by Zoe Samudzi
Over the past several months, white feminism’s investment in both the symbolism of a Hillary Clinton election and the terror of a Donald Trump victory had our social media platforms awash with white women’s memes and commentaries and battle cries about how they were “nasty women” who were “with her.” It seemed that Clinton’s near-inevitable (per many pundits) victory would be a rallying point for white women who believed in political progress, gender equality, and a woman’s capability to hold the highest office in the land.
It seemed this way, of course, until Donald Trump became the president-elect and the exit polls were released. Rather than coming out in support of Hillary Clinton—not just in support but also in deliberate opposition to Donald Trump’s misogyny—the majority of white women voters actually voted for Donald Trump, about 53%. By contrast, around 4% of black women and 26% of Latinas voted for him.
I wrote previously about the gender politics of the Republican Party’s simultaneous objectification-deification and violation of cisgender heterosexual white women. I said that “Enduring these violations and the violences on racially, gendered and abled ‘othered’ bodies means proximity to whiteness and the power that comes with it. And that power is intoxicating.” This support for Trump represents a continuation of the ways in which white women internalize being placed on a pedestal, the okayness with certain kinds of gendered and sexual violences, and, of course, their deep investment in the white supremacy and racial entitlements implied and promised by his politics.
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The rationale that many white women provided for his support revolved around his earnestness and candor, among other things. The Women Vote Trump 2016 campaign described the mythology of Trump’s “woman problem.” The campaign justifies his statements “because he‘s not working off a TelePrompter or a script fine tuned by a consultant and focus groups. And we know that when it comes to women – he walks the walk instead of just paying lip service to us.” They appreciated his action-oriented politics, the way that he will “shake up the status quo in Washington and put our country ahead of partisan politics,” and that he has the values to “keep famil[ies] safe from outside threats & illegal immigration.”
Even his sexual misconduct was justified as a demonstration of his virility, the legitimacy of masculinity vis-à-vis his heterosexuality and expressed desire for women. Steadfast Trump voter Jane Biddick explained her support for him despite his admission of sexual harassment saying: “I heard that he said something about groping women, and I’m thinking, Okay, No. 1, I think that’d be great. I like getting groped! I’m heterosexual. I’m a woman, and when a guy gropes me, I get groping on them! I grope them back. Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing.”
White women voted for Trump because he can ultimately empower white women in a way that Clinton cannot and could never. Despite having proximity to structural power as a former state senator and Secretary of State, Clinton is only conditionally rewarded by white cisheteropatriarchy because she is a woman. Her whiteness affords her a great deal of value, but her womanhood ultimately makes her disposable. Thus, she does not have the social power to “make white womanhood great again.” Donald Trump does, though. He is the male gatekeeper standing between white women and access to power within white supremacy. Because white womanhood as a social position was constructed by white men through white patriarchy, white women frequently look to white men for validation and affirmation. Many of these women are either willing to subsume their own interests for that of whiteness because of their internalizations of patriarchy or they earnestly believe that the flourishment of whiteness is necessarily also the flourishment of white women. Of course, history has demonstrated this not to be the case.
The underwhelming turnout of white women for Clinton also represents a rejection of the kind of woman that Clinton is perceived to embody. It is a rejection of a woman seen as underhanded, dishonest, careerist, calculating, and an agent of the establishment structures that allowed for the erosion of “American” values at the expense of good and upstanding hardworking working class white people. It is worth noting exit polls revealed 62% of white woman non-college graduates supported Trump whereas 51% of white woman college graduates supported Clinton.
It is also a deeply misogynistic (and at times anti-Semitic) rejection steeped in classed differences, where “crooked Hillary” accrues her wealth through her relationships with banks and big business whereas Trump’s wealth was a product of his business acumen. This is, of course, deeply ironic because Ivy League graduate Trump’s estimated $3.7 billion net worth far exceeds Clinton’s $31.3 million one, and Trump was both born into tremendous wealth and is arguably a mediocre businessman.
Black women overwhelmingly stayed faithful to the Democratic Party across educational levels—95% of black women without and 91% of black women with college degrees turned out for Clinton. Where black women supported the party perceived to represent diversity, inclusion, and social progress, white women supported the party of racial disenfranchisement, bigotry, and violent racism. This phenomenon is not simply “white feminism,” something that has turned into a catch-all descriptor for white women’s poor politics. This support represents white women’s complicity and investment in as well as benefit from white supremacy. Time and time again, white women have demonstrated that their interests and loyalties ultimately lie with their race prior to their gender. Despite the predictable blaming of people of color, third party voters, and abstainers for throwing the election for Trump, it would behoove pundits to more thoroughly excavate the quite central role of white women in sustaining and perpetuating white supremacy.
Zoe is an doctoral student in Sociology living in Oakland. She studies whiteness and structural violence as they both drive poor health outcomes in ethnic and gender minority communities.