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College Women Move Left, Men to the Right


A new study says more female freshmen at American colleges identify with the political left than ever before.

It also shows the biggest gap politically between freshmen women and men.

The study comes from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Started in 1966, the study polls freshmen at four-year colleges and universities around the country. Last year, the study gathered information from nearly 138,000 students at 184 schools.

HERI asks students how they identify politically: liberal, far left, conservative, far right, or moderate (“middle of the road”).

Traditionally, most students identify as "moderate."

But last year, when the 2016 U.S. presidential election between victor Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton occurred, 41 percent of the female students identified as liberal or far left.

This was the largest percentage of young women identifying as liberal in the more than 50-year history of the study.

By comparison, just 29 percent of males identified as left leaning. HERI says the difference has never been bigger.

Around 27 percent of male students and about 18 percent of female students identified as right-leaning this time.

Why the difference?

Kevin Eagan, a professor of education at UCLA and managing director of the HERI, says there were more liberal male students than females in the 1960s and 1970s. The number of female college students identifying as liberal has been steadily increasing since the 1990s.

Eagan says the number of young people identifying with a political party has much to do with the political leadership of those parties. For example, when conservative Republican Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, freshmen showed large decreases in the number of liberals.

Eagan says he believes that many young women identified with Hillary Clinton because she was a women and leader of the liberal Democratic Party.

Trump likely pushed women to the left through his negative actions and statements about women, Eagan said.

"With a candidate last year on the Republican side who was characterized by the media, perhaps rightfully so, as misogynistic and not really supportive of women,” he says, “I think that that just served to exacerbate this trend that we’re seeing related to women … shifting their political perspectives.”

Nesha Ruther, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin last year, says she does not identify as liberal simply because the Democratic presidential candidate was female.

Ruther says she first voted for independent and liberal senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, in the primary elections that decided who would represent the Democratic Party in the presidential race. She says she liked his views about ending police violence against African-Americans and raising taxes on the wealthy.

But after he lost, Ruther grew concerned about Trump’s calls to reduce access to abortion and support for healthcare services that mainly serve women. So she supported Clinton, she says.

Ruther, who studies English, gender and Jewish studies, is a registered Democrat. She says women choose liberalism because it addresses issues that affect them, such as equal pay for equal work, and laws affecting reproductive health.

“Liberalism … is more appealing to women because it is a movement that is for progress,” she says. “So it’s not the way things have been previously, and in that way it is more geared towards the empowerment of women, the increased social mobility of women.”

Changes over time

Hans Noel is a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, who says most women are not liberals, and points out that 61 percent of white women without a college degree voted for Trump. But younger women who identify as feminists want to support politicians who support women’s rights, he says.

The political right in the U.S. has grown increasingly conservative, especially on issues like access to birth control, Noel says. And the political left has grown more feminist.

“What it means to be liberal, conservative, what it means to be Democratic or Republican, it evolves and changes,” he says. “It’s not like that suddenly being liberal has been pro-feminist. That’s been around for a while. But that’s certainly been a highlighted issue in the last several years, and particularly the last election.”

Noel adds that colleges and universities typically support more liberal ways of thinking. Younger women will side with the political movement that supports them, he said.

But he adds, it is important to note whether young people express their political beliefs at the voting polls: While people between age 18 and 35 represent 31 percent of U.S. voters, only about half of them voted in 2016.

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