminization (or in their words, “wussification”), I’m with Pinker in celebrating this development.
The feminization of our species—through processes Pinker calls “pacification,” “civilization,” “the humanitarian revolution,” and “rights revolutions”—has resulted in a dramatic decrease in murder, battle-related deaths, torture, slavery, rape, physical and sexual abuse, demographic discrimination and many more of our worst human impulses over the past 2 millennia.
Although these declines have not always been linear or without periods of temporary regression, they offer hope in what can often seem like an ocean of despair. They also offer a blueprint for the direction of the species, with which we can build a civilization that most effectively balances masculinity and femininity (regardless of the sex or gender of the person embodying those traits) for the future le as peaceful and prosperous as possible.