In 2012 women were discovered and many experts stepped forward to discuss them. Electoral candidate Todd Akin was able to enlighten us all when he decided that a woman could not become pregnant if she was “legitimately” raped. There was another expert on the same topic, candidate Richard Mourdock, who also seemed to be incredibly well informed about women and rape. There was a summer-long discussion about how women will vote, and what matters to them. Women were everywhere we looked, except that no woman seemed to have spoken on the topic. Governor Romney decided to join the debate with his disclosure that he requested information about women and “received binders full of them.” Like all newly discovered species there was apparently much that we did not know about their behaviors or what we could expect from this group of people who actually compose more than half of our population.
My psychology class was very intrigued by the idea that women were a monolithic group about whom we knew little, and hypothesized that there was no real difference in the ways men and women think. We began from there and developed a survey to give to students and adults in our community. Our first two questions related to the issues included on the Massachusetts Ballot: the right to die (or death with dignity) and the legalization of medical marijuana. Our third question asked each respondent was what values were important to them when deciding how to choose a president. The survey did not ask anyone to state their name, but every respondent was asked to reference their gender. Community members Kimberly Cartwright, Ryan Searle, Tom Rancich and Wade Johnson came in to talk to our class about the issues that were important to them.
The class counted the returns and found to their immense surprise that women and men seem to have completely different values when it comes to deciding how to vote in a presidential election. This finding was not so obvious when looking at just the ballot questions, though. Overall both questions were endorsed and there was no discernible difference between male and female preferences. The right to die question was approved by 85 per cent of those surveyed compared with 11 per cent disapproving and 4 per cent undecided. The legalization of medical marijuana had a majority of 73 per cent while 23 per cent dissented and 4 per cent were undecided.
But when asked what their top five concerns were, female and male respondents showed marked differences. For women, the top concerns were: 1. Women’s reproductive rights, 2. Healthcare, 3. Education, 4. Jobs, 5. Gay Rights. For our males the issues were startlingly different: 1. Debt and the deficit, 2. Economy, 3. Military, 4. Taxes, 5. Jobs.
Based on our survey of 200 plus people, it would appear that women are not just like men.
Reflecting on this data, student Carter D’Angelo tried to decide how much of the differences we observed was innate and how much was ingrained from an early age.
“For me this is a clear sign that the gender imbalance in our political system is negatively affecting our abilities to see all sides of different issues, and put them all on the same level of importance,” he said. “We have learned a lot about obedience, both the conscious form of obedience to authority and the unconscious obedience we label as conformity . . . that has a lot to do with gender roles and how they have affected our mindsets and actions.”
The question of conformity was also interesting to Mariah Campbell who noted that “obedience is a scary thing. It allows processes to happen quickly and with less complications. The scary part is that it displaces responsibility. It gives one the illusion that our actions are not of our own accord.”
Classmate Bella Bennett, who voted for the first time in this election, noted that she had made up her mind about whom to vote for before we did the study. “After hearing what many people around me looked for, I was able to identify many other traits that I feel are necessary.”
Senior Thomas Wilkins offered a male perspective. “Our study of gender has opened my eyes to the fact that men and women don’t think alike. This has made me question the government, or any authority, because you never know who proposed a certain idea and now I realize you have to take in a lot more than I thought in order to get a fair and equal proposal or answer to a problem.”
Charlotte Benjamin echoed the theme of representation. “At first we thought that men and women didn’t feel differently but after our study we found out that they really do and I would recommend putting more women in politics and leadership, seeing as our government is mainly men but they don’t speak for all of the population. They represent half of it.”
For many of the students involved in the study the most important aspect of our findings was that all people are human and have more in common than they don’t.
“I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but above all, everyone should be given 100 per cent equal opportunities,” argued Lucy Norris. “Men and women are both human.”
Brad Segal shared that view, noting that “men and women tend to value different things, but we are all still human.”
Not everyone was convinced of the results of our data. For Alexis Willett it was really hard to imagine that men and women are really different from each other. “In our class there were so many different suggestions that even though it is true that women were much more concerned about health issues and men about the military it’s hard to say that we think differently from each other.”
Issues such as sexism, obedience and conformity are tough questions for young people to study but they did an impressive job of gathering data. Perhaps the last word should be left to senior Tjark Aldeborgh.
“Men and women will always be different and there is not much we can do.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is history department chair at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and her psychology class conducted a survey to find out the role that gender plays in how we vote.