Symposium | Can Women Save America?

White Women: Our Most Divided Voting Bloc

By Julie Kohler

Tagged Donald TrumpRacismRepublicansvotingWomen

On Election Day 2016, hundreds flocked to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite in Rochester, New York to place their “I Voted” stickers on her tombstone. Video from the day shows a steady stream of visitors, many of them white women, posing for pictures to commemorate what was anticipated to be a historic event: the election of Hillary Clinton as the first woman President.

It was a powerful image: women exercising the rights granted to them through Anthony’s long fight for suffrage—a right she never lived to see—in order to usher in a new chapter in our nation’s march toward gender justice. But it was not to be. And in the aftermath, when exit polls revealed that Hillary Clinton’s defeat was partially attributable to the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump, it became possible to see an alternative, less varnished story of white women’s politics that has shaped much of the last century. Just as Anthony and many of her white suffragist successors “compromised with white supremacy” in order win passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the majority of white women voted nearly 100 years later as they had since obtaining that right: by aligning their political interests with those of white men.

2016 was not an aberration, but the continuation of longstanding voting patterns. White women have voted Republican for the better part of the last 70 years. And yet, Donald Trump’s election proved to be a highly disruptive event that changed the political calculus for large numbers of white women. Many became politically activated and engaged at levels they had never been before—and have remained so ever since. White women swung Democratic by nine points in the 2018 midterms and played a significant role in Democrats’ state-level victories, including flipping the Virginia state legislature into Democratic control in 2019. As of this writing, Trump’s favorability ratings among white women hover around 42 percent. If such ratings were to translate into actual votes this November, Trump would receive the lowest levels of support from white women of any Republican presidential candidate in modern history.

But for all of the signs of change, much remains the same. Stacey Abrams received a mere 24 percent of white women’s votes in her groundbreaking 2018 Georgia gubernatorial campaign; in Texas, only 39 percent of white women voted for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. President Trump’s approval with white Evangelical Christian women remains high at 59 percent (although 11 points lower than its peak in September 2019 and 10 points lower than their male counterparts). Consequently, we are left with a set of seemingly contradictory possibilities. Are white women critical drivers of the resistance? The reliable defenders of the status quo? The persuadable voters who will play a decisive role this November?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. At 39 percent of the electorate, white women are our nation’s largest voting bloc. They are also our most divided, with voting patterns that split along religious, educational, and marital status lines. Every other demographic group votes more uniformly. Nationally, the margin of difference for white women’s vote has been within 10 points for every presidential election since 1992.

It is both the size of the voting bloc and the division within it that makes white women so politically relevant in the lead up to November. Make no mistake: It is women of color who comprise the progressive base. Any progressive power-building strategy must first prioritize base mobilization and expansion, particularly the engagement of new and infrequent women of color voters, as Abrams did in Georgia. Doing so is essential for advancing progressive policy and building a more inclusive form of grassroots politics by making, as Representative Ayanna Pressley says, “those closest to the pain . . . closest to the power.”

But there is also strategic value in organizing white women. Tactically, a relatively small percentage shift in white women’s votes can make a big difference in election outcomes, especially in many of the Midwestern states that will play an outsized role in November’s presidential election. And with Trump’s approval ratings with whites down six points from their apex, Republican Party political leadership becoming even more uniformly white and male, and a conservative voting base increasingly defined by hostile sexism, progressives have new opportunities to make inroads with disaffected Republican and Independent white women.

More fundamentally, progressive organizing with white women is necessary for realizing a long-imagined but not-yet-achieved vision of a functioning multi-racial democracy. At a moment in which racial divisions are being exploited by nefarious foreign actors attempting to destabilize American democracy and conservative forces intent on preserving power for an elite few, there is heightened urgency to the need. White women are being politically organized. The right has been organizing them for decades, through an extensive apparatus of churches, media, and authentic community networks. The question is whether progressives will work to build an opposing counterforce by forging meaningful connections with millions of white women—including those in conservative rural communities and small towns—around the promise of a more inclusive future.

There is potential in this perilous moment. But transactional models of political organizing cannot alone produce a significant or enduring shift in white women’s political interests. Politics are, in part, a public reflection and expression of the structural forces that organize our lives. Meaningful political realignment of white women requires a deeper reexamination of their proximity to white supremacist patriarchy—the ways it both privileges and harms us. Such work is highly relational. It requires that greater numbers of white women gain access to their own sources of political information, build trusting relationships, see evolutions in their relationships with family and community members, and develop a sense of political agency. It requires making politics a source of connection, not isolation. Ironically, the kind of organizing that can be most impactful in driving political change is that which doesn’t view a vote as the ultimate outcome.

White Supremacy and White Women’s Political Interests

Throughout our history, and particularly in the Trump era, it has been easy to put a white male face on racism and white supremacy and to view it as an extension of patriarchy—one that white women would be highly motivated to fight against. But doing so obscures the active role white women have played in perpetrating and maintaining racial and economic inequalities. White women have long supported and strengthened white supremacy, as historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRae shows. White women led the support for school segregation and Jim Crow in the South. Famously, white women like Boston’s Louise Day Hicks led the fight against busing in the North and became some of the nation’s leading voices of anti-integration in the 1960s and ’70s. As McRae says, white women “knitted [ideas about race] into the fabric of their communities.” They were not simply victims of false consciousness; they actively maintained racial hierarchies to their own (perceived) benefit.

It is no coincidence that some of the most successful organizing of white women has been conservative, focused on promoting and maintaining a traditional nuclear family, with roles clearly demarcated by gender. In the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly channeled angst over eroding post-war economic stability for the white middle-class into a mass political movement of conservative white women. Their agenda was built in opposition to civil rights and feminism, opposing things like the teaching of sex education in schools and tapping into a new, emerging political infrastructure taking hold in conservative churches and the suburbs of Orange County, California. Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign (whose acronym, which stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges,” spoke volumes about the race and class position of its supporters) was not only able to prevent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also set the governing worldview for the broader conservative movement and solidified a base of highly religious, “pro-family,” anti-abortion, white women activists and voters that has remained loyal to the Republican Party ever since. Of course, the images of nuclear family that Schlafly and others promoted were cultural ideals from which Black families were formally, socially, and economically excluded, and then stigmatized and shamed for failing to uphold.

Gender justice movements throughout history—from suffrage to modern-day feminism—have replicated the racial and class inequalities of society at large. White suffragists minimized Black women’s contributions to the movement and sold out their interests when it was politically expedient to do so, leaving Black women disenfranchised for decades after their own voting rights had been secured. Despite a rich history of Black feminist scholarship and activism, a great deal of liberal feminism, from The Feminine Mystique to Lean In, has remained centered on the experiences of middle- and upper-class white women. And plenty of progressive white women are tacitly complicit in the structural racism that shapes every aspect of American society, from the segregated housing patterns forged through decades of redlining and racist predatory lending practices to the inequitable public education systems they have produced, often to the benefit of white women and their families.

It would be ahistorical and naïve to think that such forces could be easily reversed—or that any particular election could demonstrate a loosening of white supremacy’s grasp on the political interests of those who, on the surface, at least, benefit most from it. (The intense racial backlash that followed Barack Obama’s election should permanently disabuse us of this notion.) But the ruthlessness with which the Trump Administration has attacked and vilified communities of color may be prompting more questioning and dissention, even among some who would have turned a blind eye to the dog-whistled political racism of yesteryear. Large majorities of white women—including majorities of evangelical Christian white women—disapprove of the President’s “speech and behavior” and oppose policies such as family separation, even as they simultaneously espouse other anti-immigrant beliefs. Granted, there is a wide gulf between finding Trump’s tweets distasteful and being invested in a progressive policy agenda centered on the experiences of the most marginalized. But such disapproval, even at the margins, creates openings for personal evolutions—and over time, larger scale political change.

Modern-day conservativism has no future without a majority—or at least near-majority plurality—of white women’s support. And while a broader progressive coalition that includes increased numbers of white women turned off by Trump and his ilk is no political panacea, it could provide a valuable starting point for a more inclusive political and policy agenda. Building a broader and more stable progressive majority helps overcome the most extreme barriers to racial and gender justice and has the potential to unlock political possibilities that have eluded our nation for much of the last half-century.

Realignment in Action

Amidst all of the political disruption of the last few years, a realignment in which greater numbers of white women become part of a more enduring progressive majority is far from inevitable. But it is possible. Achieving it requires deep investment in grassroots relational organizing at a level that far surpasses what currently exists. But here’s the good news: The seeds are there. There is important work happening all over the country, in communities large and small, with a wide array of white women.

Some of the activism is led by newly energized college-educated white women, the subgroup of white women whose political behavior was most visibly transformed post-2016. Historian Lara Putnam has chronicled how so-called “resistance” grassroots citizen action networks have morphed into permanent political infrastructure in suburban and exurban communities. At the heart of these emerging political forces are individual women—a retired librarian who recently became the Vice-Chair of her Township Democratic Committee; three women in a deep red pocket of southwestern Pennsylvania who met protesting the Muslim ban outside their local courthouse and are now running a grassroots community organization with more than 200 dues-paying members and an active political canvass operation. Their group, Voice of Westmoreland, was a force in Democrat Conor Lamb’s razor-thin 2018 special election victory in a conservative congressional district that Trump won by 20 points. In Ohio, private Facebook groups formed in the wake of 2016 to lament Trump’s election have been knitted together into a statewide organization of suburban women who meet up for wine-fueled political conversation—far away from the angry and divisive voices that populate cable news—and use targeted digital content to activate their personal networks for local political action.

Many community organizations whose work is not bound to a particular election cycle engage with a broader range of white women, including those without college degrees, and often alongside white men and people of color. ISAIAH/Faith in Minnesota, a faith-based organizing group, works in racially, ethnically, religiously, and geographically diverse congregations and mosques across the state. Their political education program is designed to transform the organization’s volunteer base, two-thirds of whom are women, from feelings of powerlessness to political agency—a trajectory ISAIAH staff call “moving people over the bridge.” For white women, this involves teaching them how to act in political solidarity with people of color by unpacking their own interests and taking joint action on local issues, such as paid sick leave. In 2018, ISAIAH/Faith in Minnesota was part of a coalition of local community and labor groups that helped beat back the Islamophobic political appeals that had gained real traction in 2016 by deploying a populist narrative campaign that encouraged Minnesotans to be “Greater Than Fear” through door-to-door canvassing, in-person events, local radio ads, and interactive social media memes.

Other community organizations are similarly confronting the types of divisive rhetoric that have been used as a political wedge in rural communities and small towns. Down Home North Carolina, which organizes poor and working-class community members in Appalachia around issues like affordable health care, has partnered with People’s Action on a “deep canvassing” program that engages community residents, at their doorsteps, with direct conversations about immigration. Their results show that relatively short conversations with community members, many of whom are white women, can prompt significant re-examinations of previously held assumptions in ways that are sustained weeks down the line. Such work has the potential to neutralize the effectiveness of conservative race-baiting tactics this November.

Common to all of this work is a belief that effective organizing meets people where they are and provides them with a path for deepening engagement over time. For many white women, such starting points may begin with political beliefs that are not uniformly progressive, as well as complicated relationships with family and community members. White women’s economic dependence on and close personal ties to white men are undoubtedly major influences on their perceived political interests. There is about a 10-point gap between married and single white women’s voting patterns, with single women being more progressive—a chasm that likely reflects a variety of interpersonal and structural factors, from direct voting pressure from their more conservative husbands to the more subtle ways that women’s economic interests become yoked to their husbands’ as a result of structural economic disparities like the gender pay gap. Gendered divisions of labor, including women’s disproportionate amounts of caregiving, domestic, and emotional labor—the responsibility women often have to “keep the peace” and reduce family conflict—can also cause them to avoid political discussions or disengage altogether.

Stories of white women undergoing political evolutions have emphasized the importance of having trusted friends or community confidantes to whom they can safely “come out” as questioning or dissenting from the dominant political orthodoxies of their families, churches, and communities. New organizations like GALvanize USA, which seeks to build political knowledge, confidence, and agency among women in small-town America by creating these kinds of “safe spaces,” both virtually and in-person. Jackie Payne, GALvanize USA’s founder and executive director, reports that participating women are hungry for connection, with some driving long distances to connect face-to-face with others they met in the organization’s private Facebook group. Others use the community forum as sounding boards for political information they have seen online or heard from husbands and other family members—a critical function in an environment in which misinformation is rampant and largely unchecked.

As we hurtle toward November, questions remain. Can organizing with white women go deep enough to begin to counteract the structural pulls that have long shaped their political interests? In a post-COVID-19 world, when organizing programs have had to shift to virtual, can sufficiently strong relationships with persuadable white women be built and sustained—especially across race and class lines?

An uncomfortable possibility is that the answer is “no.” The story of race in America—and white women’s role in it—is not a terribly hopeful one. “The great mythos of American life is the idea that we’re always improving, always moving forward,” historian Alonda Nelson said in a recent interview. Perhaps progressive white women have an inflated sense of optimism about the potential for racial solidarity because we have absorbed that myth. Perhaps we want to believe the best about our sisters and mothers and friends. Or perhaps we cling to vision of a multi-racial sisterhood because accepting the idea that it will never materialize would force us to question things we don’t want to question, including our belief in our own “goodness.”

All of those things may be true. And yet giving up is not an option. Those who oppose progress are not a static force. They will continue to organize white women’s political interests around an unjust status quo. Progressive white women have a responsibility to be part of the solution. “The mantle of ‘savior of America’ is far too heavy a load for black women to carry,” Brittney Cooper wrote in the wake of the Alabama Senate special election, when Black women’s overwhelming support for Democrat Doug Jones helped propel him to a surprise victory. “[F]or white feminists, organizing white women is the task at hand.”

The real question, then, is not whether some mythic “other” white women will come around politically, but whether progressive and feminist white women will do our part. Second-wave feminism helped millions of women recognize that the personal is political, to stop self-blame, and to act. For today’s white women to become an enduring force for equity, today’s intersectional feminism must help them navigate the reverse, developing new strategies for addressing the ways that the political is also deeply personal—and begins with each one of us.

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Read more about Donald TrumpRacismRepublicansvotingWomen

Julie Kohler is the president of BMK Consulting, a philanthropic and nonprofit strategy consulting firm, and the host of the Wonder Media Network podcast “White Picket Fence.” For more than a decade, she served as Senior Vice President and Managing Director for the Democracy Alliance, a progressive donor network.

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