science of us

Having a Daughter Makes Dads More Politically Polarized

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In our collective cultural imagination, being the father of a daughter has a universally profound effect on a man: The father-daughter bond is often seen as somehow stronger or more meaningful, or at least more emotionally affecting for the parent, than any other parent-kid combination.

But this isn’t just some random cultural artifact. Some social-science researchers believe that having a daughter might affect the politics and voting patterns of both male lawmakers and members of the general public — though the nature of that effect isn’t well understood. Studies have yielded mixed results: Back in 2008, for example, the Yale economics professor Ebonya L. Washington published a paper in the American Economic Review in which she presented evidence that, all else being equal, for each daughter a member of Congress had, they were more likely to “vote liberally, particularly on reproductive rights issues.” On the other hand, a 2013 paper by Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher in Sociological Forum found that “female offspring promote[s] identification with the more conservative Republican Party” among General Social Survey respondents — that is, everyday people, rather than lawmakers.

The latest entry in this genre, a discussion paper just published by the German Institute for Labor Economics, makes some headway toward reconciling those differences, offering a fairly nuanced, potentially important argument about daughters’ impact on their fathers’ political preferences. Author Clémentine Van Effenterre, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine), examined the voting behavior of both American and French lawmakers, as well as their political preferences as revealed by survey data, and found that daughters don’t push their fathers in one specific direction. Instead, they appear to just reinforce whatever political beliefs were already there. In other words, they’re polarizing. As Van Effenterre explains it:

Having one additional female child reduces the probability of voting for abortion right by 8 percentage points for right-wing members of the French National Assembly, and has zero effect on left-wing members. It increases the probability of voting for teenage access to abortion by 7 percentage points for Democratic congressmen in the U.S, while it has no effect on Republican congressmen.

The findings didn’t apply only to lawmakers, either; Van Effenterre found similar results when she looked at voter survey data. The reason for this effect isn’t entirely clear, but it offers a potentially important rejoinder to the idea that there’s any clearcut correlation between daughter-having and political beliefs. As Van Effenterre writes, “To my knowledge, the present paper is the first one to consider heterogenous effects of offspring’s gender across ideological groups, and to suggest that gender norms might not univocally affect individuals’ preferences and behaviours. Overall, my findings suggest that when individuals form opinions about a complex societal issue, they might do so in a way that preserves their cultural and political identity.”

In other contexts, of course, this happens all the time: Two people can be exposed to the same event or piece of information and respond in radically different ways, based on their preexisting cultural values, political beliefs, and so on. The same thing is true, it appears, when it comes to the experience of having a daughter.

Having a Daughter Makes Dads More Politically Polarized