The myth of female solidarity

Published Nov. 13, 2016

The dream of female solidarity is, and always has been, a myth.

Hillary Clinton's campaign tried to tap into that dream. She dressed in white, evoking the suffragists and the hope of shattering the highest glass ceiling. She played up issues like child care and equal pay that polling showed had cross-party, cross-gender support. Her ads pounded away at Donald Trump's misogyny, hoping to lure women who would be reminded of all they had suffered in their own lives.

Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump.

The dream that women would vote for a woman overlooked the seductive pulls and interactions among party, class and racial identity that have long divided women as much as their gender was assumed to unite them.

"From the 19th century on, women saw themselves as different, cleaning up and perfecting the public sphere," said Theda Skocpol, a professor of sociology and government at Harvard. "The early suffragists believed as soon as the vote came in, women would show the same sense of solidarity. But that didn't prove to be true at all."

The first rule of political scientists who study gender is that party identification is the surest predictor of how someone will vote. And at the end of the day, Republican women voted Republican.

"Whether there's a D or an R in front of your name is way more a cue to the voters than the presence or absence of the Y chromosome," said Jennifer L. Lawless, a professor of government at American University.

Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster, said, "Democrats never win white women."

While Democrats have won some blue-collar white women in the past, in this election, class emerged as a powerful and divisive force that swung decisively Republican. All the talk about angry white men glossed over the fact that they were married to angry white women.

Education was the great divide, for women as for men. Trump won 62 percent of white women without college degrees; Clinton, 34 percent.

"Class shapes gender identity," said Nancy Isenberg, author of White Trash, which examined how elites have derided rural, working-class Americans from the Colonial era to this day. "I think a lot of people who support Trump think of themselves as being disinherited. They resent the fact that everything they believe in is mocked by the media elite, Hollywood, those boogeymen."

In the aftermath of the vote, the internet was flooded with plaintive and angry accusations of betrayal from African-Americans and Latinas who noted that they had voted for Clinton by large majorities.

"That sense of betrayal is sincere and comes from a place in which there was an optimism about solidarity from white-collar women," said Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's not like black people or Latino people aren't sexist and patriarchal. But when we thought about our self and collective best interest, we voted for Clinton."

Racial fears and competition played a role for women as they did for men.

"There is a racial element to this," Isenberg said of the white working-class women's votes for Trump. "They do what's right. Go to church. Try to support their families.

"They turn around and the rug is being pulled out from them. Groups who they see as economic competition, African-Americans and immigrants, they're getting an advantage that is not extended to poor rural whites."