Emily McConville | September 15, 2017
In the nearly 100 years since women won the right to vote, a conventional wisdom about the aftermath of the 19th Amendment developed.
Christina Wolbrecht believed that conventional wisdom needed to be challenged.
In her book, Counting Women’s Ballots: Female Voters from Suffrage to the New Deal, the Notre Dame professor of political science and her co-author, Western Michigan University political scientist J. Kevin Corder, investigated and often upended long-held assumptions about women’s suffrage and offered new insight into the largest expansion of the electorate in American history.
Their efforts earned them the American Political Science Association’s Victoria Schuck Award for the best book on women and politics published in the past year.
“People assume they know how the first women voted, but when you actually look at what they’re basing that on, it’s often literally just people saying, ‘Well, this is what I think happened,’” said Wolbrecht, who is also the director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and the C. Robert and Margaret Hanley Family Director of the Notre Dame Washington Program.
It is said, for example, that women simply did not turn out to vote, that they tended to vote for progressive candidates, and that they were not a significant factor in the electorate’s shift to the Democratic party in the 1930s. These myths persisted in part because women’s voting habits in the first few elections after 1920 went largely uninvestigated due to the poor availability of election data and surveys from the time.
To get around this problem, Wolbrecht and Corder employed a relatively new statistical approach to what is known as ecological inference. It involves gathering demographic data from small units, such as counties or townships in a state, as well as data on how many people voted for each party — or didn’t vote at all — in those same units, then combining those sets of data to infer how women voted on average in the state as a whole.