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How ‘hostile sexism’ came to shape our politics

- October 2, 2018

What’s behind the roiling public reaction to Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, in which Christine Blasey Ford and Brett M. Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, testified about her allegations that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers?

Polls conducted after the hearing show a public strongly divided by gender and party. But gender and party don’t tell the whole story. Our recent work suggests that among those factors are attitudes toward women — in particular, a concept that researchers call “hostile sexism.”

What is “hostile sexism”?

Hostile sexism is a set of attitudes that are antagonistic toward women and stem from a belief that women want to control men. Hostile sexists tend to think about gender as a zero-sum game, a “battle of the sexes.” When they can, hostile sexists try to elevate men over women. Social scientists often contrast this with benevolent sexism, a more protective set of beliefs about gender relations, growing from the notion that women should be cared for by men.

We measured hostile sexism with questions from the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI) that ask respondents how much they agree or disagree with statements like:

  • Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.
  • When women complain about discrimination, they cause more problems than they solve.
  • Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for “equality.”

Hostile sexists would typically agree strongly with statements like the ones above and disagree strongly with statements like:

  • There are actually very few women who get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances.
  • Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men.

The full ASI includes 22 items, but we sometimes use a subset in our research, depending on data availability.

Who expresses hostile sexism?

The 2016 American National Election Study contained a subset of the ASI hostile sexism items. We combined responses to these questions, placing survey participants on a continuum from very low to very high levels of hostile sexism. About 13 percent of the survey participants scored very high, and about 17 percent very low, with the remaining 70 percent somewhere in between.

The very high hostile sexism category was nearly evenly split between men (51 percent) and women (49 percent), but varies considerably by party. Republican women and Republican men show relatively comparable levels of hostile sexism — levels that are quite different from those of independents or Democrats. Nineteen percent of GOP men and 17 percent of GOP women score high in hostile sexism; only 8 percent of Democratic men and women do.

Partisans look even more different from one another at the low end of the scale. About 6 percent of Republican men and 10 percent of Republican women hold very low levels of hostile sexism — compared with 21 percent of Democratic men and 29 percent of Democratic women.

Hostile sexism mattered in the 2016 presidential election

In a recent article, we used survey data from the 2012 and 2016 American National Election Studies, a nationally representative sample of adult Americans, to ask: Why did so many women support Trump despite his misogynistic rhetoric and well-known attitudes toward women?

We learned many white women hold hostile sexist beliefs. Even when we control for party, those beliefs help predict white women’s sustained support for Trump. We compared the effects of hostile sexism on women’s votes in 2012 and 2016, and it mattered significantly more in 2016. Other research, including work by Brian Schaffner and colleagues, found a similar pattern.

Hostile sexism matters most when campaigns awaken it explicitly

In a second article, we conducted survey experiments with 1,300 participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online platform where researchers can hire people to take surveys. One study randomly assigned participants to read one of two articles. One was a news article about Donald Trump’s “woman card” attack on Hillary Clinton. The second article was about the campaigns’ social media use, with no mention of the “woman card.”

Among those who read about the “woman card” attack, people who scored high in hostile sexism became even stronger Trump supporters, reporting more enthusiasm about his campaign and an increased willingness to vote for him in 2016.

Public debate over sexual assault allegations, like the woman card attack, may also register more strongly with hostile sexists. In a recent article we co-authored with Emily Beaulieu and Gregory W. Saxton, we evaluated whether sexism shapes voter reactions to candidate scandals, including allegations of sexual misconduct. Our research was based on a survey experiment in 2014 with a total of about 1,100 participants, again recruited through Mechanical Turk.

Our experiment told participants that a hypothetical U.S. House representative was up for reelection — and that the candidate’s term had been relatively unremarkable except for one major scandal. We then varied both the kind of scandal — a scandal involving sexual misconduct or a financial scandal — and the sex of the candidate. In other words, some participants read about a man who had a financial scandal; some about a man who was in a scandal involving sexual misconduct; some about a woman who was in a financial scandal; and some about a woman who was in a scandal involving sexual misconduct.

We then asked participants to imagine this was their own representative. How likely would they be to vote for this politician in the next election? We then compared the answers between those who were high and low in hostile sexism.

Those who scored high in hostile sexism were more likely to want to punish a female candidate for alleged sexual misconduct than people who scored low on hostile sexism — but that scandal had no effect on their opinions toward a male candidate. Levels of hostile sexism did not affect reactions to financial corruption scandals regardless of a candidate’s sex.

We can’t definitively say hostile sexism — its presence or absence — is influencing public reactions to the Kavanaugh nomination fight. But our research makes it seem likely. The bigger question is how it might influence voters in the 2018 midterms, especially if Kavanaugh becomes a centerpiece of congressional campaigns over the next month.

Erin C. Cassese (@ErinCassese) is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Delaware.

Tiffany D. Barnes (@TiffanyDBarnes) is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Kentucky.

Mirya R. Holman (@prof_mirya) is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tulane University.