With the publication of Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir, and the Harvey Weinstein scandal raging, it’s propitious to examine the much debated role of sexism in the last election.
In 1937, only 33 percent of Americans said they would vote for an otherwise qualified presidential candidate from their party, if the nominee was a woman.
By 2012, 95 percent told Gallup pollsters they would support a qualified woman.
That’s not to say all voters would in fact cast their ballots that way, but nearly all Americans realized it was, at least, socially unacceptable to express prejudice against a female candidate.
Studies attempting to minimize social desirability bias in responses to such questions have produced decidedly mixed results, with some detecting substantial prejudice against female candidates and others indicating little or none. Yet another line of research suggests women benefit from some stereotypes while being harmed by others.
There is no question, though, that gender-based attitudes had a significant impact on the election of 2016.
In our pre-election survey, one of the biggest differentiators between Trump and Clinton voters came in their responses to the word “feminists.”
Overall, voters were divided in their reaction to this term, with 43 percent holding a favorable opinion of feminists and 38 percent expressing an unfavorable impression. Over three-quarters of those with unfavorable views of feminists voted for Trump, whereas, 74 percent of those with favorable opinions supported Clinton.
Other questions in our survey probed respondents’ sexism — their underlying prejudice against women — more directly. For example, overall, Americans divide about evenly on whether “women are too easily offended,” with 43 percent saying they are and 46 percent believing they are not.
Those who reject the proposition that women too readily take umbrage supported Hillary Clinton by a 56 point margin, while those who agreed favored Trump by over 50 points.
Similarly, among the half who say women complain about “discrimination” when they lose out to men in “fair competition,” Trump won by 39 points, while the 32 percent who disagreed gave Clinton a 54-point margin.
Using these and two other related measures in an index reveals that the most sexist 43 percent of the electorate voted for Trump by more than a 50 point margin, while the less sexist 61 percent of Americans gave Clinton a nearly 50-point advantage.
These results help form a larger tapestry.
Though dubbed the candidate of change, Trump campaigned as the enemy of changes already afoot.
In promising to “Make America Great Again,” Trump wasn’t advocating change to something new and different, but change back to something older and “traditional,” to what Edmund Burke called “ancient opinions and rules of life.”
He promised a return to an America that may have never been, but one his supporters believed once was.
Days before the election, our poll found 53 percent saying, “Our country is changing too fast, undermining traditional American values.” Just 37 percent disagreed.
An even clearer sign of public antipathy to the cultural transformations wrought in this country came in response to a question asking voters to evaluate the changes in “American culture and way of life” since the 1950s.
Recall that in the 1950s, we still suffered Jim Crow segregation, only a third of women worked outside the home, less than 10 percent of Americans had college degrees and only about 40 percent had graduated high school. We didn’t even have nationally broadcast color TV.
Yet, just 38 percent thought the changes wrought since the 1950s have been for the better, while a solid 55 percent said our culture and way of life mostly changed for the worse.
Among the 38 percent who believed American culture changed for the better, 74 percent supported Clinton, while among the 55 percent who said it had gotten worse, two-thirds voted Trump.
One of the changes against which some Americans rebelled in 2016 was the altered role of women in our society.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. He served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for more than 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.