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Democrats and Republicans are as divided about gender discrimination as they are about everything else

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In a year when the Democratic Party will nominate its first woman candidate for president, the Republican Party moved last week toward adopting a platform that includes conservative tenets that support barring women from combat, opposing transgender rights, and reiterating its commitment to the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding for abortion. On issues of gender, equity, and the place of women in their organizations, the two parties remain staunchly polarized.

In addition to the differences apparent between the emerging party platforms, the contrast between the two nominees at the top of each ticket could not be more stark. Whereas Hillary Clinton achieved her nomination, in part, by winning over women in the Democratic Party and competing with Sen. Bernie Sanders to claim the "best for women" mantle, Donald Trump frequently disparaged women, feminism, women's leadership, and female bodies while making his unlikely run for the Republican nomination.

As the Democratic presidential contenders worked to curry favor with leading feminists, Trump's campaign gained momentum despite (or perhaps because of) the candidate's repeated use of misogynist and racist epithets.

With the prolonged selection processes behind them, convention delegates will make their way to Cleveland and Philadelphia for this year's Republican and Democratic national conventions, to both formally nominate their party's candidate and to help redefine the place of women in their party.

How will these events — as well as competing ideas about gender within the parties — shape the ways the parties incorporate gendered issues into their party platform and women into positions of national leadership?

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, we and our co-authors Seth Masket, Joanne Miller, and Dara Strolovitch demonstrate that attitudes toward gendered issues remain powerful within both political parties. However, Democratic and Republican activists maintain sharply different, even divergent ideas about female candidates and the role of feminist ideals in society.

We discovered this gulf between the parties during another important election cycle for women candidates. In 2008, we conducted a survey of delegates at the Democratic and Republican national party conventions to understand party delegates' attitudes about gender issues.

The 2008 conventions were defined by other "firsts" for women. Hillary Clinton had come closer than any other woman in history to winning a major party's presidential nomination — inspiring liberal feminists across the country — and her lengthy nomination campaign came to a dramatic close on the floor of the Democratic convention in Denver.

Meanwhile, Republicans in St. Paul nominated the largely unknown Sarah Palin for the vice presidential slot. Palin's convention acceptance speech was filled with references to special needs children, hockey moms, and the challenges of parenting. These two prominent female candidates promoted visions of women's roles that differed in important ways.

Through our surveys, we examined delegates' opinions about sex discrimination and about how strongly they supported Clinton or Palin. We found, interestingly, that the delegates' own sex had little to do with their attitudes toward the candidates. Democratic women were neither more nor less supportive of Clinton than were Democratic men, and Republican women and men supported Palin at comparable rates. Similarly, it did not seem to matter whether the delegates had a history of participation in women's political organizations; they still felt roughly the same about the female candidates.

What made a difference was the delegates' attitude toward gender discrimination in the workplace. Democrats who thought sex discrimination was a serious problem tended to be more supportive of Hillary Clinton than they were of her competitor, Barack Obama. Conversely, among Republicans, Sarah Palin received more positive evaluations (compared with her running mate, John McCain) from delegates who believed sex discrimination is no longer a problem.

These partisan differences remain salient in 2016. Our 2008 findings are a manifestation of an important and overlooked gendered component of the partisan polarization that has come to characterize American politics over the past three decades.

But even as Republicans and Democrats have been sorting themselves based, in part, on their policy preferences on issues such as abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and workplace discrimination, gender norms in politics and society have also been evolving. Although Republicans remain more supportive of traditional gender roles, they have also come to normalize women's workforce participation and positions as political actors and policymakers.

So while it seemed strategic in 2008 for McCain to select a woman as his running mate, Palin's popularity among Republicans was conditioned not merely on her identity as a woman but also on her willingness to distance herself from the ongoing objectives of the women's movement. In these ways, our findings demonstrate the ways in which political processes and institutions both reflect and construct ideas about women and gender and help to clarify the role of these ideas in broader processes of polarization.

Both parties are concerned with winning women's support. But merely evaluating the success of women's nominations explains only part of the diverging constituencies whose support they work to foster.

Female candidates represent different things to activists within each party. Thus, our findings suggest that the message and the vision about gender a candidate would use to appeal to Democrats is precisely the opposite one she would use to appeal to Republicans. Making gains with one group may incur losses from the other.

The place of gender issues is far from clear, and as voters prepare to evaluate the two major party candidates, our nation's ideas about gender and feminism are as polarized as anything else in our political system.

Elizabeth A. Sharrow is an assistant professor of political science and history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Michael T. Heaney is an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan.


This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.