“What’s wrong with white women?” has become a common refrain in progressive political circles. Majorities of white women cast ballots for Donald Trump, despite the fact that Trump faced a highly qualified female opponent who would have shattered the ultimate glass ceiling. The same was true for Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who (as did Trump) faced multiple allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. In Moore’s case, the allegations involved sexual advances towards teenage girls as young as 14.
These elections were not aberrations; white women have voted Republican for the better part of the last three decades. Women of color, black women especially, are responsible for the so-called gender gap in electoral politics and form the core of the progressive base.
Yet we also hear stories of emerging activism among newly mobilized constituencies such as formerly apolitical white suburban soccer moms who, spurred into action by Trump’s unique blend of misogyny and instability, spent 2017 donning pink hats, organizing huddles, and flooding congressional switchboards. A multiracial surge of women has begun transforming anger into action, declaring #MeToo; holding previously impervious men accountable for their harassing and assaulting ways; joining in long-standing social-justice movements; and running for office in record numbers.
What is actually transpiring? Are we in the early stages of a political realignment, in which white women will follow Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards’s call to “own the problems of the present,” doing their part to fix systemic inequality by forging a common sisterhood with women of color, in the voting booth and beyond? Or is the recent attention to white women’s political awakening a distraction from the harsh reality that throughout history—including the white suffragist and feminist movements—white women have all too often aligned their political interests with those of white men? In the wake of the Alabama Senate election, Rutgers University gender and Africana studies professor Brittney Cooper called on white feminists to stop “thanking black women for protecting the nation from the voting patterns of white people” and begin “organiz[ing] white women.” But is it possible, as Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory said, for white women to get their “Becky situation[s] in order”? Can greater numbers of white women be organized politically—in ways that build racial solidarity?
To understand the “white woman story,” we must first acknowledge that white supremacy remains the prevailing force in electoral politics—that, as Melissa Harris-Perry noted, “there is a race [voting] gap of enormous proportions and a gender gap of very slim margins in this country…. gender politics is a secondary game, not the main show.” Data consistently support this statement; the race gap between black and white voters in modern elections runs 40–50+ points, whereas the gender gap runs about 10. That said, white women are not a monolithic voting bloc, and their voting behavior is highly related to the interplay of several factors: heterosexual marriage, education, and religion. There was a 20-point gap in support for Hillary Clinton between college-educated (56 percent) and non-college-educated (36 percent) white women in 2016. But there was also significant within-group variation, with support for Clinton 10+ points higher among unmarried women than married women and roughly 30 points higher among non-evangelicals than evangelical Christians across all educational levels.
Such associations are significant because they reveal how systemic influences like marriage and evangelical Christianity interact with white supremacy to influence white women’s political behavior, through the explicit ideologies they propagate and the more insidious ways they reflect and perpetuate other structural inequalities. Some white women face voting pressure from their more-conservative husbands, a dynamic Hillary Clinton acknowledged in her analysis of her 2016 election loss. But there are also structural forces at play that influence what individuals experience as rational choice. The gender pay gap, for example, has the practical effect of privileging men’s careers—particularly white men’s—over women’s and yoking white women’s economic interests to their husbands’. So for some married white women, a vote for the Republican candidate may appear to be the self-interested choice. Conversely, there are reasons why the most progressive voting blocs of white women are college educated and unmarried. College-educated women’s greater earning power makes them less economically dependent on men and less likely to prioritize the political candidate that will best protect a husband’s earning potential. Unmarried women, meanwhile, experience gendered barriers to economic prosperity most starkly, with no second income to mitigate their effects. For them, a candidate who strongly supports policy positions like equal pay will likely have more appeal.
Given the overall statistics—and the entrenched structural power of marriage and religion—some have appropriately questioned whether white women’s post-Trumpian political awakening is merely the latest form of feel-good pop feminism: women sporting “The Future Is Female” T-shirts and marching with their book clubs, but failing to show up at the polls. And yet, an early model from the Virginia gubernatorial election by Catalist, a progressive data company, suggests that there was a swing—and surge—among college-educated women, with Democratic support up 8-9 points and their percentage of the electorate up 1-2 points from recent national averages. If the model holds, and this suggested pattern is sustained through November and beyond, then we may be seeing the early days of a new American majority that includes, if not an outright majority of white women, much healthier majorities of certain subgroups.
Such news may buoy the spirits of white feminists, but we must take care not to overstate the magnitude of this potential shift—or make this moment too much about ourselves. For even if there are some short-term tactical opportunities to increase white women’s support for Democratic candidates, it is impossible to know how strong or enduring such an expanded coalition might be. Plenty of white women may be disgusted by Trump and his ilk but not “in it to win it” when it comes to a progressive policy agenda centered on the experiences of the most marginalized. Investments in mobilizing newly activated white women must be the frosting atop a cake of much deeper investment in year-round organizing in communities of color—those best poised to lead and drive real progressive change.
And what of the other white women—those who are married and active in conservative faith traditions, whose values and cultural norms remain largely foreign to white secular feminists? According to Brie Loskota, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, the question of whether they are “organizable” for progressive purposes is presumptuous. First, she says, it views such women as “objects of study” or “problems to be solved.” But more fundamentally, given that many of these women may already be politically organized within conservative and political religious networks, it suggests the goal is a society that thinks alike—one in which deep divisions are not tolerated, let alone respected or reconciled. Rather, she says, progressives and conservatives alike must embrace a vision of the body politic that allows people with different perspectives to coexist respectfully. Change is possible, she claims, as evidenced by some evangelical Christians’ evolution on LGBTQ issues, but it occurs not just through political pressure and policy wins. Building authentic relationships across dimensions of difference can be a transformational part of the equation, one that can work better than simply trying to “bludgeon people into becoming their higher selves.”
The work Loskota describes is long-term and transcendent, not short-term and tactical. It is based on a belief that a better society is derived not just from progressive governance but by cultivating meaningful relationships with those with whom we virulently disagree yet share some points of commonality. It bears noting that this is the kind of work at which women excel, whether it be the bipartisan cooperation facilitated by the US Senate women’s monthly supper club or the recently formed bipartisan women’s caucus in the Illinois legislature. In a #MeToo era, it is intriguing to ponder the opportunities feminists may have to forge common ground with evangelical women who, through their ministries, have begun speaking up on sexual harassment and assault, launching a #SilenceIsNotSpiritual campaign and even tiptoeing into the political fray when allegations against Trump and Moore first surfaced.
White women do not—and likely never will—constitute the progressive base. But in this unique political moment, there is evidence that some white women may be reprioritizing their political interests. If so, this would be a welcome, if overdue, development, not only for its near-term electoral implications but also for the more constructive public discourse, policy change, and fundamental realignments of power it could help support.