Senior Voters as Women

Women’s issues may be an increasingly important factor in determining which politicians appeal to senior citizens

My maternal grandmother was the pluperfect Pittsburgh Republican. She believed in God (quietly), small government, thrift, self-sufficiency and Mellon Bank, where she worked for 35 years. If further GOP cred were needed, she had it from her cousin being Senator John Heinz. But then J. Danforth Quayle came unbidden into her political life.

When Quayle asserted that a pregnant little girl who was raped by her father should not be allowed to have an abortion, my grandmother didn’t exactly “go apes**t”, because the strongest curse word that gentle and dignified woman ever uttered was “pshaw”. But the incident had a profound effect, leading her to turn her back on George H.W. Bush even though he nearly perfectly mirrored her political views. President Bush had chosen “that horrible man” to be the vice-president of her country and that was not in her eyes forgivable.

My grandmother would not have used the term but she was a feminist of her generation, believing that there should be no infringements on women’s decisions about career, marriage, divorce, sex and childbearing. Such sentiments only become more prevalent in subsequent generations of American women.

I suspect that changes in attitudes among and about women are not being weighed sufficiently in analyses of senior citizens’ voting patterns, which tend to lump all seniors together, for example by assuming that the elderly’s only political interests are Social Security and Medicare. Senior citizens comprise a higher proportion of women than any other age group, and female senior citizens vote at higher rates than any other demographic group. It therefore seems plausible that as feminist attitudes have become broadly accepted among older women (even if they do not call themselves feminists) this may introduce new dynamics into voting patterns among the elderly, particularly as a number of male politicians seem to have a hard time shutting up about “legitimate rape”, divinely intended pregnancy from rape and mandatory vaginal ultrasounds.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

34 thoughts on “Senior Voters as Women”

  1. Good for Keith’s grandma! But abortion doesn’t cut by gender the way that same-sex marriage does by age. Women oppose abortion in about the same numbers as men–in some polls (IIRC), more so. I have no idea how age–or age/gender–parses out. Of course, things might be more interesting if one disaggregates further. But the limit of disaggregation is conceptual (or sometimes statistical) noise.

    1. I don’t have facts to back me up, but I have the impression that women are and have been often the main drivers of church attendance, including insistence that their children (and sometimes their husbands) attend. So even though other senior women, like me, lived through, believed in, and enjoyed the benefits of the “women’s lib” of the ’60s and ’70s, many of them have maybe forgotten those values. And it seems many have also joined the ranks of the right-wing religious rather than the “main-stream” or “liberal” religious that perhaps they were 40 years ago, if indeed they even attended church then. I’m not sure why so many people, and especially women, have turned from the concept of encouraging people to follow their own consciences to wanting to force their own beliefs down everybody’s throat, but there it is.

      1. @BevM: You are correct that women are more likely to attend religious services than men, this has been researched both in the US and in Europe (and perhaps beyond, but I don’t know that literature). Religious does not equal right wing though — consider for example the many highly religious African-Americans (men and women both) in the leadership of the civil rights movement.

        p.s. I fixed your comment for you based on your second comment, which I then deleted once I had included your correction. We are again working on a site upgrade that I hope will make this easier.

  2. “When Quayle asserted that a pregnant little girl who was raped by her father should not be allowed to have an abortion”

    Got a cite for that? Because I did find a case where a girl asked him, if she were raped, whether Quayle would want her to have an abortion, and his reply was that he hoped she wouldn’t chose to kill the child. Which seems to have morphed in the retelling to his saying she HAD to have it.

  3. Yup, same story I found.

    “The girl, saying that if she became pregnant after being raped by her father, asked whether Quayle would want her to have the baby, not an abortion. Quayle answered yes.

    When the girl pressed him further, asking whether he would want her to have a baby “even though my whole life would be ruined and I could be mentally affected”, the senator replied: “I would hope that the baby would live. I would just like to see the baby have an opportunity.”

    What are you saying here? That there’s no difference between saying you’d want somebody to do something, and saying it should be illegal for them to do something else? That “hoping” for something, and mandating it, are the same thing?

    1. Yes, there are two questions here:
      (a) What a girl should do, in that unbearable situation.
      (b) What she should be allowed or forbidden to do by law.

      Dan Quayle and GHWB were running on a platform that called for a total ban on abortion to be written into the Constitution. One obvious objection to that idea is the situation the girl put to Quayle. Instead of saying “Yes, carrying that child to term would be horrible, but we want to force you to do it anyway,” he chose to say that it wouldn’t be horrible. But his support for criminalizing all abortion was a matter of record.

      1. Thank you Mark, for having the patience to respond to this Jesuitical sophistry.

        How else to explain why Quayle was even asked the question by the girl in the first place…because he had a long record as pro-choice and she just wanted to see if would recall correctly that was his position when prompted?

        1. So, now it’s “Jesuitical sophistry” to insist that people assert what they actually say?

          Mark, what’s the point on insisting that we all use the “same facts”, if the language we discuss them in is allowed to be this maliable?

          People “assert” what they SAY. And you misrepresented what Quayle has said. He’s not the fire and brimestone extremist you paint him to be, no matter how rhetorically convenient you’d find it if he were.

          Come on, go out and find some place where he actually SAID what you claim he has “asserted”, or admit your mistake like a man.

          1. It is Jesuitical sophistry to insist on evaluating someone’s words in complete isolation from their actions. The context of Quayle’s comments are his stated intent to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing all abortion. He had a clear position of intending to enforce the outcome that he wanted, which means that he did not intend to leave the girl a choice.

          2. Neither one is fictitious.

            If I say I support an amendment that would ban private ownership of firearms in the US that amendment is not “fictitious.” It is a propsed amendment, albeit not an actual one.

            Further, by simple logic, my support is an assertion that I think you, Brett Bellmore, should not be allowed to own firearms. Suppose, nonetheless, that you ask me whether you should go out and buy a new handgun. If I tell you that I hope you don’t, that doesn’t mean I think it should be up to you. It means I recognize that it is in fact up to you, and I hope you don’t do it.

            In other words, his statement to the girl in question does nothing to change the fact that he thought she should not be allowed to have an abortion.

          3. I am unaware of any amendment banning “all” abortion, and remarkably confident that Quayle, (Who was always known to be somewhat squishy on the topic anyway.)would never have signed onto such.

            But perhaps in your private version of Engish, “all” and “some” have the same meaning?

          4. Brett,

            From the 1988 GOP platform:

            … the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.

          5. Still haven’t demonstrated that “all”.

            For your convenience, here’s the text of that “Human Life Amendment” the GOP platform mentions:

            Section 1. With respect to the right to life, the word ‘person’ as used in this article and in the fifth and fourteenth articles of amendment applies to all human beings irrespective of age, health, function, or condition of dependency, including their unborn offspring at every state of their biological development.

            Section 2. No unborn person shall be deprived of life by any person: Provided, however, That nothing in this article shall prohibit a law permitting only those medical procedures required to prevent the death of the mother of an unborn person: Provided further, That nothing in this article shall limit the liberty of a mother with respect to the unborn offspring of the mother conceived as a result of rape or incest.

            Section 3. The Congress and the several States shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


          6. Brett,

            The platform does not reference a specific text, nor does it talk about exceptions. It only refers to the rights of an “unborn child.” The amendment you cite is one of many versions. The platform does not endorse the language you quote.

          7. Kind of odd that Quayle didn’t include anything along the lines of “but in that case it would be her choice” in his response. After all, the exception is right there in the platform and he was presumbably trying to win votes. Perhaps he wasn’t too keen on that part of the amendment? I seem to vaguely recall some kind of kerfuffle on the religious right about including those exceptions but have no idea where Quayle came down on it.

          8. “The platform does not endorse the language you quote.”

            It certainly doesn’t say “all”. THAT you just drew out of your ass. You ought to have the decency to admit it.

            Pro-lifers who oppose ALL abortions are about as thin on the ground as pro-choicers who support ALL abortions. Which is to say, they exist, and they tend to wiggle their way into influential positions empowered by masses of people who don’t go as far as they do, but they’re an ultra-minority position, and virtually no politician is politically suicidal enough to align themselves with them.

            And, anyway, now we’re attributing everything in the platform to Quayle? Can I play this game, pin anything in the Democratic platform on Obama?

          9. Brett,

            Don’t be ridiculous. When you refer to a group without noting exceptions you are referring to the entire group. If you intend for there to be exceptions you say what they are, because otherwise no one will know.

            Your argument flies in the face of logic. Not to mention that, as I pointed out above, and which you rightly did not deny, Quayle’s response in your example tells us nothing about what he thought the law should be.

          10. “Quayle’s response in your example tells us nothing about what he thought the law should be.”

            Indeed. Do you not grasp that THAT was the point I was making? That preferring somebody not have an abortion even under extreme circumstances does not imply intending that they be illegal under those circumstances?

          11. No. That wasn’t the point you were making.

            You claimed Quayle never took a position of unlimited opposition to abortion, that there were no such amendments. Yet he ran for VP on a platform that specifically advocated such an amendment. If those who favor such a position are so rare, why does it consistently find its way into Republican platforms?

        2. In terms of biology why would any human male want to force a female to carry to term another man’s forced offspring?
          There’s no individual upside to that. An abortion-objecting male gains evolutionary advantage only if the rapist is a family member or the man himself.

          It would be interesting to know the percentage of rapes that happen within the confines of an extended family.

          If it is quite high, it would go a long way to explain the Darwinian motives lurking beneath the Jesuitical sophistry.
          If it isn’t higher then we have a case where right-wing ideology puts the reproductive strategy of the group (in this case: men, in particular white Christian men) ahead of individual reproductive success.

          1. “In terms of biology why would any human male want to force a female to carry to term another man’s forced offspring?
            There’s no individual upside to that”

            Oh, yes, there is. It asserts the male’s power to make the decision, and makes the woman suffer.

            Misogyny 2, woman 0

  4. Nope. Just that the story seems to have morphed some further between the time you found it and the time you posted your paraphrase. Especially your interesting emphasis on the choice that the child would have is conspicuously missing from the senator’s reply.

  5. This anecdote aligns with the counter-intuitive consensus (among political scientists) regarding values voters. The real action is among the rich. In his brutal takedown of “What’s the Matter with Kansas”, Larry Bartels points out that, if there was a scenario where values trumped economics, that would be the voting behavior of rich southern whites during the Jim Crow era.

    Andrew Gellman goes into the most detail. Basically, rich voters in blue states are the ones most likely to vote on values (liberal ones). In the hilariously named column “Bubba Isn’t Who You Think”, Paul Krugman picks up this theme, but focuses on rich southerners post jim-crow…they are much more republican than their northern brethren.

    False-consciousness has been flipped on its head.

    1. if there was a scenario where values trumped economics, that would be the voting behavior of rich southern whites during the Jim Crow era.

      I don’t follow this. One motive sometimes cited for business support of Jim Crow, and racism in general, was to discourage the growth of unions, by putting a sharp dividing line between white workers and black ones. Why didn’t wealthy white southernners benefit from the low wage scales that resulted from this, and other aspects of Jim Crow?

      1. Well, first you have to realize, as Bartels and even Krugman do, that Southern Dems during the Jim Crow era where actually to the left of Republicans. See here:

        With this in mind, you realize that the voting behaviour of Poor Southern Whites isn’t the big conundrum. After all, they’re voting for their economic interests… plus they get to shit all over black folks. But how to explain Rich Southern Whites voting against the Bankers Party at a much higher clip than their brethren in the North?

        One explanation: they did that because they hated Blacks more than they loved money. Race clearly trumped class.

        1. Or because even rich Southerners didn’t think the House of Morgan had their best interests at heart?

          1. Well they certainly didn’t think the House of Rockefeller did…though one wonders how Winthrop managed to seize the AZ Governor’s Mansion back in the 1960s. But the question today is, when will the House of Morgan realize that rich southerners don’t have their best interests at heart?

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