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Melissa Deckman on the Limits of Libertarianism for Women
Melissa Deckman, Ph.D.,

Deckman headshot


Affiliated scholar and PRRI board member Dr. Melissa Deckman discusses the gender gap in libertarianism today.

As data from the newly released 2013 American Values Survey indicate, men outnumber women among libertarians by more than 2-to-1. Put another way, just four percent of American women can be classified as true libertarians, compared to 10 percent of American men.

Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute believes this gender gap exists because women tend to think more empathetically than men, which presumably leads women to be more supportive of the social safety net. He’s correct: public opinion data show that women are far more supportive of government-sponsored social welfare programs than are men. Political scientists consistently find that this divide about the scope and size of government drives the gender gap in American politics, leading women to be more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than men.

Women’s reluctance to embrace libertarianism is also tied to many of their personal characteristics and life experiences. In comparing women from this year’s AVS who are libertarian or who have libertarian leanings (LLL) with American women who do not, it is clear that their social backgrounds diverge significantly. Overwhelmingly white (like their male counterparts), LLL women are more financially secure with just 10 percent reporting an annual family income of below $20,000 compared to twice as many non-LLL women (20 percent). Moreover, LLL women are far more likely to be married than other American women (62 percent vs. 49 percent, respectively).

In my research on the role of women in the Tea Party, I have interviewed dozens of women activists and have found that, consistent with the findings in the AVS, most Tea Party women are not complete libertarians. Without exception, all the Tea Party women I spoke with advocate for more conservative economic policies, but for most, their activism is often just as driven by their socially conservative identities and not by a desire to remove government regulations from every aspect of our lives.

However, I have spoken with a number of passionate libertarian women activists involved with the Tea Party movement and their interviews are revealing about the limits libertarians face in reaching women. Libertarians prize individualism above all else and they balk at the idea of diluting their message to appeal to specific groups in society. As one activist told me, her movement wants “freedom for everybody.” She said,

It doesn’t matter who you are. We don’t want to be a part of the balkanization of our society and to some extent if you really, really change your messaging for different groups of people, you are contributing to that. We’d rather teach people why our message is a unifying message and why everyone should support it.

Yet, as currently pitched, the political messages invoked by libertarians often (though not always) paint a divisive picture of “freedom-lovers” engaged in combat with government “socialists” bent on steering American society toward Marxism. Some research suggests that women are less likely than men to respond positively to attack-oriented rhetoric in politics, so the perception of the Tea Party, or more narrowly, libertarians, as strident and uncompromising may hurt its cause among American women more generally.

Libertarian organizations are caught in a bind — if they attempt to broaden their political appeal they risk compromising their core values and possibly alienating those passionate activists who are drawn to the ideological purity of the cause. This is not a problem endemic to libertarian or other conservative political causes, as evidenced by the outcry from liberal activists toward Obama’s proposals last week to modify aspects of the Affordable Care Act that have quickly proven unpopular to the general public. The point is that successful, longstanding political change is typically brought about by consensus and compromise, and the most successful political leaders can do this by finding a compelling message that resonates with many types of Americans. But as of yet, libertarians have had a hard time finding a message that resonates with Americans more broadly, including American women.