June 5, 2002, 8:45 a.m.
Working Girls . . .
. . . are starting to behave like working boys.
Politicians have long known that women's votes are to a large extent determined by whether they are married or not, and whether they work outside the home or not. Married women, especially homemakers, tend to vote Republican, while working single women tend to vote Democratic. New research is helping to explain why this is the case.
Both values and economics explain why marriage and work have political implications for women. A recent study by economist Mahshid Jalilvand of the University of Wisconsin, for example, found that religion was relatively more important for women who do not work outside the home than for women who do, while economic and political issues were relatively more important to working women than nonworking women.
Other studies show clearly that divorce has a strong tendency to make women vote Democratic. According to a new paper by economists Lena Edlund and Rohini Pande of Columbia University, this is mainly because divorce generally reduces the standard of living for women, while increasing it for men. "Marriage tends to make a woman more Republican, whereas divorce tends to make her more Democratic," they conclude.
Thus basic politics is one reason why Republicans wanted a tax credit for children, in order to make it easier financially for mothers to stay at home with their children, and why the Bush administration has been strongly pushing a federal initiative to encourage marriage and discourage divorce. Both efforts help encourage Republican voting among women.
Ironically, however, it turns out that another Republican initiative, which would strengthen work requirements for those on welfare, is pushing in the opposite direction. According to a June 3 report in the New York Times, the 1996 welfare-reform legislation, which instituted work requirements for welfare recipients for the first time, has had the effect of reducing marriage rates among women.
It turns out that once women were forced off welfare and into jobs, two things happened. On the one hand, many did so well on their own that they no longer felt as much economic pressure to marry. On the other hand, they are now so busy with work and child raising, they have no time for relationships.
Economic pressures are also affecting the marriage patterns of middle-class working women. According to a new paper by economists Eric Gould and Daniele Paserman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, increasing wage inequality encourages women to wait longer and search harder for a well-to-do mate. This may be the result of increased earnings by females, increasing numbers of whom now make more than their male counterparts. From an economic point of view, marriage has little to offer such women unless they can greatly increase their standard of living by marrying especially well.
It is not only economists who are making interesting findings about women and marriage. On May 29, Cornell biologist Kevin McGraw published a study that used personal ads in various newspapers to determine what male characteristics were attractive to women in different American cities. In general, he found that the bigger and more expensive a city is to live in, the more women are interested in finding a man able to provide them with material comforts. Words suggesting this include "financially stable" and "professional" in personal ads.
By contrast, women living in smaller, less expensive cities tend to put more emphasis on emotional aspects or the personal interests of potential mates, and less on materialism. Thus, in cities like Los Angeles and Boston, material resources rated more highly, while in Montgomery, Alabama, and Kansas City, things such as being a good listener and having shared hobbies count for more.
One of the funny things to jump out from the McGraw study is that women rate men's physical appearance higher in Washington, D.C., than any where else. Forty-two percent of personal ads listed attractiveness as the primary male attribute. Only a third of L.A. women did so and just 21% in Montgomery. Washington women also ranked dead last in their need for emotional support and well below most large cities in a desire for well-to-do men, based on their personal ads.
I can only speculate that because Washington has such a high number of very well paid professional women, many need neither financial nor emotional support from a relationship. In a sense, therefore, they are more like men in their relationship requirements. They are primarily interested in physical attractiveness because they can afford it, and because it advertises their wealth and power to their peers. A woman stuck in a low-paying, dead-end job in the middle of nowhere can't afford to be so choosy.
If single working women are becoming more like men in terms of their interests in the opposite sex, as a result of their rising incomes, eventually they may become more like men in their voting as well.
— Mr. Bartlett is senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis