Symposium | The Missing Progressive Infrastructure

Reaching White Women

By Ilyse Hogue

Tagged activismFeminismpolitics

White women did not vote for Hillary. How many times have we heard this since the election?

Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, while our African-American counterparts voted for Clinton at a 94 percent rate, and Latinas at 70 percent. They pulled their weight and deserve a debt of gratitude along with investment and reinvestment into their winning strategies that ensure a more just country. We, on the other hand, did not. Now, we have to do more than admit there’s a problem; we must commit to do better.

The majority of white women have been voting Republican in elections for some time—an average of 54 percent going back to 2004. The grievous error made by political strategists was assuming that these women would break with voting patterns simply because there was a fellow white woman on the ballot and because of revelations about her opponent’s sexism. But they did not. And at the same time, white men have voted Republican by nearly a 60-percent rate over the same period.

Almost all of the focus since the election has been on how to win white male voters. But a strategy predicated solely on the sudden conversion of white men is misguided and comes at the expense of not just white women, but also communities of color. That strategy also shows a blind spot about who is responsible for shifting key states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico—states that were once bastions of conservative power, but whose fortunes have changed because of organizing in the Latino and African-American communities.

Simple mathematics dictates that if we care about Democratic majorities, we should start by winning back white women. If white women are moved either to vote or switch party affiliation by 8 percent in some places, that could secure victory when combined with an already reliable multiethnic coalition. We desperately need a concentrated program to reach white women voters who can put an already strong base of multiethnic coalitions over the top electorally. And that program has to be built around household economics.

First, let’s examine some truths about all women. From food to health care to cars, women make up 85 percent of purchasing decisions in the United States. Most women with kids under the age of 18 are in the workforce. Moms are twice as likely as dads to handle the cooking, and working mothers handle most of the childcare, even women who are primary breadwinners. We “know” the economy the way men often “learn” it. In fact, when John McCain in 2008 made the gaffe of not knowing the price of milk, most women just rolled our eyes, knowing this was less a function of him being an out-of-touch politician and more a function of him being a man who doesn’t do the grocery shopping.

If this is shared experience among women (correcting for class), white women have one key difference that sets them apart from other women. It’s the people around us—that most recalcitrant group of voters, white men. These women report actually having a gut instinct that voting for their families’ security might mean voting for a particular candidate but then having that instinct undercut by the white men in their lives—husbands, fathers, uncles, and bosses. White women are inextricably linked to social networks that vote against the interests of their families.

Our task is to provide a counterweight to these networks in these women’s lives. It’s not a question of policy or ideology: Most of these women are already with us on issues. It’s getting back to the first principles of organizing.

Listen to them and reflect on areas of their lives where they feel the most empowered: Anecdotes from this demographic show that most political jargon makes them feel alienated, and even phrases like “economic security” can invoke a sense of insecurity—that they need to be policy experts to participate in the conversation—when nothing could be further from the truth. Women are usually the ones who can calculate to the penny what they need to run the household, and they know intimately what one missed paycheck means in terms of family sacrifice. Until we acknowledge this as valued expertise, we will never be able to set up effective dialogue that draws these women into engaged progressive politics.

Make a year-round commitment to organizing: Like all people, this group views political candidates as the least trustworthy messengers. Yet too often, these women hear only from those inherent flawed messengers and often only three months before an election. We need to invest in durable organizing that recognizes not just one-on-one communication, but also the key role social networks play in this group. Marshall Ganz—chief architect of Obama’s winning organizing strategy—teaches that “movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning.”

We need a large-scale program that goes door-to-door to offer these women an opportunity to lead conversations in their own communities about rearranging their current meaning, which is rife with the misogyny that pervaded the last election, and finding what’s a good prescription for their overwhelmed lives.
We need to invest in regular sustained community gatherings that train on how to engage politically. We need to offer lessons on everything from leveraging technology to lobbying your elected official. This must be done with an eye toward building local leadership, never losing sight of the fact that there’s strength for women in numbers, and through known, strong female figures in the community. These tactics are not new, but have never been put to service at scale in this way.

Provide information to support confidence in their political decision-making: White men rely on their instincts, while white women report a desire to study and make well-researched decisions about their politics. Our job is to provide easily accessible and digestible information that fits into their daily lives, that they don’t have to venture too far to find. Let’s invest time and resources into understanding where they are in real life and online and be there, too. Once we identify where we can provide information, we must make that information sharable. Women trust their friends and neighbors, so once they have information that appeals to their daily lives, they can serve as conduits within their communities.

To win for the future, we cannot deviate from the path to power that we know works. We should invest in states where communities of color are already doing excellent organizing with excellent results. We need not abandon our principles or win all white women—some of whom will never be with us in principle. But by adding to those efforts a focus on communicating with a small and realistically movable percentage of white women, we can build winning majorities for 2018 and beyond

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Ilyse Hogue is an author, a social change practitioner, and a former leader of multiple progressive organizations, including NARAL Pro-Choice America.

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