Do daughters make you conservative?

A German man walks hand-in-hand with a little girl.

As any parent will tell you, having a child changes your life. But can it also change your politics? According to recent study, having a daughter could make you more conservative.

Sociologists Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher report that "parents with all daughters are 14% less likely to identify as a Democrat … [and] 11% more likely to identify as a Republican than parents with no daughters".

Not only that, but the better educated and wealthier you are, the more pronounced this effect is.

But what do these numbers mean? The New York Times' Ross Douthat has a theory: it's because parents are thinking about their daughters' "future happiness" - and possible heartbreak at the hands of men like Nathaniel P.

In case you're wondering, Nathaniel P isn't a real person. He's a character in Adelle Waldman's first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

"He's not the worst sort of guy by any means - not a toxic bachelor or an obnoxious pick-up artist," Douthat writes. "He's well intentioned, sensitive, mildly idealistic. Yet he's also a source of immense misery - both short-term and potentially lifelong - for the young women in his circle."

Douthat says the story of Nathaniel P points to the existence of a "romantic culture" where "sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn't been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices - marriage, kids - than do men". Men take advantage of this "social landscape" for easy sex, while women worry about finding a committed, long-term mate.

"Indeed, it seems like one of the hidden taproots of well-educated women's work-life-balance angst, and one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity," he writes.

So, parents turn to social conservatism, and its emphasis on female chastity, to protect their daughters from commitment-phobic, casual-sex-loving men.

Not surprisingly, Douthat's assertion has generated a fair amount of controversy. ("Say what you will about conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat," writes A Thinking Reed blogger Lee McCracken, "he certainly knows how to troll liberals.")

The New Republic's Marc Tracy talks to Waldman about her book and Douthat's citation of it, and finds they come to different conclusions about its meaning:

For Douthat, in his biological essentialism, this libertine culture is the end of the conversation: It is bad, especially for women, and the solution is for women to be more selective about sex and sexual partners. For Waldman, a believer in human autonomy and the ability of individuals to make good choices, it's the beginning. For one thing, it is unfair to place primary responsibility on women to fix this problem. And for another, it is less of a problem than Douthat makes it out to be.

Tracy concludes:

In my reading, Douthat makes the classic, noble conservative mistake of assuming that rigid social conventions must do the work that we cannot trust young adults to do themselves. Waldman's opinion (and mine) is that granting young men and women the social freedom to make their own way will result, most of the time and more times than not, in liberated decision-making that leaves everyone better off.

Other critics were less restrained in their take on Douthat's column. Salon's Jessica Grose writes:

Would the, and let me repeat here, fictional, thirtysomething female characters in Nathaniel P. have been better off if they had been married as virgins in their teens or early 20s? Considering the divorce rates in real life for couples who marry under the age of 25 (about 60 percent), I doubt these not-real women would have been happier. Women, in general, are not so fragile that one bad relationship with a kind of selfish but not horrible dude … is going to destroy them forever. Furthermore, women can believe in, want and desire sexual freedom and also not date selfish, preening men like Nathaniel. Douthat takes a pretty insulting view of men here, to assume that all they want to do is mislead women who desire relationships into thinking they are serious when they're not. (And do I even have to say that not all women want relationships? I guess since it's not obvious to Douthat, I do.)

The Atlantic's Olga Khazan argues that Douthat glosses over some important findings in the study. For one, the two researchers relied on voting data from the 1992 US presidential election - when Republican George HW Bush faced off against Democrat Bill Clinton, who was dogged during the campaign by accusations of infidelity.

"That fact might have naturally made him less popular among people who, with their daughters at the back of their minds, favored a culture of sexual fidelity," she writes.

In addition, Khazan notes, the study showed that parents of daughters were more likely to be in favour of legalised abortion.

"Parents of daughters, it seems, aren't drawn to the idea of a lost, sexually pure utopia," she writes. "They just don't want to be liable for the unwanted baby of the 16-year-old quarterback. And it would be tough to argue that support for abortion rights is a conservative or Republican value."

"Douthat is careful not to make too many claims for his 'Daughter Theory'," writes Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore, "but the idea that parents tacitly yearn for a Daddy State to take away the moral risks in their daughter's lives - presumably as an alternative to more material 'liberal' types of support - has to be the least persuasive We'll Bury You conservative pitch I've heard recently."

As for being the father of boys? I can personally attest to the fact that all it does is make you exhausted.