What a year 2016 has been! For American politics, it’s the year women truly came into their own as a political force. By now we are all clearly aware that it was the first time in history that a woman was nominated as the presidential candidate of a major party. That was no small feat. Since first being granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, and the subsequent extension of that right to all women, not just white women, in August 1965, women have been highly marginalized in the political arena. This is the case despite the fact that statistics show over and over that we hold a significant sway on the outcomes of elections.
The 2012 elections were a classic example; Vote Run Lead reported that exit polls indicated 53% of the voters were women. Effectively, we determined the outcome of that election. This was a continuation of the momentum of the 2008 elections, which was defined by a marked majority of female voters – 65.7 % of women voted as opposed to 61.5 % of men.
The stats become even more interesting when we dissect them further. Of the voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections, 48.5 % were aged between 18 and 24, compared with approximately 74% of voters aged over 50. It is fair to conclude from these statistics that women over the age of 50 formed a large proportion of the voters.
The impact of women on politics has continued to grow, and this year an estimated 72.8% of women registered to vote. Interestingly, older women were far more active and the demographics of older age groups of female voters were estimated as follows:
45-54 = 73.5 %
55-64 = 76.6 %
65-74 = 78.1 %
These statistics show that the 50+ woman takes her civic responsibility very seriously, that much is clear; but do they tell us anything more? Yes, they do, as a matter of fact. According to a 2014 Survey by the Pew Research Center, Americans stay informed about politics and the elections by talking to others, and women are far more likely to talk to family members about politics, while men speak to external parties. Forty-four percent of women 65 and older, shared that they speak to their children about politics. Considering this, there is no question that older women play a significant role in shaping the political views and activities of younger family members, including younger women.
Irrespective of political view or motivation, these statistics speak volumes. Women appear to become more politically active as they age and women over the age of 50 hold undeniable political clout. The question is why? By all accounts, women are motivated to be politically active by far more than just the desire to vote for the party of their choice – women vote because they care deeply about the world around them, and they want to do their part to make that world a better place. In general, the over 50 population is a significant demographic to pay attention to in the near term as one in three Americans are currently over 50, representing a significant chunk of the electorate. This trend will only continue as population growth declines and longevity increases.
But the 50+ woman’s influence on the political stage is not just in relation to votes. They are also using their increasingly stronger positions in the workplace as well as growing financial clout to help propel their preferred candidates to success. The collective economic power of women is becoming a major game changer by itself. According to the New York Times, women bankrolled political campaigns in 2016 more than ever before. Women as a group have taken control of over $39.6 trillion of the world’s wealth. Their purchasing power is formidable and growing. By 2030, women in North America alone are expected to stand in control of $33.5 trillion.
Even more significant, over the next decade older women will be the beneficiaries of one of the largest transfers of wealth in our country’s history. Many women, Baby Boomers in particular, will receive a double inheritance, from both their parents and husbands. This will heighten their profiles both as key stakeholders in the economy and as highly influential actors in the family/social sphere. In addition, research indicates that as American women age, they typically exercise even more control over the family finances.
Although women are more financially empowered and more highly educated than any time in history the spending clout of this key demographic goes far beyond the raw economic implications. Women as entrepreneurs make up 36 percent of U.S. businesses. The decision-making power women represent can shape markets, influence media coverage of issues and generate compelling insights in all areas of relevant content. This powerful group is setting trends in industries from consumer products to healthcare to financial services. Meanwhile, women will continue to gain and wield clout as they assume more seats in the boardrooms and inside the C-suite. Highly active, technologically savvy and politically informed, this collection of women will face opportunities, and challenges, that can’t even be predicted right now.
Given the considerable clout they possess, it is an anomaly that women over 50 do not hold more political positions. It is not for lack of ability – women are perceived to be better leaders – in fact – a 2014 Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of respondents believed that the U.S. would be governed better if there were more women in political office. However, getting women there remains a challenge. Here in the U.S., women still hold less than 20 percent of congressional seats, despite composing a majority of the U.S. population. We are far behind other Western countries, which have made great strides in getting women into political offices. Sweden has 45 percent female representation at the national level, Finland, 42.5 percent, Denmark and the Netherlands, 39 percent and Germany, 36.5 percent. These countries made such progress by being proactive. Most of their political parties prioritize recruitment of female candidates, including through the use of quotas.
The recent elections offer us, as a nation, an opportunity to begin to address that challenge. Our politicians need to recognize the value the 50+ woman brings to the table and give her the chance to make a meaningful contribution. She has already demonstrated that her vote is so much more than just casting her ballot, it is an important factor that’s helping to determine the course of the nation. Politicians would do well to heed this. As the incoming administration makes various important decisions, including the appointment of key administration officials and Supreme Court judges, the 50+ woman must not be forgotten. She has much to contribute and her wealth of experience must be utilized for the benefit of this country. As the last election has made clear, women have a voice that pundits, pollsters and policy makers most definitely need to hear.
The collective power of women by no means negates the many differences among them, which however are equally important and should not be glossed over. Women of different socioeconomic and cultural groups may prioritize very different issues. Listening to different voices is key. For example, whereas affluent and professional women in their 50s are often approaching the zenith of their power in their careers and personal lives, working-class women may find themselves pushed out of the job market and into poverty. In both cases, women have important insights for policy makers to consider when implementing domestic policy.
In addition to all of the above reasons, there are two other very good reasons why women are essential to policy makers: the young and the old. Women are needed to mentor girls and young women as they become the next generation of strong leaders. They are also looking out for our most fragile citizens. Being the primary decision maker and often in charge of end-of-life planning, women are often more in touch with the needs of Americans who are getting older and need care. Listening to the voices of women and responding to their needs can help policymakers craft forward-looking policies that empower women to help build a better tomorrow.
Perhaps one of the most valuable clues to why women over 50 play such a powerful role in the politics of America is their worldview – they have lived enough to understand what really matters, and along the way they have known injustice and struggle. They have a well-developed view of the big picture and their motives and aspirations are seldom selfish. They are dedicated to making the world a better place for their children and their fellow man. They are future-orientated and understand the value of their substantial contributions to the U.S. economy over the course of the past 5 decades. Increasingly, they are voting to support change in critical areas, and more importantly, they are inspiring, empowering and encouraging the next generation of voters to make their mark on more than just a ballot sheet. Female American voters over the age of 50 are a force to be reckoned with and the political powers-that-be should not underestimate their influence.