“[A]s is the case with every election, Tuesday’s outcome was multi-causal,” writes journalist Kathleen Geier at The Nation, crediting racism and sexism for their role in Donald Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton in the race for the presidency. But “I would like to identify an additional culprit: economic inequality, or more specifically, economic inequality among women.”
Women of color supported Clinton by wide margins–understandably so, because the Democrats have historically cared a lot more about their interests than the Republicans have. White women, however, flocked to Trump by a substantial margin and were crucial to his victory. Yet not all white women supported Trump: There was a yawning class divide in their vote. One widely used proxy for the working class is adults who lack a college degree. And while white women who are college-educated supported Hillary over Trump by 6 points, their white, non–college educated counterparts chose Trump by a margin of 28 points. That added up to a cavernous class gap among this group—34 points, 10 points more than that record-setting gender gap.
Class differences among women are an all but taboo subject. But scholars such as Leslie McCall have found that economic inequality among women is just as large, and has been growing just as fast, as economic inequality among men. This economic divide among women has created one of the most significant fault lines in contemporary feminism. That’s because professional-class women, who have reaped a disproportionate share of feminism’s gains, have dominated the feminist movement, and the social distance between them and their less privileged sisters is wide and growing wider. In the decades since the dawn of the second wave, educated women gained access to status jobs, but working-class women experienced declining wages and (because of the rise of divorce and single parenthood among the working class) shouldered an increasingly heavy burden of care. Yet mainstream feminist groups and pundits have consistently stressed the social and cultural issues that are most important to affluent women, while marginalizing the economic concerns of the female masses.
The class divisions between women came to a head in the 2016 election, when Big Feminism failed women, big-time. Mainstream feminists sold women a bill of goods, arguing that the election of a woman president would improve the lot of women as a class. Echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s dubious thesis, they claimed that leadership by women will as a matter of course produce gains for all women—though actually, the social science evidence for this claim is mixed at best. There was also a lot of talk about how having a woman president would “normalize” female power.
But if you’re a woman living paycheck to paycheck and worried sick over the ever-diminishing economic prospects for you and your children, you’re unlikely to be heavily invested in whether some lady centimillionaire will shatter the ultimate glass ceiling. Exacerbating the problem is that Clinton, the person whom feminists blithely assumed that working-class women would deeply identify with (because after all, didn’t they?) was such a painfully flawed candidate. In addition to a political record littered with betrayals of women, people of color, labor, and other key constituencies, she showed arrogance and terrible judgment by giving the Wall Street speeches and setting up her own State Department e-mail server. That was gross political malpractice.
Some of Clinton’s policy proposals were strong, especially her plans for paid family leave and expanded child care. But Clinton never found a way to craft a compelling message that persuaded people that she cared about people like them. It’s telling that she seemed far more relaxed and comfortable making speeches to Wall Street plutocrats than she ever was on a campaign trail. Also problematic was her campaign slogan, the fangurl-ish “I’m With Her.” Why not something more inclusive and democratic, like, say “She’s With Us”? In addition, in this moment of high populism, her many appearances with glitzy celebrities like Lena Dunham and Katy Perry did not help.
Indeed, Clinton’s failings as a candidate are among the reasons I’m not so sure that voter sexism determined the outcome of the election (though it surely played a role). It’s more likely that what ultimately did her in was not her gender but her failure to connect with voters. It’s easy to imagine other Democratic women, most notably the populist Democratic firebrand Elizabeth Warren, killing it this election. Unlike Hillary, Warren has the virtue of not being one of the architects of the failed policies of the past (NAFTA, Wall Street deregulation, etc.) that helped create the profound economic dislocation that so many working-class voters have suffered.
“If we want to end this nightmare and defeat Trumpism once and for all,” Geier continues, “we need to figure out how to win these voters back. It’s not like we have a choice.
Working-class whites are approximately one-third of the electorate.The Democrats will not be able to win national elections without peeling off more of their votes. Obviously, progressives should never make appeals to these voters’ racism and sexism (leave that to the Republicans). But we do have at least one powerful basis for common ground: economics.
White working-class women appear to be more open than men are to progressive appeals (62 percent of them voted for Trump, as opposed to 72 percent of their male counterparts). That suggests that the most promising path forward would be to agitate for a robust economic agenda focused on women’s needs: a $15 minimum wage, universal child care and pre-K, paid family leave, free college, and tough laws that crack down on wage theft and guarantee fair scheduling and equal pay for women. One of the strengths of such an agenda is that its appeal is hardly limited to women. In our brave new economy, increasing numbers of men now labor under the kinds of precarious working conditions—low wages, minimal benefits, little if any security—that have traditionally characterized women’s employment. Policies like these would help the men, too. They would not be not just righteous [sic], but politically pragmatic.
But it’s not only the Democratic Party that is badly in need of reform. The feminist movement, too, needs to reorient itself. Feminists would be well-advised to ease up on pop culture navel-gazing and corporate pseudo-feminist drivel like Lean In. They need to shift their central focus from the glass ceiling to the sticky floor, which, after all, is the place where most women dwell. A feminism that delivers for working-class women by addressing their material needs could expand feminism’s base and bring about a much-needed feminist revival. […] And should feminism once again become a vibrant bottom-up mass movement instead of a top-down elite concern, there’s no telling how far it could go.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly