Is this the Illusion of Wokeness? Unmasking Sexism in the 2022 Electorate
by Jael Strell (Class of ‘23)
It is no longer novel to propose that sexism plays an outsized role in how both candidates and voters view and make decisions regarding politics. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 attempt to ‘“break the glass ceiling” was inextricable from the litany of sexist and degrading rhetoric espoused by her opponent, Donald Trump, both during his campaign and in his subsequent stint in the Oval Office. From “locker room talk” to “nasty women” to “horseface” hostile gendered language was flung on and off the campaign trail. But sexism among politicians, and perhaps more importantly, those voting for them, did not start or end with either of Trump’s campaigns. Indeed, as evidenced by the outsized support Trump garnered, he in many ways took implicit views on women present in the electorate and stated them explicitly, albeit to an extreme. While Trump has left office, sexist views remain omnipresent in America.
Research published by PerryUndem earlier this year found that out of over 2,000 American adults surveyed, nearly two thirds of participants agreed that ‘“sexism, patriarchy, or misogyny is a problem in our society” and just over half agreed that “‘the country is going backward on women’s rights and gender equality.” However, upon further investigation, they also found that a majority of respondents actually held negative views towards women across a variety of dimensions including hostile sexism (the presence of overtly negative attitudes towards women), views on the presence of women in leadership, and policy relating to gender parity. Notably, Republican respondents were the most likely to believe that gender parity had been achieved while simultaneously holding sexist views towards women across a variety of measures.
As the 2024 elections loom, I wanted to investigate the presence of hostile sexism in the electorate today using the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a nationally representative survey of over 60,000 American adults. With issues typically associated with women such as access to abortion and maternal leave increasingly on the ballot, as well as several female candidates running for president on both sides of the aisle, it is important to document how sexism is tied to the political affiliations and stances of the American public today.
While research measuring the impact of hostile sexism on behavior has been increasing, studies are still few and far between. The CES began asking questions related to hostile sexism in 2018, after Trump’s initial campaign, so I was unable to measure any change in hostility over time prior the start of these highly gendered campaigns. However, research on the impact of Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric found that exposure to his remarks made participants more likely to write derogatory things when asked about their opinions on a variety of minority groups. While I can’t conflate the results to include sexism, it serves as a reminder of the power that rhetoric can have on individuals’ behavior. Supporting this, related research points to some evidence that increased levels of sexism followed Trump’s 2016 presidential win.
So, how does one measure hostile sexism? In the CES, participants are asked to select on a scale from “Strongly agree” to “Strongly disagree” in response to two statements related to attitudes towards gender and hostile sexism. The statements are:
- Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.
- Women are too easily offended.
In order to quantify survey respondents’ level of displayed hostile sexism, I converted respondents’ selections to these questions to a numerical scale ranging from zero to one, where zero is the least sexist and one is the most. For reference, on the original scale, 0 is equivalent to “strongly disagree,” 0.25 is equivalent to “somewhat disagree,” 0.5 is equivalent to “neither agree nor disagree,” 0.75 is equivalent to “somewhat agree,” and 1 is equivalent to “strongly agree.” I then averaged each participant’s score and multiplied it by 100 to get a numerical representation of hostile sexism exhibited by each individual on a scale from zero to 100.
The first graph pictured below shows the average hostile sexism score broken down by gender identity, and by party. While there is a significant jump in hostile sexism ratings between men and women, the gulf between Democrats and Republicans is far wider, jumping from just under 30 for Democrats to 53 for Republicans (roughly, “somewhat disagree” vs. “neither agree nor disagree). For reference, This is in line with recent research that has found that conservative political identification can be a better predictor of sexism than gender identity alone. That is to say, Democratic men and Democratic women tend to share more similar levels of expressed hostile sexism with each other as opposed to those with their same gender identity in the Republican Party and vice versa. However, that is not to say that gender plays no role at all. As seen below, there are still significant differences between the genders of the same party.
That being said, I don’t want to give Democrats too much of a pat on the back for displaying less hostile sexism than Republicans. The reality is, sexism in both parties still exists. In that vein, I was curious to see if there were any patterns regarding hostile sexism and support/opposition for issues related to women. In lieu of being able to assess respondents’ feeling towards, say, a female candidate running for President, I decided to look at whether respondents supported or opposed two measures related to women in politics and the topic of abortion, an issue directly related to women. The first measure is “Appoint Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court”; and the second is “Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice.” Participants were able to select either “Support” or “Oppose” in response to each statement. Since party appears to be the most significant factor in an individual’s sexism rating, I decided to divide the following analyses by party to ascertain any divergent patterns.
As seen in the two graphs below, those who opposed Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court across both parties showed higher hostile sexism ratings than supporters for both parties. That being said, the gulf between the ratings of Democrats who supported versus Democrats who opposed the appointment was far wider than that of Republicans. While it is important to keep in mind that Democrats who supported the appointment at a baseline had lower hostile sexism ratings than Republicans who supported the measure (25 vs 50), there was a 21 point increase in hostile sexism rating for opposing Democrats, bringing those Democratic respondents just under the average rating for Republicans. Republicans who opposed the appointment only had a 4 point increase in rating, which is still significant, but not the 21 point leap seen for Democrats.
As seen below, similar patterns between parties are also seen with regard to the abortion question. The baseline hostile sexism rating for Democrats who support unilateral access to abortion is 26, but this jumps to 44 for those who oppose. For context, the score for Republicans who supported the measure was a baseline 51 (still high) but only rose 4 points for those opposed. Democrats who opposed Brown Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court and opposed giving women the right to choose when to have an abortion are much closer to Republicans than other Democrats when it comes to hostile sexism.
While Democrats may have generally lower hostile sexism ratings overall, how these Democrats think about women appears to divide their opinions on the issues analyzed much more than it does for Republicans. Furthermore, some Democrats reach nearly Republican levels of sexism when breaking down the electorate by those who support issues like the two analyzed above.
None of these findings may be particularly surprising. However, I think that they highlight an insidious fact both about American politics and Americans at large. Respondents on both sides of the aisle appear to hold relatively high rates of hostile sexist views. When looking at Democrats in particular, sexism seems to be at least contributing to a small, yet significant minority’s stance on topics related to women. While I don’t believe that presenting this data will lead to a radical shift in voter attitudes, it’s a solemn reminder of the hurdles we still need to overcome regarding sexism and its relationship with politics.