Photo: Reuters / Rick Wilking via Quartz
If there is one thing we should learn from the last United States election, it is that we need to free ourselves from applying identity politics to women, treating them as a group with a shared perspective and the same interests. The “women’s vote” not only failed to come through for Hillary; it does not exist. She won the vote of elite women (those with college degrees), although not by a large margin, and lost to Trump among non-elite women (62% of whom went for Trump).
The fact that women did not come out en masse to support the first female presidential candidate evoked enormous anger among her supporters. No less distinguished a person than Madeleine Albright said that there is a special place in Hell for women who do not support other women (and this when the opponent was Sanders and not Trump). Were the women who voted for Trump benighted, traitors, or under the thumb of their husbands?
Why should a woman vote for a candidate because she is a woman? Because she will serve as a role model whose success will encourage other women to aim high professionally? Because she will understand the problems women face and be more attentive to their needs? Or are those who feel women must support a female candidate thinking consciously or unconsciously of male-female relationships as a kind of war, so women need to hold up the side – be loyal to the team? I don’t think any of these reasons hold up under scrutiny.
The two big differences that throw a spanner into any talk about the women’s perspective or women’s interests are class and religion. Women will look at a female candidate and ask “is she my kind of woman?” If not, then she won’t serve as a positive role model for me, or have the same understanding I do of what women’s most important problems are or what remedies are called for. As for the war between the sexes, this picture fails to take account of the way women’s lives are intertwined with men in such a way that both their interests and their values tend to coincide.
‘Is she my kind of woman?’
Let’s start with class differences. Feminists present themselves as speaking for women. But their inability to reach working class women is a problem they often wring their hands about, and they all too often set it down to such women being benighted and/or brainwashed by their husbands. This is too facile. Non-elite women are often very astute. Hillary was clearly perceived as representing the perspective and concerns of elite women. My hairdresser, a woman who runs her business from her home, hit the nail on the head when she said “She doesn’t care about women like me.”
This problem has a long history. The current wave of feminism, originating in the late fifties with such women as Betty Friedan, has been an elite movement from the start. During this period working class women felt their interests were represented by the largely Democratic blue collar women’s trade unions. During the early sixties the conflict between them and the National Women’s Party (NWP) came to a head. The NWP was a group of business oriented and generally politically conservative women, sometimes called “the tennis shoe ladies,” many of whom were not defenders of black civil rights. The unions opposed sweeping legislation, favoring instead “specific bills for specific ills” like equal pay for equal work. One reason for this was the worry that these sorts of sweeping measures might endanger women’s protective legislation which they believed was important for working women.
When the Equal Rights Amendment failed, the NWP agitated for adding women to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which forbade job discrimination against black people, and they were added in a last-minute amendment by a Southern conservative opponent of civil rights legislation named Howard Smith, partly at the instigation of Alice Paul (the head of the NWP and a personal friend of Smith’s). For more thorough discussion of the details and the arguments that raged around it, see my book Diversity and Community in the Academy, especially pp. 18-19 and the notes to those pages). Women’s protective legislation was swept away as a result, and the elite character of the current wave of feminism has persisted since then.
Presenting a woman whose ambition is to break through the glass ceiling and rise to the top as role model for a woman working several low paying jobs struggling to keep her family in groceries is not going to be helpful. Women, whatever their social class, who choose to center their lives around children and family are in many ways on a different page from those who look to their careers for fulfillment. And non-elite men and women do tend to look more to their families for happiness and security in their old age. Aspiring to become CEO’s or Senators is just not on their radar screen, not just because they don’t have the credentials, but because they don’t want to make the sacrifices they would have to make to do so. They do not want to live that sort of fast track life at all. And these differences, of course, affect what a woman thinks are the most important problems women face. Simply being a woman is not enough to give one an understanding of what issues and problems are most important to other women from different walks of life. We need to respect them and get to know them and ask them what their concerns are, and it is clear from the results of the last election that non-elite women did not feel that Hillary had made any serious attempt to listen to them and take their needs seriously.
‘Does she respect my religion?’
Religion is another important player. Many women are very involved with their church, mosque or synagogue, and religious convictions go deep. Announcing that she would only appoint to the Supreme Court candidates who favored same sex marriage and unrestricted access to abortion lost Hillary a lot of votes among Catholics and evangelical Protestants most of whom strongly oppose both. And they are not alone here. Mormons are becoming an increasingly important group politically, and Moslems feel very strongly also about these issues. At a hearing about same sex marriage before the Senate judiciary committee in Rhode Island, I remember two particularly impressive imams in full ceremonial garb, who testified against it in no uncertain terms, describing same sex marriage as something Moslems regard as “blasphemous.”
Hillary was perceived by many people as hostile to traditional religion of any sort, and prepared to use state power to try to marginalize it. On the abortion issue she stated that women won't have full access to “reproductive health care” until “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases” are changed (CNSNews.com) and her campaign manager was planning to launch an organization called Catholic Spring as a kind of hostile takeover of the Church. Contrary to her husband’s advice, she refused an invitation to Notre Dame saying white Catholics were not a group she was reaching out to. And evangelicals (especially poor white ones) were inclined to think she regarded them as part of the “basket of deplorables” she sneered at.
Women’s and men’s lives are intertwined
A world view that pits men against women in some sort of sex war flies in the face of the fact that women’s and men’s lives are inevitably intertwined. Women have fathers, brothers and sometimes sons whether or not they have men as husbands or lovers. A choreographer friend of mine, when asked by a friend why she did not hate men (in spite of an unhappy marriage and divorce), simply said “I have a son.” Married couples tend to share the same values and the same interests. And women who do not have the skills or resources to make possible a high powered career (and may not even desire to do so) often feel especially dependent on having a man as an ally so that the man’s economic prospects are deeply important to her.
Certainly there were voters of both sexes who wanted to see a woman in the White House as a symbol of female equality. But, while positions of power and authority should be open to women, there are two problems with putting one there in order to serve as a symbol of female equality. First, none of us would choose a surgeon on any grounds but his or her qualifications and experience. Surely, the same holds true when we are electing someone to be president of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
Second, a woman who takes herself to be, not just the best qualified, but also a spokesperson for women, will be bitterly opposed by other women whose interests and moral convictions are in opposition to hers. Women have the same right to think for themselves as men do. Being told they should vote for someone they do not respect or who advocates things they violently disagree with just because she is a woman is an assault on their integrity and an insult to their intelligence.