Having fueled the marches, the #MeToo movement, and a surge of women candidates now prevailing at the polls, women’s activism shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s assaults on women—from pay equity to health care—are relentless, and Trump’s nomination of staunch conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court threatens women’s constitutional right to an abortion and access to birth control.
Women of color have long formed the progressive base, but as November nears, a question looms: How will white women vote? Will greater numbers of white women finally become part of a more enduring progressive majority? Or will old, structural pulls, including white women’s economic dependence on and personal relationships with, white men, maintain the status quo? The answers could lie in political journeys of women like Lynn Rankinen.
Rankinen has a short, graying blond bob and bright blue eyes. Her speech is peppered with long, flat, Upper-Midwestern vowels. Rankinen worked as a public-school speech-and-language pathologist for 34 years before retiring in 2015. The mother of two grown sons, she lives with her husband in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, and is a member of a local Lutheran congregation. Although consistent majorities of white women have for decades voted Republican, women like Rankinen might just change that pattern.
Rankinen has always identified as a Democrat, but said she only recently became “political”—the result of her desire to become more engaged, post-retirement, and her outrage over Trump’s victory. In the summer of 2016, she got involved through her church with a local organizing group, ISAIAH/Faith in Minnesota, attending meetings in support of a safe- and sick-time ordinance in St. Paul. Post-election, her involvement with ISAIAH deepened, and Rankinen joined her local Indivisible chapter, the League of Women Voters, and a progressive social group, Drinking Liberally. This June, she attended her first Democratic Party convention as a “faith delegate.”
“It was just fabulous,” she said. “Exciting and uplifting. What we can do together is very powerful.”
But at home, politics is a source of isolation and pain. Rankinen’s husband voted for Trump. Their political views have always differed—they used to joke that they canceled each other out at the polls—but his continued support for Trump has shaken her. She used to think they disagreed on policy, but now questions whether they share the same values. “Even if we can somehow redefine our relationship, it is never going to be the same,” said Rankinen. “I can’t ever have the emotional intimacy that I once had.”
The political awakening of women like Rankinen matters. White women are the largest voting bloc, representing 69 percent of the women’s vote and 39 percent of all voters. If trends from the recent Alabama and Virginia elections are sustained, and increased turnout in communities of color is coupled with a surge of progressive white women voters, it could portend a more permanent political realignment. Donald Trump could do to white women what Pete Wilson did to Latinxs in California: drive them out of the Republican Party for a generation to come.