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From the Issue: Summer 2016

The Gender Gap, Then and Now

In 1984, Eleanor Smeal literally wrote the book on the gender gap: Why and How Women Will Elect the Next President (Harper & Row). As president of the National Organization for Women, Smeal together with a team at NOW had identified and named the gender gap. Ms. asked Smeal — now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and publisher of Ms. — to bring us up to date on the gender gap and share her predictions on the 2016 elections.

cover of How and Why Women will Elect the Next President

Ms.: Your book predicted that the gender gap would become decisive in elections. If you were writing it today, what would you say differently?

Eleanor Smeal: The gender gap is even wider, and women are an even larger proportion of the electorate. Eight percent more women than men voted for Carter over Reagan in 1980, and if it had been a closer race, that could have made all the difference. By 2012, the gender gap had reached 10 percent and was decisive, with 55 percent of women, but only 45 percent of men, voting for Obama. There's no question that in 2016 the gender gap will be even bigger. Already, the exit polls from the primary contests show the growing strength of the gender gap.

What I think people haven't observed fully is that larger numbers of women are registered to vote than men. In 2012, women were 53 percent of the electorate. During this year's Democratic primaries, women comprised as much as 60 percent of the electorate in some states. What's more, early general election polls show massive gender gaps. Clearly the GOP leadership has seen these numbers, and they are now worried about losing the presidency and Congress.

When I wrote the book, I was comfortable predicting the gender gap would increase; today I am even more certain saying the same. In 1984, feminists knew the importance of the gender gap and how much it mattered, but many political pundits and leaders denied its existence. Nobody denies it today.

Ms.: What is currently driving the gender gap?

ES: One is whether women will still have access to legal abortion. The next president will appoint Supreme Court justices who will decide the future of legal abortion and a whole host of women's equality questions. The odds are the gender gap will also affect the outcome of 2016's races for the Senate—especially where feminist candidates are running—which will ultimately affect which Supreme Court nominees are confirmed.

The equal pay question also will be salient. There's a strong movement for increasing the minimum wage, and, of course, women are the majority of minimum-wage workers. Women workers need and want paid family medical leave, and nearly half of all women workers have no paid sick days. There's no question health care issues will be raised, and they are more important to women than to men.

The gender gap is also intersectional. A very large component of the gender gap is made up of African American and Latina women, single women and women who self-identify as feminists; and for all of these groupings, this impacts their choice of candidates. Many women want equal representation, and they want to break that highest of glass ceilings — the presidency — so women's rights are going to be very visible in this election. Are we going to have a modern country with a modern role for women, or are we going to go back?

Ms.: You ended your book with a quote from suffragist Susan B. Anthony: “There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” Is the suffragists' dream about to be realized?

ES: The suffragists fought for the vote because they wanted women's voices and viewpoints to be represented at the decision-making tables, though they were never single-issue people. Suffragists fought for equal pay—way back then. And suffragists fought for the abolition of slavery, temperance, the poor, immigrants, among many other issues. History reduced them to a single issue, but they were fighting for social justice.

The dream of the suffragists was that the women's vote would make a difference and improve people's lives. That dream is being realized because women's votes are compelling political leaders to pay attention to safety-net and social-justice issues. They are altering the world through U.S. foreign policies that put more emphasis on human rights and women's and girls' development and empowerment. Even though we have yet to achieve equal representation, increasingly you can see that women's votes are affecting election outcomes.

Women's life experiences are driving their political views, just as in the time of the suffragists. The gender gap persists—and will persist—as long as women are discriminated against and their lives and opportunities differ so much from men's. The longer we are ignored, the longer our viewpoints are given lesser weight than men's, the greater the detriment to the nation and the world.

A full transcript and a podcast of the longer interview is available at our website, msmagazine.com/smeal.

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