When the initial shock of the unexpected result had passed, Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election left me pondering on one particular problem. Trump could not have prevailed without the support of women (women outnumber men in the US), and yet this was a race between a candidate whose key selling point was that she would be the first female politician to hold the office of US president and another whose habit of speaking in the most grotesque terms about women was exposed during the critical weeks of the campaign.
How could it be that any women – when asked to choose between putting a woman in the White House and a man who openly describes women as sexual objects and stands accused of sexual harassment – chose the latter? It’s very hard for me to understand. So I went to look at the numbers.
In fact, when you break down the polling data, there is one specific group of American women that leaned away from Clinton and towards Trump. Overall, women were more likely to vote for Hillary than The Donald – except white women without a college degree. That group, however, accounts for a large proportion of the US electorate and, in the end, it swung the result.
It is utterly depressing to have to accept the fact that so many women are, if only by proxy, colluding in their own subjugation, but to understand why it has happened is incredibly important. There are, I think, a number of reasons.
First, women without an education are not protected from the worst expressions of sexism on a daily basis in the same way that women with an (in the US, incredibly expensive) college education are. Middle-class women in graduate roles may suspect that there are men in their midst who speak of them in the most revolting terms, or who question their abilities based on their gender, but they are far less likely to be directly exposed to those attitudes. In such circles, Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” tends to happen in male-only spaces, so for those women the terms that the President-elect used were shocking in their vulgarity. For some floating voters, it may have been a determining factor.
Not so for poorer women, whose communities do not include such a language filter, and who are more likely to hear these more coarse examples of misogyny every single day. When Donald Trump’s comments about women hit the headlines – he said, lest you need a refresher, that he could get away with grabbing a woman “by the pussy” because, when you’re famous and a white man, “you can do anything” – it was no surprise to them that he spoke in this manner. And, sadly, no barrier to office for them either. In fact, it may have even played into his electoral strategy; he came across as “just one of the boys”.
Repeat exposure to sexism such as this breeds familiarity rather than contempt. Of course this language is not acceptable, but to be treated as a second-class citizen, and abused verbally and sexually by the men around them, is routine for so many. The less economic power a woman has, the less social power she can exert in fighting back against such maltreatment. Sexist behaviour becomes normalised. Boys will be boys.
There’s another factor at work too. Working-class women without an education often find the only way they can exert power and control in their own lives is through their influence as mothers and matriarchs. It is quite understandable that those who have little financial freedom or opportunity seek to exploit social power in other ways, seek to protect that right to do so.
For some, the forces of feminism can seem like the pressure to give up what little power they do have (in the home) in favour of the chance to progress in a sphere where they have very little power and know they are unlikely to obtain much future power (the workplace). For those women, the image of Hillary Clinton strolling up the neatly-mown lawns towards the door of White House on her first day as the first female president perhaps felt less like the opening of the gates of opportunity than a retreat from the only opportunities those women have.
Of course, that is a gross misinterpretation of feminism, which has always been about giving women and men the power to exert choice over how they live their lives both within and outside the home. But it’s easy to understand how such perceptions are formed – particularly when so many women who talk openly about the need for feminism are college-educated and use terminology and life experiences to describe their desires that are utterly alien to the women they are trying to reach.
Women emerging from the ballot box, when asked about their preferences, did not, of course, give any of these reasons for voting for Trump over Clinton. Many interviewed by journalists outside polling booths spoke of their concerns about immigration, how they felt it was driving down wages and pushing them of out of the low-paid work they once had. Similar claims are often made in the UK, even though data analysis routinely proves that the biggest influence on quality of life and economic opportunity for working-class communities is economic growth and how the proceeds of growth are used. Immigration, we know, is good for growth and has an overall positive effect.
Immigration is not the most pernicious influence in these women’s lives. That award goes to the sexism and misogyny that keeps them in their place, from a gendered education system that affects their opportunities from day one to sexist attitudes in the workplace and at home. It’s so pervasive that they have internalised it, perceiving Hillary Clinton as the greatest threat to their way of life, rather than the biggest opportunity they have been offered in decades.
In turn, these women are willing to vote in a man who has boasted about the way he uses power to manipulate women and get what he wants from them – the absolute, gold-standard definition of the patriarchy at work. It is a huge retrograde step in the fight for gender equality in the West, and it’s important to understand why women helped it happen.
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