Why Did a Majority of White Women Vote for Trump?– Sarah Jaffe

No single fact about the highly improbable election of Donald Trump seems to be more confounding than the fact that Trump’s margin of victory included a slim majority of white women voters.

White women were presumed to be in the bag for Hillary Clinton; after all, she would be the first woman president. When the tape of Trump bragging about what sounded a lot like sexual assault hit the airwaves, reporters assumed—not for the first time—that his campaign was toast. Yet on Election Day, 53 per- cent of white women voters pulled the lever for Trump. Clinton won women voters overall, but that puzzling number has befuddled commentators or eluded their attention completely.[1]

[O]n Election Day, 53 percent of white women voters pulled the lever for Trump.

Part of this befuddlement is an inability to imagine gender as just one of a variety of factors that play into a voter’s choice at the polls. The concept of “intersectionality” has gained popularity in recent years in social movements, explaining the way people’s identities are multiple and overlapping. Women are not merely women: they are working-class women, black women, wealthy women, mothers. They are queer or transgender, they are Christians or Muslims or Jews, they work at McDonald’s or Goldman Sachs. Women may be multiply oppressed, might be black, Muslim, low-wage workers,  or  they  may,  like  Clinton  herself, struggle with sexism but benefit from wealth, education, and connection to a powerful man. Each of those identities plays into the choice women make in the voting booth.

The reality is complicated, of course. There are many reasons why women chose the blustering billionaire, and most of them overlap in ways that are impossible to pull apart. Data are hard to come by—exit polls tend not to separate out voters by more than one or two identities at a time, meaning we know how white women voted and even how white women without college degrees voted, but not married white women with low-wage jobs who go to church every Sunday. Still, we have enough information to take a stab at understanding a few categories of Trump-voting women: the wealthy, the white supremacist, the evangelical, the security voter, and the worker.

Before we dive in, a few general facts to start us off. Despite Clinton’s presence on the ballot, turnout among women was only 1 percentage point higher than it had been in 2012; 63.3 percent of voting-eligible women com- pared with 59.3 percent of men came out at all. Of the 73.7 million women who voted, 53.1 mil- lion of them identified as white, non-Hispanic. Clinton struggled particularly with white, non- college-educated women, losing them in large enough numbers in key Midwestern swing states to lose her the Electoral College even with her popular vote victory. But Trump claimed 45 percent of college-educated white women voters, as well. Age was the biggest predictor of white women’s support for Clinton—Millennial white women were the only ones Clinton won, 51.8 to 39.5, and Trump’s percentage went up with each age bracket, taking 58.2 percent of white women over sixty-five.[2]

Explanations, from women voters, for their decision to go with Trump often feel slippery, like this one from Trump voter Sandy Pearson in the New York Times:

What he said about women was disrespectful. But I don’t get offended like some people do. You get through the bad and you focus on the good. Basically these were our choices, and I felt he was the better choice, and I had to overlook the negatives and focus on the positives.

The assumption that candidate Trump’s lewdness and sexist comments would be off-putting even to women who typically vote for Republicans went badly awry for the Clinton campaign—perhaps because of just how normal that sexism still feels to many women. A post-election PerryUndem (a research and communications firm) report, “The State of the Union on Gender Equality, Sexism, and Women’s Rights,” found 76 percent of women reported hearing sexist language, 68 percent felt they received less respect because of their gender, and 54 per- cent said they had been touched inappropriately by a man without their consent. While Republican women were less likely to report experiencing sexism, for those who did, like Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway, making a big deal of it might have seemed worse than the alternative.[3]

In a revealing interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, Conway explained that she “encountered all kinds of sexism,” but that she preferred to overlook it. “[I]t would be embarrassing to the twentysomething or thirtysomething-year-old girl to try to make some federal case out of some- body who was in a huge position of power,” she said. And for many women (including those who remembered repeated accusations against Bill Clinton), overlooking it might have been normal enough to continue to do so in the voting booth.

This kind of learned pessimism might even extend to women who reported what are perceived as progressive views on gender. “The State of the Union on Gender Equality” report found that about  a  third  of  Trump-voting women thought the country would be better off with more women in office, 37 percent saw access to abortion as key, and 39 percent thought the same about birth control. Forty- three percent did not identify as a Republican, and 33 percent say their ideology is not conservative. And 39 percent were bothered by Trump’s comments about women. This is the group of voters that feels most confounding.

After the election, Planned Parenthood pulled together a series of focus groups that included supporters of the organization who had voted for Trump. Many of those supporters were surprised to find that Trump had promised to defund Planned Parenthood; his lewdness, in fact, seemed to convince them that he shared their pro-choice beliefs. “He’s probably paid for a few abortions himself,” said one fifty-eight-year-old woman.

The assumption that candidate Trump’s lewdness and sexist comments would be off-putting. . . went badly awry for the Clinton campaign . . .

It was his differentness—the very thing that the Clinton campaign counted on to help defeat him—that made Trump appealing to voters like these. Four in ten women who voted for him said that his difference from other politicians was the reason why. To them, to get something that felt like change, putting up with the same old sexism did not feel like that much of a price to pay.

Voting Well-Off

While many Trump voters wanted something outside the norm of Republican politics, the core of Trump’s support still came from the typical Republican voter, from the party’s uneasy base coalition of the wealthy and the religious. While Clinton managed to snatch back a few college-educated white women from the GOP—Mitt Romney won 52 percent of college-educated white women in 2012, while Clinton collected 51 percent of them in November—by and large, as Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, said, “The well-off white women voted well off.”

Although Clinton managed to pull significant support among the wealthiest voters, ultimately, the strategy of picking off suburban Republican votes did not quite work.

Well-off women are largely insulated from the results of the policies that they inflict on people; suburban women are not generally going to Planned Parenthood for health care. And even if they oppose such policies in the abstract, in practice, the promise of tax cuts was enough to keep many of them on the Trump train, even if they were more likely to see them- selves in Hillary Clinton’s polished success and powerful friends.

“The Deplorables”

It might have been the worst misstep in her campaign—Clinton’s decision to say, at a fund- raiser, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” She continued, “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.”

Clinton may have counted on the “deplorables” to turn off women voters, but plenty of them were women themselves. Trump voters seized on the comment, and Clinton was forced to backtrack; Trump supporters wound up wearing the comment as a badge of pride, even printing T-shirts. Contra Clinton, the alt-right deplorables did not make up half of Trump’s base, yet the movement and its female celebrities have been, as Seyward Darby noted in Harper’s magazine, able to take up a large amount of space in the discourse relative to their size as a movement.

Clinton may have counted on the “deplorables” to turn off women voters, but plenty of them were women themselves.

Lana Lokteff is one of those alt-right celebrities, famed for saying things such as, “It was white women who got Trump elected and to be real edgy, it was also white women who got Hitler elected.” Lokteff, a radio host, walks the tightrope that many of these far-right women   walk—preaching  an anti-feminist, white nationalist politics while being a successful leader and entrepreneur herself. “Although I think women are too emotional for leading roles in politics, this is a time for female nationalists to be loud,” Lokteff said in the same speech where she bragged of women’s votes for Hitler. Writer Flavia Dzodan calls it “alt-feminism,” the channeling of superficially pro-woman tropes in service of white supremacy.[4]  Lokteff cheers the strength of her listeners and of nationalist women, but also extolls the virtue of raising children, a more explicitly racist version of the same act balanced by conservative women from Phyllis Schlafly to Michelle Bachmann.

Women of the far right—most notably Marine Le Pen of the Front National in France—even claim to be true feminists because they want to protect women from the assaults of Muslim men. One Trump voter echoed this view in softer fashion in the New York Times, saying,

I went to Minnesota and I had a Somali cabdriver who lectured me for 35 minutes to the airport about how women in America have too much freedom. My thought process on that is that I don’t like seeing people going through the hardship they go through, but I don’t want to go backwards in the feminist movement, either.

In this convoluted argument, a vote for Trump was a vote to preserve feminism by ridding the country of presumably anti-feminist immigrant men.

Women have always been a part of white supremacist movements in the United States. White supremacist politics often revolved around the defense of white women’s purity; the lynching or railroading of black men accused of raping or simply whistling at white women is well documented.

Linda Gordon notes that women in the Ku Klux Klan put forward a version of the same argument Lokteff makes—a twisted version of the argument made by suffragettes and Clinton voters alike for women’s participation in politics. Women, in the white supremacist view, were responsible for not only morally but also racially purifying the country. Elizabeth Tyler, who did public relations for the Klan in the 1910s and 1920s, was a member of an anti-immigration order and participated in the eugenics movement, managing a “Better Babies” campaign.

Coontz notes that throughout history, attacks on elites have often been channeled through sexist attacks on elite women (like Clinton); for those who claimed the “deplorable” label proudly, such attacks might feel in a way like landing a blow on the class enemy. Kat Niedermair, who promoted the inaugural “DeploraBall,” told a reporter that claiming the term felt like a way of separating her- self from the elites, “a resistance, a rebellion.”

“Security Moms”

Softer than the out-and-out white supremacists, the security moms’ politics are nevertheless tinged with racialized anxiety about safety and security, whether that be at home or in overseas wars. The security mom, Inderpal Grewal has written, defines herself against the Muslim terrorist and the illegal immigrant, and nothing is as important to her as protecting her family. Think Sarah Palin’s “mama grizzlies.” The security moms’ national- ism is more subtle, but it responds to Trumpism.

Trump’s swagger appeals from his masculinist promises of protection from “rapist” immigrants . . . to his promises to let police do what they want in order to preserve order.

Fox News even has a regular segment of security moms (a group whose top priority is the safety of her country), who have continued to pop up since the election to proclaim their continuing sup- port for Trump, their lack of concern about his potential entanglements with Russia, and their cheery support for “deporting illegals.” The arche- type emerged first during the George W. Bush administration, after the September 11 attacks, and it reappeared with Palin’s appointment to the John McCain campaign and continued through the Tea Party, where women played an important role as grassroots organizers. Security moms such as Sharron Angle and Debra Medina barnstormed the country as insurgent Tea Party candidates brandishing firearms and talking tough.

Security moms these days are more concerned with security at home than abroad; they are more likely to be like Rebecca Gregory, a two-time Obama voter who told the New York Times she flipped to Trump because “My husband is a court officer and volunteers in the police force. [President Obama] didn’t support law enforcement the way he did the community that felt they were being unjustly treated.” She waved off Trump’s sexist comments, noting, “If I turned down every candidate who objectified women, I’d vote for no one.” They are the New York City schoolteachers who wore NYPD shirts to class during the protests over the death of Eric Garner. Trump’s swagger appeals from his masculinist promises of protection from “rapist” immigrants or black criminals to his promises to let police do what they want to pre- serve order.

When it comes to foreign wars, the security moms could have also appreciated Trump’s criticism of the ongoing wars. One study noted that communities hit hard by the ongoing War on Terror abroad had tended to vote for Trump, whose campaign bluster seemed to promise protection— even to the point of using nuclear weapons—with- out the continued sacrifice of family and friends.[5]

Morals Voters

Before the election, article after article pro-claimed a “dilemma” for evangelical women. Young Christian women were repulsed by Trump’s sexist rhetoric. As one North Carolina woman told Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Peterson, “Trump doesn’t represent our beliefs. He’s not religious. I don’t even know if he has morals.” Yet for the white middle-class evangelical woman, abortion—and her opposition to it—is everything. And on Election Day, her professed dilemma mostly disappeared. Seventy-three percent of white evangelical women under thirty-five voted for Trump—the only demo-graphic of women more likely to vote for Trump than their male counterparts.[6]

The abortion-only voter is a constant bogey-man among Democrats, who waffle on abortion rights while Republicans mostly hold firm in opposition.  Yet  most  Americans  are  in  fact pro-choice  and  so  were  many  of  Trump’s voters—72 percent of Trump voters in the State of the Union on Gender Equality study opposed the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the nomination of an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice, and new federal restrictions on abortion. Still, white evangelicals hold abortion above most other issues—and those evangelicals continue to approve of Trump above any other religious demographic.

The abortion-only voter is a constant bogeyman among Democrats, who waffle on abortion rights while Republicans mostly hold firm in opposition.

Whiteness mattered here, too. Sixty-two percent of evangelicals of color voted for Clinton, indicating that abortion might not be quite the single issue that is implied by most stud- ies. Indeed, many Christian organizations—such as the Southern Baptist Convention, which saw a controversy erupt this summer about its hesitancy to adopt a resolution condemning white supremacy and the alt-right—have a long his- tory of segregation.

Evangelical Trump voters may not have liked their vote—Emily Urban told Vice, “I can honestly say I voted for a terrible candidate”— but they remained steadfast. Laura Turner at Politico suggested that “[T]here’s also an evangelical disposition to want to endorse a candidate wholeheartedly . . . They, more than other groups, have a need to represent a united, not conflicted, front.” Trump understood that need and doubled down on it in the third presidential debate with a graphic description of abortion, and when it came time, he got those votes.[7]

Sociologist Kristin Luker has noted that the politics of abortion revolves around the appeal of traditional gender roles. For women who value marriage and motherhood, abortion feels like an attack on their role in the world, and they respond accordingly. And for those who value such traditional gender roles, Trump may seem like less of an anomaly—their ideology trades domestic labor for protection in the world; the promises of protection, of security, that Trump offered might mean more than his sexist comments.

The Working Class

The working class, of course, encompasses many of these other categories. Evangelicals and “security moms” abound in the oft-referenced white working class, and presumably some white supremacists as well. Very few voters are single-issue voters, even if they identify as such—as noted above, the racial gap between white evangelicals and evangelicals of color indicates that something else goes into decision making even for abortion-first voters.

Yet here I turn to those who expressed specific working-class concerns. These are the voters most likely to be swayed back leftward. There may have been fewer of them than the amount of articles dedicated to them would imply, yet they quite likely swung the election in the key Midwestern states that Hillary Clinton inexplicably took for granted.

Clinton’s campaign took the working class for granted, too—even as it became clear that Trump’s message was resonating with segments of it. Two of her campaign surrogates, Ed Rendell and Chuck Schumer, parroted nearly exactly the same line on the campaign trail—that Clinton would pick up two socially moderate Republicans in the suburbs for every blue-collar Democrat lost to Trump. The math did not quite work out.

Trump’s appeal to nostalgia had as much to do with class as it did with traditional gender roles. Robert Jones of the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute argued,

“Make America Great Again” is backward- looking, a 1950s image of America before we had waves of immigration, before gay marriage, before the civil rights movement. It’s that appeal that has really rallied people around Trump more than any arguments around religion.

But it is also a nostalgia for a period of time when a white couple could raise children on one income, when union jobs in factories pro- vided steady work and regular vacations.

This nostalgia, Coontz noted, had a particular appeal for working-class women. “Nostalgia is selective memory,” she said, “You don’t remember the fact that domestic violence rates were higher, but you do remember that guys stuck around. When a guy made you pregnant, he tended to marry you. Divorce rates were lower.” And telling women to find liberation through work—the implicit and at times explicit (think welfare reform) message of Hillary Clinton—is not that great an offer when that work is McDonald’s.

. . . “Make America Great Again”. . . had a particular appeal for working-class women.

“The only section of the population where stay-at-home mothers are a majority are among women married to men in the bottom 25 percent of the income distribution,” Coontz added.

For them, the idea of going to work [is an additional burden]—they can’t afford the childcare. The jobs themselves don’t provide the kind of meaning that you and I get from our jobs. So it seems much more sensible to say, “Well, give me a little bit back from the taxes even if the rich get more of the refund than I do and maybe I can afford to stay home.”

This is family values voting, certainly, but family values that center on an economic reality that has slipped away from the working class in recent years. In the place of the male-breadwinner family, now more often than not we have what financial experts Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi famously called the two-income trap. Both parents may be working, but after increased expenses, they have less money than before—and twice the chance for someone to be laid off and lose that crucial extra cash.[8]

A new study on married women’s votes in 2016 found that these concerns affected women’s choice at the polls. “Women consistently earn less money and hold less power, which fosters women’s economic dependency on men,” said authors Christopher T. Stout, Kelsy Kretschmer, and Leah Ruppanner. “Thus, it is within married women’s interests to support policies and politicians who protect their husbands and improve their status.”[9]

That is where Trump’s promises to keep factories in the United States comes in. For women in the Midwestern swing states that decided the electoral college, the closure of the Carrier plant—a worldwide manufacturer of heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration or its equivalent—meant the loss of good jobs, and despite the popular picture of the Carrier worker as a white man, before the layoffs began, Carrier’s workforce was around half female.[10]

These are the Trump voters, Coontz noted, who want to keep Medicare and Social Security and support higher taxes on the wealthy; they are the voters to whom Trump spoke when he promised “We’re going to rebuild our infra- structure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

Those promises drew interest from women who might not have typically voted Republican. “There’s no more middle class,” said Trump- supporter Brittany Bucholtz of Dallas, Pennsylvania. “There’s poor or there’s rich and there’s nothing in between.” She and her friends and coworkers—she is a certified nursing assistant—all supported Trump. “He’s the one who’s speaking to us. He would come and do these rallies or you’d hear him on TV and he’d just say all the things we wanted to say.”

Trump’s promises . . . to rebuild our infrastructure . . . drew interest from women who might not have typically voted Republican.

Clinton’s message of staying Obama’s course—the “America is already great!” response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”—struck a sour note with these voters. “Honestly, the one thing she said that stuck in my head was, ‘If you were happy with the last eight years, vote for me and we’ll continue that,’” said Kim Woodrosky of Wilkes-Barre, child of a union family. “Well, I wasn’t happy with the last eight years, so she was also telling her not to vote for her!”[11]

It is worth noting that it ought to be easier for Democrats to win back voters like these than the ardently pro-life or the wealthy in search of a tax cut or even the security-focused. They voted for Trump because he did not sound like a typical Republican, but in office, he is governing very much like one. And some polls show that he is already losing the confidence working people—working women—once had in him. Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund held focus groups in Ohio and Virginia this spring, and those focus groups told the organization that women were beginning to fear that Trump’s wealth, far from insulating him from financial pressures, in fact isolated him from the pain that working people were feeling. Spending on a border wall while slashing health care dollars is not what they feel they voted for.[12]

To assume that “women” would feel a kinship with Hillary Clinton that transcended their other identities proved to be a mistake this election cycle, though one should always remember that Clinton’s popular vote victory was significant and Trump’s occupation of the Oval Office is a trick of the Electoral College. There are many concerns that drove women to the polls (and that kept them away) last November, and the left is going to have to figure out a way to challenge the sexism and racism whipped up by Trump with- out making the mistake of assuming that all those who voted for Trump are purely motivated by such impulses. There are lessons to be found in the stories of the white women who voted for Trump, lessons not just in how sexism still operates, but in the disappointments and frustrations of working people that left them angry enough to take a risk on Trump despite it all.

By Sarah Jaffe


[1] Clare Malone, “Clinton Couldn’t Win over White Women,” FiveThirtyEight, November 9, 2016, available at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/ clinton-couldnt-win-over-white-women/.
[2] “Gender Differences in Voter Turnout,” Center for American  Women  and  Politics,  July  20, 2017,   available   at   http://www.cawp.rutgers. edu/sites/default/files/resources/genderdiff.pdf; Sukjong Hong, “What Gender Gap?” The New Republic, October 4, 2016, available at https://newrepublic.com/minutes/138601/gen der-gap-exit-polls-show-white-women-voters- actually-preferred-trump-clinton; Alexander Agadjanian, “How the 2016 Vote Broke Down by Race, Gender, and Age,” DecisionDesk HQ, March 8, 2017, available at https://decision- deskhq.com/data-dives/how-the-2016-vote- broke-down-by-race-gender-and-age/.
[3] “The State of the Union on Gender Equality, Sexism, and Women’s Rights,” Results from a national survey conducted by PerryUndem, January    17,    2017,    available    at    https:// w ww.s cr ib d. co m/ do cu me nt /3 36 80 43 16 / PerryUndem-Gender-Equality-Report.
[4] Seyward Darby, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Harper’s, September 2017, available at https:// harpers.org/archive/2017/09/the-rise-of-the- valkyries/; Flavia Dzodan, “Alt-Feminism and the White Nationalist Women Who Love It,” Medium, March 7, 2017, available at https:// medium.com/this-political-woman/alt-femi nism-and-the-white-nationalist-women-who- love-it-f8ee20cd30d9.
[5] .  Philip Weiss, “Clinton Lost Because PA, WI, and MI Have High Casualty Rates and Saw Her  as  Pro-war, Study  Says,”  Mondoweiss, July  6,  2017,  available  at  http://mondoweiss.net/2017/07/clinton-because-communities/.
[6] Kate Shellnutt, “Young, Female, and Pro- Trump,” Christianity Today, July 26, 2017, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ women/2017/july/young-female-and-pro- trump.html.
[7] Lawrence Ware,  “Why  I’m  Leaving  the Southern Baptist Convention,” The New York Times, July 17, 2017, available at https:// www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/opinion/why- im-leaving-the-southern-baptist-convention. html#permid=23292159; Tess Owen, “Voting Their Conscience,” Vice, November 13, 2016, available at https://news.vice.com/story/why- some-evangelical-women-voted-for-trump- and-why-some-didnt;  Laura  Turner,  “How Long Can Evangelical Women Stay Behind Donald Trump?” Politico, October 12, 2016, available at http://www.politico.com/maga- zine/story/2016/10/donald-trump-evangelical- women-2016-videotape-214346.
[8] The book was published in 2003; Amelia Warren Tyagi explains the two-income trap very well in an interview with Mother Jones available at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2004/11/ two-income-trap/.
[9] Lucia Graves, “Why Hillary Clinton Was Right about White Women—and Their Husbands,” The Guardian, September 25, 2017, available at https:// www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/25/ white-women-husbands-voting?CMP=share_ btn_tw.
[10] Sarah Jaffe, “Back at the Carrier Plant, Workers Are Still Fighting on Their Own,” The Nation, April 20, 2017, available at https://www.the- nation.com/article/back-at-the-carrier-plant- workers-are-still-fighting-on-their-own/.
[11]  “Voices   from   Democratic   Counties   WhereTrump Won Big,” Time, December 19, 2016,available at http://time.com/voices-from-demo cratic-counties-where-trump-won-big/.
[12] Page Gardner and Stan Greenberg, “Women Trump Voters Are Starting to Doubt Him,” Time, April 21, 2017, available at http://time.com/4750602/trump-women-voters-doubts/.

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