(The Hill) — Young women are more likely to identify as liberal now than at any time in the past two decades, a trend that puts them squarely at odds with young men.
Forty-four percent of young women counted themselves liberal in 2021, compared to 25 percent of young men, according to Gallup Poll data analyzed by the Survey Center on American Life. The gender gap is the largest recorded in 24 years of polling. The finding culminates years of rising liberalism among women ages 18 to 29, without any increase among their male peers.
Several societal forces have conspired to push young women to the left in recent years, including the #MeToo movement, former President Donald Trump, rising LGBTQ identification and, most recently, abortion policy. Slower-cooking trends in marital status and educational attainment have also nudged the needle.
“I think there is a big generational shift that happened with Generation Z women who were really coming of age in the last five years,” said Kelsy Kretschmer, a sociologist at Oregon State University who studies gender politics.
The rift between young men and women may widen further. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a precedent that had protected abortion as a constitutional right for nearly half a century. The ruling has energized young women. New survey data, released this week, shows that 61 percent of young women consider abortion a critical issue, compared with 36 percent of all Americans.
“I would always choose a candidate that’s pro-abortion,” said Rose Merjos, 21, a government major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut who is an avowed liberal. “Almost everyone either knows someone who has had an abortion or has had one themselves. This is something everyone can relate to.”
The share of men who identify as liberal has held fairly steady for almost 25 years, according to annual Gallup surveys. Roughly one-quarter of men ages 18 to 29 term themselves liberal, year after year.
Meanwhile, among young women, liberalism has exploded. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fewer than 30 percent of women identified as liberal. The liberal camp grew through the second term of former President George W. Bush. It expanded further during the tenure of former President Barack Obama. It reached 39 percent in 2017 with the inauguration of Trump. In the last two years, liberalism surged anew.
“Young women today are much more liberal than young men,” Daniel Cox wrote in a June newsletter of the Survey Center on American Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute. His work documents “a growing political rift” between young women and men.
Merjos attends a university long associated with both liberalism and activism. These days, though, she senses more of both among the women.
“In all of my government classes, there are probably two men out of 18 people,” she said. “ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], that’s mostly women. I’m wondering if women are maybe just more inclined to be involved in the community, engaged in the community. And that liberalizes them.”
Ezra Meyer, 22, is a senior at the George Washington (GW) University who leads the College Republicans. He is a conservative on a campus that is overwhelmingly liberal and largely female. In conversations with classmates about politics, he treads lightly.
“My metric for deciding if I’m going to be friends with someone really does not come down to what their politics are,” he said. “It comes down to how tolerant they are.”
Meyer doesn’t know whether the men at GW skew more liberal or conservative than the women. But he has noticed a distinct trend among campus conservatives this fall.
“We’ve been doing a lot of recruiting of freshmen on campus,” he said. “And I would say, overwhelmingly, it has been male. The conservative females that do get involved, there’s fewer of them, but they tend to be way more passionate and way more involved.”
Several factors have liberalized the nation’s 20-something women. The most recent, and perhaps the most powerful, is #MeToo, an uprising against sexual assault, abuse and harassment that caught fire in 2017, empowering millions of women to come forward and seek justice.
The inauguration of Trump in the same year pushed more young women into the liberal column. The 45th president battled his own #MeToo allegations and proved uniquely unpopular among young, female voters. Polling in 2016 showed that only 25 percent of women ages 18 to 34 favored Trump, compared with 40 percent of same-aged men.
The rise of liberalism among young women has also marched apace with a dramatic increase in young people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. In a recent survey, 56 percent of young women reported exclusive attraction to men, while three-quarters of young men said they were solely attracted to women. Prior research suggests LGBTQ Americans of all ages tend toward liberalism.
Several longer-term trends have fed the liberalization of young women as well. One is marriage. The share of women ages 18-29 who are married has fallen by half in twenty years, from 31 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2021, according to the National Opinion Research Center.
The growing ranks of single, 20-something women feel a sense of “linked fate,” researchers say. They gravitate toward female friends in political views, whereas married women more often mirror the politics of their spouses.
“The correlation between women’s sense of linked fate and liberal political preferences suggests that the Democratic Party will benefit” from declining marriage rates among young women, Kretschmer and two co-authors wrote in a 2017 paper for the journal Political Research Quarterly. They noted that “women make up the majority of the population and vote at high rates.”
Women also outpace men in educational attainment, a trend that dates to the 1980s. The ratio of women to men in college enrollment now stands at roughly 60 to 40, and it continues to grow. Americans who complete college are more liberal than those who do not.
“Putting off marriage, going to college, entering the workforce, women are doing that at much higher rates than they used to,” said Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “And all of those things are going to make conservatism and the Republicans significantly less attractive to women.”
In 1998, the first year of data collected by Gallup in its Social Series surveys, 28 percent of young men and 29 percent of young women identified as liberal. The gender gap in liberalism grew steadily wider in the 2000s, wider still in the 2010s. The 2021 poll yielded a 19-point spread between young men and young women, the largest on record.
“I do have some male friends that are moderate,” said Luci Paczkowski, 20, a California liberal. “And it annoys the hell out of me.”
What bothers Paczkowski about her nonliberal friends is not their centrism but her suspicion that they “do not have any clue why they are moderate. They just do not want to pick a side and, therefore, they are apathetic.”