George Bush (L) and Ronald Reagan before the start of a debate before the League of Women Voters Forum in Houston in April 1980 Credit – Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
As the electoral odds facing President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have continued to diverge in national and state polls, there’s at least one area where the divergence has been particularly striking: By early October, one national poll had Biden leading Trump by over 20 points among registered female voters; Trump and Biden were tied among likely male voters. Other October polls had Biden up an average of 25 points among women—which, if it holds, would be a record in modern elections.
Nationally, women in the U.S. have had the vote for 100 years. For the last 40 of those years, they have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in greater numbers than men have. (Notably, this does not mean a majority of women always vote for the Democrat.) This remarkably durable voting pattern may not be a surprise this year, but it shook Republicans when it emerged in 1980—and examining the two parties’ responses to this voting pattern can help us understand the shape of American politics today.
It took 60 years for women to vote in the same proportion as men. In 1980, for the first time since the passage of the 19th Amendment, women voted at the same rate as men. That was also the first time they voted noticeably differently from men. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by almost 10 percentage points in the 1980 presidential election. Among women voters, however, Reagan won by only a single percentage point (46% of the vote, compared to Carter’s 45%). Democrats immediately moved to claim the gender gap for political mileage even as Reagan’s supporters struggled to understand what had happened.
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Some relatively obvious things had changed for the Republican Party in 1980. The party removed support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from its platform that year, after 40 years of relatively consistent support. Further, for the first time since Roe v. Wade was decided, there was a clear divide between the candidates on support for abortion rights, as Reagan was on the record supporting a constitutional amendment banning them. Interestingly, however, it was not at all clear these issues were driving the new gap in voting. Reagan’s own pollsters pointed out that a majority of both men and women supported the ERA and reproductive rights, but they still diverged in support for Reagan. What then was driving the gap?
In 1982, Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House of Representatives. Political analysts attributed this loss to the GOP’s continuing failure to win over women voters. A few days later, Reagan pollster Ronald Hinckley presented the administration with a memo analyzing the new voting pattern. The memo argued that Republicans’ biggest problem