“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.