Does parenthood make men more conservative and women more liberal?

A new study says that parenthood pushes men and women in opposite political directions:
 

“Parenthood seems to heighten the political ‘gender gap,’ with women becoming more liberal and men more conservative when it comes to government spending on social welfare issues,” says Dr. Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at NC State and co-author of the study. Greene and Dr. Laurel Elder of Hartwick College used data on the 2008 presidential election from the American National Election Studies to evaluate the voting behavior of men and women who have children at home. Parents who have grown children were not part of the study.

“Basically, women with children in the home were more liberal on social welfare attitudes, and attitudes about the Iraq War, than women without children at home,” Greene says, “which is a very different understanding of the politics of mothers than captured by the ‘Security Mom’ label popular in much media coverage. But men with kids are more conservative on social welfare issues than men without kids.” Men with kids did not differ from men without kids in their attitudes towards Iraq.

You can read the press release here and the whole thing here.

This is a strong study; they have a good data set, and like all good social scientists they control for variables like age and education. The results are consistent with other studies, and also easy to understand.

Response scales varied, but all ranged from a number indicating very liberal to one indicating very conservative. So, the “social welfare index” (which measured support for issues like government-sponsored, universal health care), the scale ranged from -1.37 (very liberal) to 2.07 (very conservative), based on responses to specific questions.

This is the area where the contrast between men and women was starkest. Women zoomed from -.01 childless to -.11 after having children in the social welfare index–which is statistically very significant. Meanwhile, men went from .04 childless to .14 after children. A ten point difference for both, but in opposite directions.

To which I say: Wow.

Why the difference? The researchers argue that it’s women’s experience with nurturing kids that pushes them a more liberal direction when it comes to weaving the social safety net. From the paper:
 

We argue that this long-standing liberal motherhood effect is grounded in the gendered experience of parenthood. The societal expectation as well as the reality that women play the primary role in nurturing their children and take primary responsibility for their health care, day care, and educational needs fosters an appreciation for well-funded, domestic government programs.

Moreover, with the vast majority of mothers working outside the home, mothers are required to rely on people or programs outside the nuclear family for at least part of their children’s care, which may also foster their appreciation for a supportive and generous social welfare state. The fact that the liberal effect of motherhood remains highly significant even in the regression model (Table 2) when potentially confounding variables are controlled, means that it is not simply Democratic or unmarried or poor mothers that are driving the liberal motherhood effect. Consistent with some feminist theories, there seems to be something about the experience of being a mother that leads to more liberal social welfare attitudes (Ruddick 1980, 1989; Sapiro 1983). It may be that the act of nurturing children fosters empathy and caring, thereby generating more liberal attitudes concerning the role of government in helping others.

Whereas fathers, they write, tend to “view an active social welfare state as an intrusion on their ability to provide for their families.”

That sounds somewhat plausible to me–although it must be pointed out that throughout American history, many men have looked to government to support their roles as breadwinners, as with, for example, minimum wage laws. It might be more accurate to suggest that men’s relatively privileged social position makes them more receptive to contemporary conservative messages, and more invested in the status quo.

Some folks, I think, will tend to see this as an essentialist argument: Women are more liberal and pacifistic because they’re women, and men are just warlike jerks. But actually this research suggests politics are shaped more by social roles and day-to-day tasks than by biology. An obvious way to test this theory is to look at stay-at-home dads: Does taking care of kids push men in a more liberal direction?

I don’t know of any peer-reviewed studies that have examined this question, but I explored it quite a bit in researching my book The Daddy Shift through interviews with families.

The result: It’s certainly the case that many stay-at-home dads and breadwinning moms feel that taking care of kids does make dads more liberal–according to these couples, they’re just more conscious of the importance of access to the commons, things like playgrounds and health care. “The world would be a better place if more fathers…took are of children,” said one Kansas City mom. “I think a man becomes more aware of other social issues.”

Many of these couples, it must be said, were at least somewhat liberal to begin with, which makes sense–liberal values allow for the possibility of a gender-role reversal. However, there are many conservative stay-at-home dads; do their attitudes evolve? To get a firm answer to this question, you’d need to track couples’ political trajectory over many years, from pregnancy to the teenage years, and control for many variables.

If the answer turns out to be yes, this suggests that men as a group should become more liberal as they spend more time with kids. And if we want to push our society in a more liberal direction, policies that encourage male caregiving–starting with paid paternity leave–are a good place to begin. If the answer is no, we’ll need to look elsewhere for an explanation about why men and fathers tend to be more conservative than women and mothers.