I watched the election returns with a friend and her 14-year-old daughter, Kristiana. They were both wearing Wonder Woman t-shirts in anticipation of the moment that night when Hillary Clinton blasted through the highest glass ceiling. My friend, a lifelong feminist and a news junkie, was confident of victory: She’d purchased two jeroboams of Prosecco. Kristiana, a passionate young vlogger on Tumblr, sat next to me on the couch, composing a sci-fi story for her creative writing class about a female physician who discovers a cure for leukemia; but before she can try it, hackers steal her memory, which has been downloaded on a flash drive. (There’s a metaphor here that I’m still working on.) Two hours into our vigil, the news turned grim. And as the CNN map began to fill with crimson, I watched the color drain from the face of my young seatmate. Kristiana fell deathly silent, then began to shake. She was exhibiting all the signs of someone about to go into shock. “I wish I were old,” she finally burst out, her voice quavering, her eyes locked on her mother and me. “I have to grow up in this. You at least have had a life. This is going to be my life.” I put my arm around her, but I could summon no words of comfort. I was as shaken as she was. And as terrified for her future.
I was faced that night with a question that so many older feminist women were facing: How had we gotten this election so wrong? I couldn’t suppress the sickening feeling that, by our own obliviousness, we’d let down Kristiana—and a whole generation of young women.
There are those who believe, per the old anarchist mantra, that everything must be destroyed before we can commence the revolution. Or, to frame it in feminist terms, the glass ceiling won’t be shattered until women and women’s rights have been kicked into the basement. The root cellar may well be where we find ourselves, in a country stripped of rights and laws fundamental to women’s equality—from legal abortion to national health coverage to pay equity to equal opportunity legislation—and commanded by a man who regards women as arm candy and sex toys or “dogs” and “pigs” to be slandered and humiliated. (Not to mention the misogyny of the men he’s likely to have by his side: chief strategist Steve Bannon?) Perhaps four years under such a President will be the long-awaited wake-up bell for the final women’s rebellion. If so, it will be a rebellion that will first have to restore more than a half century of work just to get back to where we were on Nov. 7, 2016.
Since Seneca Falls, the women’s movement has been a matter of two steps forward, one step back, a never-ending march where declarations that “the woman’s hour has struck!” are invariably met with setback and disappointment. “While men proceed on their developmental way, building on inherited traditions,” feminist historian Dale Spender wrote years ago, “women are confined to cycles of lost and found.” But for all the stops and starts, we’ve never had to face in modern times what we may be in for now: a complete 180, no steps forward and 200 steps back.
So here we are, looking into the abyss. But there’s something that may be even worse: The horror of the steep descent to come is compounded by our shame that we didn’t see it coming. “I’m in total shock,” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), blurted out in a media interview the day after election. “Quite honestly, I feel that I’ve failed…the women’s movement was clearly not able to break through to women nationally.”
So many feminists, myself included, were blindsided. We took cheer from the stories of erstwhile female Trump supporters switching horses after the hot mic video of Trump’s boorish preenings surfaced. We thrilled to the reports of more than a million women joining Facebook’s “secret” Pantsuit Nation page in the final days before the election and the polls in late October predicting a Hillary Clinton landslide. We believed—in spite of the unmitigated Republican assault, in spite of the vitriol spewed 24/7 on Fox News and Breitbart and countless other reactionary mega-megaphones, and in spite of Clinton’s own missteps and weaknesses and inabilities to wow the crowds—that there was still a shoulder-to-shoulder groundswell building quietly among women across the country, a wave that was bound to crest on Election Day. We felt sure that Trump’s sexual outrages would unite the female masses. We missed a major danger flare, coming from the ranks of our own sex.
It was a heartache to read the exit polls: 53 percent of white women voting for Trump (compared with 4 percent of black women and 26 percent of Latina women). And while a slim majority of college-educated white women supported Clinton (51 percent), white women without college degrees backed Trump by 62 percent. In the 48 hours after the shock waves of the election results hit, young feminist writers hit the Web to vent their rage at Trump’s female followers. They had “sold out the sisterhood” and “betrayed” the feminist cause. They were “misogynist,” “racist,” “self-loathing,” “selfish”; they were “haters” of women of color, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, and people with disabilities; they were so “self-deluded” that they “like getting groped; they were handmaidens and hand puppets of their racist, sexist husbands, so desperate for patriarchal support that they’d betray their own sex for a few breadcrumbs of male approval.
Maybe some of these Trump women deserved all the calumny. Maybe some of them were, in fact, masochistic marionettes of Archie Bunker mates. But how would we know? One of the great failures—of the many failures of our broken and barely functional Fourth Estate—was the lack of substantive reportage, much less intelligent diagnosis, on the state of mind of white working-class women. (New York Daily News columnist Leonard Greene was one of the few to note the void. “We’ve heard so much these last four years about the ‘angry white man,’ so it’s no surprise that 63% of white men voted for Trump,” he wrote the day after the election. “Well, guess what. White women were angry, too, but we were too busy staring through the glass ceiling and admiring the Jacob Javits Center for its symbolism to notice.”)
But it wasn’t only the establishment media that failed to listen. For all the talk about online feminism mobilizing a global sisterhood, and for all the back-patting among progressive women in the academy about how “intersectional” we are these days, the feminist blogosphere paid little mind to the conditions and circumstances of that vast demographic of women who didn’t fit the stock three types of a feminist taxonomy: urban left intellectual, grass-roots crusader for the marginalized, professional Lean-In-er. Did white working-class women betray feminism, or did feminism betray them?
And here’s something more to consider. White working-class women were thought to be in Clinton’s corner until 2016. From her 2000 U.S. Senate race through the 2008 presidential primaries, Clinton perplexed many white-collar pundits with her strong showing among women lacking college degrees. “The backbone of her support, going back to her first US Senate race seven years ago, remains among those who resemble her the least,” the Boston Globe marveled in 2007. “One constituency she consistently wins hands-down is working-class women.” In Newsweek’s review of the 2008 book Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers—an anthology (by professional female journalists) virtually based on the premise that women don’t like Clinton—the magazine wondered, “How, then, to explain that polling has consistently shown blue-collar women have rallied to Clinton’s campaign?”
But in the course of the 2016 race, Clinton’s support among white working-class women fell away. Why? Did they resent her ambition in a time when their own got them nowhere? Did the you-go-girl cosmopolitan feminism on display during the campaign rub them raw? Did they suspect upwardly mobile professional women of taking away jobs that might have gone to men who would have supported them? Did Trump fulfill their secret fantasies that a sugar daddy might come along and rescue them from their troubles? Did they believe their future security lay not in government programs but in the revival of a father-knows-best household? Was it all about abortion? Who knows—it was a phenomenon that drew scant notice in the media and few attempts to understand and redress it among feminists or Clinton supporters, even as it rivaled working-class male enthusiasm for Trump.
We can hurl all the epithets we want at Trump’s female voters, but it won’t change the outcome. (And aren’t we the ones who, a la Michelle Obama’s counsel, promised to go high when they go low?) There’s only one path out, and that is a mass voter mobilization for a women’s rights candidate in the next election. What we need to do now is to figure out a way to forge a real cross-class feminist collaboration. That will mean putting aside our identity badges and our squabbles over who gets the laurels in the victim-sweepstakes contest. It will mean trying to understand what Angry White Women are actually up against.
As it happens, white working-class women are struggling with economic woes that a class-conscious women’s movement would be best positioned to address. What do blue-collar women consistently rate in polls as their number-one concern? Pay equity. And no wonder: They are now as segregated as they were in 1950. And it’s only gotten worse with the next generation: Young women in blue-collar communities now face the greatest gender pay gap in the country. Meanwhile, there’s the other gap: not the one between men and women, but the one between working-class women and their more educated sisters, which has ballooned dramatically in the last two and a half decades.
The belief that working-class women are just doing their bully-boy husbands’ bidding doesn’t hold up under inspection, either. The marriage rate has fallen most dramatically among working-class women. (Less than 48 percent without college degrees are married, compared with 64 percent with a college diploma. By contrast, in 1960 the two groups were as likely to be wed.) That means an equally dramatic increase of working-class women struggling to support families on their own. Since 2000, as many households have depended on a single mother as the sole source of income as on a traditional male breadwinner. What would speak to these female heads of household is a robust feminist agenda that attends to their real social and economic concerns.
We’re a country that wants to pretend class doesn’t exist, and American feminism wears those blinders, too. But not always. In the late nineteenth century, a critical mass of bourgeois female reformers and working-class women came to regard economic rights as the key to women’s elevation—and advocacy on behalf of female laborers as the path to achieving it. That effort garnered one of its greatest successes in the same state that nurtured Clinton’s political beginnings: Starting in the 1880s, the Illinois Woman’s Alliance brought together almost every women’s organization in Chicago, from suffragists to unionists to socialists, forced a Congressional investigation into female sweatshop labor and pushed through the state’s Factory and Workshop Inspection Act, creating an eight-hour day for women and children and banning factory labor for children under 14. Cross-class collaboration is not only possible among American women; it’s essential.
While we’ve been busy bemoaning Angry White Men, their sisters are becoming the face of their class. As Julia Sonenshein noted in her excellent October 2016 article in Politico, “most of the white working class”—53 percent—“is actually female.” They will be joined by vast numbers of millennial women, who face an economic climate that has placed them in worse financial straits than their parents. Already, record proportions of young women now identify as working class.
I look at Kristiana, the devoted young feminist, and fear for her future—and pray that we can mobilize a future women’s movement to come to her generation’s aid. “I don’t know the path forward,” NOW head Terry O’Neill said as she made her circuit of the media on November 9, “but we need to find a way together, we need to get serious about solidarity.” We could do worse than to start building a sisterhood with that vast swath of women who may need feminism the most, whether they know it yet or not.