Feminists Misunderstood the Presidential Election from Day One

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Feminists Misunderstood the Presidential Election from Day One

By banking on the idea that women would support Hillary Clinton just because she was a female candidate, the movement made a terrible mistake

'The dismal election results should be a wake-up call for the likes of Lena Dunham and her supporters.' (Photo: Brian Frank/Reuters)

It turns out many women don’t care about Trump’s sexism – nor that Clinton is a woman. A majority of white women voted for Trump. And while Clinton did carry the female vote overall, her advantage among women was a percentage point less than Obama had enjoyed over Romney in 2012. This has left many American feminists reeling. Just how did this happen, they ask?

Lena Dunham, one of many woke, rich, Clinton-supporting celebrities who apparently do not impress the voters of Wisconsin, mourned that white women had been “so unable to see the unity of female identity”. But there is no unity of female identity and there never has been.

Clinton believed her major appeal was her gender. She also counted on women to be offended by Trump’s misogyny. But it turns out “woman” isn’t much of an identity – or even basis for solidarity – in itself.

Feminism has to deal with women in all their diversity. While there’s no doubt that one percenters like Lena Dunham and Katy Perry are bummed out by the election results, they are not affected by it in the same way as a woman operating a pile driver outside of Cleveland, an undocumented nanny from Honduras or an anti-abortion evangelical woman in Tulsa.

Many are now rightly attempting to galvanize women against Trump’s awful sexist persona – and worse, his anti-choice agenda, planning A Million Woman March in Washington DC the day after the inauguration. I plan to attend, but we have to be careful about this appeal to gender, bearing in mind that it didn’t defeat Trump in the first place.

While many women are profoundly insulted by Trump – who is on tape boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy” – and frightened by his rabidly anti-choice vice-president, many more may be waiting to see what he does on immigration and trade. Meanwhile, many men – pro-choice, anti-racist, environmentalist – will be eager to join us in opposing a Trump agenda.

By banking on the idea that women would support a female presidential candidate, feminism made a terrible mistake. Strangely, given feminism’s history of ignoring minorities, the group that they misunderstood the most is white women, who usually vote Republican.

As John Cassidy points out in the New Yorker, not only did Trump carry white women, so did Romney in 2012, McCain in 2008 and Bush in 2004. Presumably, many white women have conservative views, whether on taxes or abortion, and neither Trump’s misogyny nor Clinton’s anatomy could override those commitments.

Trump also appealed to many women who feared downward mobility and poverty, winning a majority of women without college degrees, as well as rural women. He denounced the trade deals that they felt had wrecked their economies, and vowed to create jobs by rebuilding America’s decaying infrastructure. Meanwhile, Clinton partied with her funders in the Hamptons. She represented an out-of-touch elite, and many women felt that deeply and resented her – or simply didn’t care about her campaign.

Clinton also failed to excite some of the women who were part of the traditional Democratic base. She did win among poor women (those making under $50,000 a year), young women, Latinas and, overwhelmingly, black women. But turnout among some of these groups was disappointing. She won black women by two percentage points less than Obama did in 2012. And compared with Obama, her margin even among the much-vaunted Latina vote was about eight points lower.

The dismal election results should be a wake-up call for the likes of Lena Dunham and her supporters. Feminism has to mature beyond childish appeals to female unity, and recognize our many differences. It’s not the first time we’ve had to learn this lesson, but perhaps the trauma of Trump’s election will finally make it stick.

Liza Featherstone

Liza Featherstone is a contributing editor for The Nation and a journalist based in New York City.  She is the co-author of Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement (Verso, 2002) and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart (Basic, 2004).

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