Unmarried women, whether Black or White or Latina, think differently than married women in an important way, and that difference may help explain why single women vote reliably for Democrats and married women do not. This new insight into the psychology of voting was documented by political scientists Christopher Stout, Kelsy Kretschmer, and Leah Ruppanner in a just-published study in Political Research Quarterly, “Gender linked fate, race/ethnicity, and the marriage gap in American politics.”

Democrats have a friend in single women, who vote for them disproportionately. In the 2016 Presidential election, for example, 63% of unmarried women voted for Clinton. In 2012, when Obama faced off against Romney, unmarried women favored Obama even more – 67% of them voted for him.

Married women, in contrast, favored Clinton by just a sliver (2% more voted for her than for Trump). In 2012, they slightly favored Romney.

One way to understand the marital status difference in women’s voting is to study single and married women’s positions on the issues. That is important. Professor Stout and his colleagues believed that a psychological consideration was also important: Do the women see their own fate as linked to the fate of other women in the country?

Data were from 1,476 White women, 405 Latina women, and 489 Black women who participated in the 2012 American National Election study. The key question was:

“Do you think that what happens generally to women in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life?”

Unmarried women were more likely than married women to answer yes to that question, which the authors describe as a measure of “gender linked fate.” Among the White women and Latina women, the married women differed most from the always-single women. Among the Black women, the married women differed most from the divorced women.

Does It Matter If Women See Their Own Life Outcomes as Linked to the Outcomes of Other Women?

The marital status differences in answering the question about gender-linked fate would only be of passing interest if they had nothing to do with voting. But they did.

For the Latina and White women, seeing their own fate as connected to the fate of women in general was important to their party identification. The women who thought of their fates as linked were more likely to identify as Democrats. Those beliefs did not matter so much for the party preferences of Black women, for a telling reason: They identify overwhelmingly as Democrats. It is hard to separate those who identify as Democrat from those who identify as Republican by other factors, such as gender linked fate, when there are so few who identify as Republican.

There are other important ways that married and unmarried women differ, such as the ways they think about traditional gender roles or gender discrimination, and whether they have children at home. The authors examined a half-dozen such differences, and none of them mattered for voting as much as the women’s beliefs about whether their own life outcomes were linked to those of other women’s.

Married and Single Women Seem to Ask Different Questions

Why don’t married women see their own fates as tied to the fate of other women to the same extent that unmarried women do? The authors believe that when heterosexual women marry, their perspective shifts to a focus on their husbands. (They studied women of different marital statuses at just one point in time; a more definitive answer would come from a study that followed the same women over time as they stayed single or got married or divorced.)

Within heterosexual couples, the political scientists suggest:

“Women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women’s economic dependency on men. This dependency increases if women reduce employment and rely on husbands’ earnings following the birth of a child. Thus, it is within married women’s interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status.

“Some married women perceive advances for women, such as lawsuits to mitigate pay discrimination, as coming at the expense of their male partners. In part, this captures the shift in married women’s alliances from the individual to the marital union.”

The authors believe that the psychology is different for unmarried women, who have just their own income for support. They will see policies that are good for women in general, such as equal pay, as important to their own lives to an extent that married women will not. Even if married and single women had the same positions on policies, some of those policies might matter more to unmarried women’s voting than to married women’s. 

The results of this new suggest – but do not show definitively – that single and married women voters ask themselves different questions. When considering party platforms, unmarried women want to know, “What’s in it for women?” Women married to men want to know, “What’s in it for my husband?”

How This Study Undermines the Stereotype of Single People as Self-Centered

One of the entrenched stereotypes about single people is that they are self-centered. It is also one of the most powerfully debunked stereotypes. In many ways, it is the single people who have been shown to be more caring, more connected to other people, and more giving than married people.

When married people seem to be doing more, their efforts are often focused on their own families. For example, men who marry work more hours and that extra pay benefits themselves and their families. But it is the single men who put more into the kinds of organizations whose work benefits people beyond just themselves and the people closest to them. For example, they participate more in unions, farm organizations, and professional societies.

The new political science study showed that unmarried women, more so than married women, think of their own fates as tied to the fates of women in general. I think that’s another way in which unmarried people are just the opposite of self-centered. They are not in a bubble, the way some married couples seem to be. Unmarried women see their own fate, and the fate of women in general, as connected. Then they vote in ways they see as improving the lives of all women.

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