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Home Opinion The rise of the female-friendly party
Religion • Gender • Electoral politics

The rise of the female-friendly party

Patrick Emmenegger & Philip Manow - 12 September 2013

With declining levels of religiosity in Western Europe, women have turned from religious core voters into socio-economic swing voters

In the post-war decades, women tended to vote more conservative than men. This gender difference in the voting behaviour is referred to as the ‘old’ or ‘traditional’ gender vote gap. However, in recent decades, women in many European countries are more likely to support centre-left and left parties (the ‘new’ or ‘modern’ gender vote gap) as compared to men of the same age and at the same levels of income and education. There are several reasons for this shift in electoral behaviour. In particular, increased labour market participation, higher divorce rates and women’s higher educational achievements have changed the socio-economic interests of women. They have turned them into supporters of generous social programmes that help to reconcile work and family life and promise to ‘de-familialise’ the provision of social services like care for children or elderly family members. These new political preferences of women then often translate into a vote for left parties with their programmatic commitment towards the expansion (or at least not retrenchment) of social services. Hence, the ‘new’ gender voting gap.

This is not to dispute the important roles of societal trends such as the feminisation of labour markets or the increasing number of single households in the development of the ‘new’ gender vote gap. However, we argue that accounts that emphasise these variables are at best incomplete. They miss the important role of religion and religious conflict. In particular, existing accounts of the gender voting gap leave two questions unresolved:

First, existing accounts struggle to explain why women’s and men’s voting behaviour differed in the 1950s and 1960s (the ‘old’ gender voting gap). With low female labour market participation and low divorce rates political preferences should have predominantly been formed at the household level. As a result, political preferences should have been rather harmonious between the sexes. Yet, the existing explanations do not provide any answer as to why women should have voted more conservative than men.

Second, existing accounts explain why the gender vote gap shifted direction in some countries (e.g. Denmark) much earlier than in others (e.g. Italy) with differences in the persistence of the ‘male breadwinner model’. It is here that the role of religion is sometimes conceded, with a stronger influence of conservative Catholic conceptions of marriage and family, given that the different gender roles e.g. in Italy and Denmark cannot be explained by the small and ultimately universal differences between the sexes with respect to caring for new-borns. However, this rules out any independent influence religion has besides its impact on the political economy and the family models in these countries. Such an explanation assumes that the political space in Western Europe is uni-dimensional, and exclusively defined by socio-economic interests. We know however of the strong role that a second issue dimensions on moral questions plays for parties and voters in these political systems.

Instead, we argue that religious variables are at the root of the differences in voting behaviour between the two genders. In particular, we argue that in countries where a religious cleavage is prominent in the party system, competition over religious voters is restricted. Cleavages are political conflict lines that structure party competition. Examples include the capital-labour cleavage that gave rise to social democratic or labour parties in almost all European countries. The religious cleavage has its roots in conflicts between the church and the modernising state in the process of nation-state formation, in particular in Catholic countries, on issues such as control over education or social security. In many countries, the religious cleavage gave rise to Christian democratic parties, but it also changed the ideological profile of left parties. Most importantly, the religious cleavage turned left parties into vociferously anti-clerical parties.

This conflict between pro-clerical and anti-clerical parties has important consequences for voting behaviour. Anti-clerical left parties are simply not electoral option for voters with a strong attachment to the church. As a result, religious parties need not worry about the socio-economic interests of religious core voters because these voters have no serious alternative to voting for religious parties. In a similar vein, for left parties there is no point in competing for religious voters because these voters will not vote for an anti-clerical party anyway. Party competition over religious voters is thus restricted.

How does this restricted party competition lead to a gender vote gap? The answer to this puzzle lies in gender differences with regard to religiosity. Over time and across countries surveys show a constantly higher degree of religiosity among women than among men. Putting these two factors together then leads towards a fuller explanation for the ‘old’ gender vote gap: the strong negative effect of religiosity on the likelihood to vote for left parties combined with the higher degree of religiosity among women leads to the aggregate outcome that women, as a group, were more likely to vote for conservative parties.

The fact that women in particular were among the core voters of religious parties allowed these parties – at least to some extent – to ignore women’s socio-economic interests. Religion can thus explain the paradoxical finding in the comparative welfare state literature that women in Continental and Southern Europe tended to vote for parties that were particularly unresponsive to their socio-economic interests. The reason for this voting behaviour is, we submit, that women as religious core voters had no choice but to vote for conservative parties given the left parties’ blatant anti-clericalism.

However, over time, the gender vote gap has shifted direction. This change is not the result of the demise of the religious cleavage. Political debates about issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion still trigger heated debates in the countries with a strong heritage of the state-church cleavage such as Spain, Italy or France. Neither is the shift due to the declining effect of religiosity on voting behaviour. To this day religious voters, independent of gender, are unlikely to vote for (anti-clerical) left parties. What has changed, however, is the share of religious voters in the electorate, in particular among women. There are simply not that many religious voters in the electorate anymore.

Declining levels of religiosity in Western European societies have important implications for party competition. In the past, left parties had little reason to compete for the female vote in countries characterised by a strong religious cleavage, but with declining religiosity in the electorate, women have turned from religious core voters into socio-economic swing voters. Left parties have therefore begun to cater to the socio-economic interests of female voters by pushing for affordable child care provision, all-day schooling and other welfare programmes that promise to ‘de-familialise’ services initially provided privately. Women have responded to this new situation by adapting their voting behaviour. In most Western European countries, women are today more likely than men to vote for left parties.

These developments have forced religious parties’ hand. While in the past religious parties could take their (disproportionately female) religious vote for granted, they now have to compete with left parties for the female vote, in particular by catering to the socio-economic interests of female voters. This trend is clearly visible in countries such as Germany where the current Christian democratic government has stressed family policy in recent years, for instance, by awarding parents the right to a day care place for children aged one to two by 2013.

Hence, parties have begun to compete for the female vote. Western European welfare states are thus likely to become more female-friendly in the future.

Patrick Emmenegger is Professor of Political Science at the University of St. Gallen

Philip Manow is Professor of Political Science at the University of Bremen

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Religion , Gender , Electoral politics , The rise of the female-friendly party , Patrick Emmenegger , Philip Manow , Opinion , Democracy , Election , Vote , Voting , Equality , Equity , Fairness , Gender , Gender Voting Gap , Economy , Centre-left , Centre-right , Left , Right ,

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