BBC Radio Four’s Beyond Westminster recently ran a programme on ‘The Men’s Vote’. The programme asked why politicians and the media seem more interested in targeting women’s votes than men’s. Rosie Campbell, Peter Kellner and Hopi Sen debated the issue.
Peter Kellner claimed that we can look back to early humans to help explain differences in men and women’s political attitudes and behaviour. He said “I think there is, probably, still in the different gender DNAs something that goes back to the early human, men being hunter/gatherers and the women being the home-makers” and that “hunter/gatherers are risk takers – have to be – home-makers are risk avoiders – have to be”. Peter viewed these pre-historic differences in gender roles as pivotal to understanding how men and women relate to politics today. Hopi Sen and Rosie Campbell were quick to disagree.
So what’s wrong with using hunter-gatherers to explain gender differences in voting behaviour in modern Britain?
The idea that there are ‘gender DNAs’ is, to say the least, strange. There is no such thing as male or female DNA. The DNA of all human beings is virtually identical. The only difference between men and women in the organisation of DNA within the cell is that women possess a pair of X chromosomes whereas men possess only one X chromosome in addition to a Y chromosome. That chromosomal variation is what explains sexual dimorphism in the human species – the different sexual organs of men and women and a different balance of hormones associated with their roles in sexual reproduction. So presumably, what Kellner means is that there is a biological basis (genetic, chromosomal, hormonal) to the supposedly contrasting social behaviour of men and women and that this ‘natural’ behaviour is expressed in their ‘natural’ condition, i.e. the environment in which early humans (‘hunter-gatherers’) found themselves in the Pleistocene epoch.
Oddly, Kellner claims that men in this environment are the hunter-gatherers wheareas women are home-makers. But most paleo-anthropologists agree that women did (and do) the majority of gathering in hunter-gatherer societies, and they also argue that there was (and remains) no absolute sexual division of labour: in most bands, men also gather and women also hunt. Of course, hunter-gatherer bands are also, for the most part, nomadic, so it’s a bit weird to say that women were ‘homemakers’ in societies that don’t have ‘homes’, at least as fixed abodes in which children are nurtured.
Another faulty assumption that Kellner makes is that hunting is a risky, and economically key, activity only suited to men who are (hormonally) equipped to be risk-takers. Depending on the environment, hunting can be very low-risk and economically marginal. In times of abundance, the Indians of the Pacific North-West could stand at the side of the river and catch leaping salmon in their arms. At the historic peak of the buffalo hunt in the 19th century, the Plains Indians, on horseback and armed with rifles, would kill so many bison that they took the choice parts – the pelt for clothing, the eyes and liver as delicacies – and left the carcasses to rot in the sun.
The point is that Kellner repeats an old chestnut: in their ‘natural’ condition, the social roles of men and women are distinct and determined by biology. This is to vastly underestimate the complexity and diversity of ‘primitive’ societies. In fact, the social roles of men and women in traditional ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies are as much determined by the material environment, by their religious and magical practices, by the specific forms of social and economic relations they possess, as they are by biology. That, of course, does not amount to saying that biology is unimportant, but it has always been mediated by the social, economic and cultural structures of human societies which are, to an important extent, autonomous of biological determination.
The mistake Kellner makes with respect to biology and gender is compounded by the evidence from contemporary politics. First there’s more similarity than difference in men and women’s political preferences in contemporary Britain. In the post WW2 period women were more likely to support the Conservative party than men, but this tendency has gradually declined, so that at most elections women are only significantly more Conservative in the very oldest generations, and even then the percentage point differences are usually only in single figures.
The British gender gap 1964- 2010 (Adapted from Norris 1999)
Second, where there are differences in attitudes they seem to shift across the life cycle. Women tend to be more concerned about education and healthcare than men, but this isn’t stable across age groups; younger women are usually more concerned about education and older women more concerned about healthcare.
Third, where there are gender gaps in political attitudes the percentage point differences are not startling. According to the 2010 British Election Study post-election face-to-face survey twice as many women as men said that the NHS was the most important issue facing Britain, but only 2.6% of women and 1.2% of men selected the NHS as the most important issue. The issue that most voters selected as most important was, not surprisingly, the economy (42% of men and 34.1% of women selected the state of the economy); an eight percentage point difference is worthy of note but does not seem to indicate a seismic difference in the way men and women prioritise political issues. Small gender variations in political attitudes, where women are slightly more concerned about social services and men worry more about the economy and taxation, are regularly evident in Western democracies, but they rarely reach double digit percentage points. It seems most likely that these small distinctions reflect the vestiges of traditional gender roles, where women have been more associated with the family and caring responsibilities and men seen as providers. But crucially, as women have moved into employment and higher education differences in political attitudes and behaviour between men and women have declined.
These trends undermine Kellner’s hunter-gatherer thesis. If gender differences in political attitudes are hard-wired into our brains as part of an evolutionary process that started with the earliest humans, surely we would expect to see large and predictable differences between men and women that are relatively stable over time and place?
This debate is illustrative of the ongoing argument in the social sciences, and beyond, about gender difference. It’s the age old nature/nurture debate that tore second wave feminism apart- when some radical feminists claimed that men were essentially aggressive and couldn’t be reformed and broke off from liberal feminists- many of whom shared their beds and their lives with men who they believed to be pretty ok.
So why are so many political commentators tempted to take us back to prehistory? Perhaps it’s all in the DNA . . .