Midterm elections: motherhood, age and gender's influence on political behavior

Associate Professor of Politics Jill Greenlee comments on the upcoming elections

Photo/Mike Lovett

On Tuesday, Nov. 4, Americans will head to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. Although no one national issue is dominating the current election and polarizing the electorate—in 2010 the central theme was the Affordable Care Act—how one votes may be influenced by their age, gender and race. Jill Greenlee, associate professor of politics, is an expert in American politics and political behavior, specifically in their application to race and gender. Her latest book, "The Political Consequences of Motherhood", investigates the role that becoming or being a mother plays in affecting a woman’s political views. She is also co-authoring a book that investigates the racial attitudes of white Americans who came of age during the Obama presidency.

Brandeis NOW caught up with Greenlee for her insight on the upcoming midterm elections:

What are some of the more common reasons for a person to change politically as they age?

Family is the greatest initial influence on our political attitudes. But when people leave the home, they are subjected to new influences, whether it is in college, the work force, the military or in a marriage. Marital partners are important because they are the person with whom you’re most likely to exchange ideas and have political conversations. You also live in the same information environment as your marital partner, meaning you absorb and digest information together.

Those who are stable with their political attitudes when they leave the home are less likely to have their attitudes shift wildly. For people with less stable political attitudes, the time after they leave the home is critical for attitude formation.

So are there are new factors that influence individuals' attitudes in the political socialization process?

The impressionable years theory states that between the ages of 18 and 25, individuals are very politically impressionable. Their political views are not fully formed and are in a state of flux. This theory was developed at a time when most people finished school, were married and were having children by age 25.

But today, men and women are delaying marriage, parenthood and their careers. So this theory may need to be revisited. Perhaps the impressionable years actually extend past 25, as we currently take more time to settle down into relationships, stable communities, and new professional and personal roles. This, I think, might be one of the ways in which the mechanisms of political socialization have or are changing.

What impact do you think this will have on a person’s political perspective and what does it mean for the political parties?

If the impressionable years stretch past age 25, this means that individuals may take longer to settle into more stable political views. This could be good and bad for political parties. One the one hand, these young voters might be more easily persuaded in elections. On the other hand, with a delay in the formation of firm partisan attachments, the parties might have a slightly smaller number of loyal voters than they had in earlier eras.

Your research has shown that motherhood can shape a woman’s political attitudes. How so?

Social role theory says that there’s a gendered division of labor and that we are socialized around this. Women are socialized to be nurturing, compassionate, and morally upstanding. As a result, women are more liberal on social welfare issues than men and more conservative on issues linked to morally. We see this same dynamic among women, with mothers more liberal on some issues and more conservative on others, when compared to women without children.

Motherhood can also shift women's perspectives on issues. Rather than change the direction of their attitudes, motherhood gives them a new perspective on a political issue. The act of carrying and caring for a child allows women think about issues in a different, more personal, more powerful way. While their stance on an issue may not have changed, the knowledge and emotion underlying their position does.

In the current mid-term election, what issues have political parties and candidates used to attract the female vote?

Domestic violence and sexual violence have received more attention lately, not because of party strategy, but because of events unfolding in the real world. Parties have been forced to respond to this. Congressional Democrats were more supportive of the Violence Against Women Act and its reauthorization, but now you see Republicans also chiming in. In some ways, this is an easier “women’s issue” for Republicans to talk about because no one supports violence against women. In this election cycle, both parties have paid more attention to it.

What trend about voter demographics have you been tracking for this election that the media is not and should be?

The media often talk about women as if they are one monolithic group. But there are categories of women who we should be watching, like single women, married women and African American women. Obviously there’s intersection across these categories, but, for example, we know that single women vote at lower rates than married women, particularly during mid-term elections. To the extent that this focus on domestic violence, reproductive rights and the “war on women” can be used to mobilize single women, that could be important in this set of elections.

On the local level, how do you see age, gender and race playing in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race?

We have a hyper-focus on gender because we have a female candidate. A lot of Democrats are upset that Martha Coakley is the nominee since she lost to Scott Brown in a Senate election that was supposed to be a slam-dunk. Her loss to Brown has left a bad taste in people’s mouths, more so than Charlie Baker’s loss to Deval Patrick in his last gubernatorial campaign.

Part of that is because you expect Democrats to win in Massachusetts, though people are critical of her as a campaigner and say she’s not engaging. But Charlie Baker is similar. You have two candidates who have lost major campaigns who are not super dynamic individuals. I wonder if there’s something connected to gender there.

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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