White feminists have long presumed there exists a monolithic “woman voter”—someone who votes for all women’s best interests. But 50 percent of women voters tell a different story.
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It is primary season for arguably the most important midterm elections of the American experiment, and white women voters have learned nothing from 2016, and, apparently, neither have the Democrats. There’s this mythical belief in this all-encompassing “women’s vote”—that all women, simply by virtue of their gender, will vote for the Democratic candidate because it’s in their best interest to do so. But over and over again, half of white women voters have pulled the lever for the GOP, if they turn up to the polls at all. The most reliable Democratic voters are Black women. They show up to the polls and they pull the lever for Democrats: 94% Black women voters, for Hillary Clinton in 2016; 90%, for Joe Biden in 2020. But despite the performative pink pussy hats and the white pantsuits, white women have proven to be unreliable voters when it comes to issues widely regarded as “women’s issues.”
White women helped elect Trump’s gubernatorial pick in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin. Nationally, the GOP is gaining with this core demographic. Yet, the punditry class is bewildered, asking “What’s wrong with them?”; “Why do they vote against their own interests?”
But maybe it’s not them; maybe it’s us. That is, those of us who share a dream that women will vote as a bloc.
The longer we pretend there’s a mythical “women’s vote,” the longer we will be dismayed that a majority of white women consistently vote to uphold white power.
To see this clearly, you only need to look at the battle for the governor’s office in a handful of states. In Arkansas, Trump acolyte Sarah Huckabee Sanders easily won the Republican primary for governor, and in a recent poll, she’s 10 points ahead of her Democratic opponents. In Alabama, an already very conservative Gov. Kay Ivey is facing a primary challenge, so is moving even further to the right. In Arizona, Republican (and Trump-endorsed) candidate Kari Lake is reportedly headed for a landslide victory there. In Wisconsin, Rebecca Kleefish is the GOP frontrunner in that state’s gubernatorial race.
That we have these far-right, Trump-endorsed, female GOP gubernatorial candidates is not happenstance. It’s part of a coordinated strategy by Right Direction Women, a new organization started by the GOP to help recruit and support Republican women seeking to run for governor in 2022 and beyond. The group is chaired by former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who was the first Latinx woman governor in U.S. history. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley offered her support for the group’s goal to “”take on the good ole boys’ club across the country,” although she doesn’t have a formal role in the organization. The dubious goal of achieving equality with the men in the Republican Party is a limited view of feminism, and one usually championed by white women. Still, women like Martinez and Haley and the Republican women they want to support for state office serve to remind us that the so-called “women’s vote” has never materialized. We who wish it were otherwise persist in this fantasy.
We perpetuate this through our re-telling of the passage of the 19th Amendment, as if it were a children’s fairy tale.
Historians have thoroughly documented both the obvious racism of the white women involved in the suffrage movement in the U.S. and in Britain, and the way that U.S.-born Black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell were pushed out of the movement that cared little about issues like lynching, which was at the top of Black women’s political agenda.
In the decades after the passage of the 19th Amendment, the (mostly) white women who had access to the vote failed to deliver on the kinds of promises made by the suffrage movement. The claim that white women touted that if given the vote, they would “clean up” the public sphere by pushing out corrupt politicians and advocating for social welfare never came to pass. In the 1920s, immediately following the passage of the 19th Amendment, some white women even retreated from the very idea of civic engagement through an embrace of consumerism and “flapper” culture. Several million white women traded suffrage banners for a hood and white robe, fully embracing the overt white supremacy of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yet, popular films whitewash this history. The 2015 film Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan and a sea of other white actors, was heralded by some as “raw as the real history” and panned by Variety as a “flatly conventional snapshot” of the British movement for suffrage. The merits of the filmmaking aside, the story told is the “conventional” one in which white women are the sole protagonists for the vote, even though South Asian women were active in the suffrage movement in England. Similarly, the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels was described by the New York Times as “determined women, finding their voice,” which one reviewer said felt like “the fight for women’s suffrage as a 1912 version of Sex and The City. Like the popular TV show that transforms New York City into a landscape populated (almost) exclusively by white people and centers the concerns of four wealthy, cisgender, excessively groomed white women, our retelling of the fight for suffrage tells a similar white woman-centered story. As one film scholar points out, Iron Jawed Angels unintentionally illustrates the way the suffrage movement was organized around exclusionary practices based on race, gender, class, and citizenship. In other words, the efforts of women of color to be included in voting rights gets excluded first in the actual historical events of the movement, then their exclusion gets erased in the films as white women take center stage to be applauded for their activism. This film gets recommended again and again as a useful vehicle for “teaching history,” despite the partial truths it conveys. Retelling history in this way, with the very real white power these women exercised even as they fought for voting equality for themselves, engages in a kind of retrospective labeling that applies a contemporary white feminist lens backward through time. It may bring some of us comfort to tell these stories, but let’s not confuse comforting fiction with actual history.
Lest you think these films are simply misguided efforts of the long-ago past (given how short our collective memory is), right now there is another version of this whitewashed story of feminism, SUFFS, at the Public Theater in New York, which advertises its commitment to an “anti-racism and cultural transformation plan,” on its website. In this well-intentioned and fantastically deceptive musical, the use of “color-blind casting” means that the central love story between a white suffragist named Doris Stevens and Dudley Malone (performed by a Black woman), the white male attorney and one-time opponent of suffrage who Stevens eventually married, distorts the reality of Black love and survival, which was often sacrificed because of the “threadbare lie” of white women being attacked by Black men, and side-steps the reality that interracial relationships like this were illegal in most states. When white suffragists in the play welcome Ida B. Wells into their fold with open arms and the line, “We’re so honored,” this staging conveniently erases the very real racism she faced from the white women in the movement. The play has gotten puff pieces by the New York Times (which also reported on Hillary Clinton’s visit to the play). Another writer called the play a “reminder that the fight for women’s rights is not done.” This kind of re-telling is, for some, a comforting fiction. I get it, sort of.
We who are women or femme-identified are desperate for stories where we can cheer on heroines who are kicking the capitalist, white-supremacist, cisgender, heterosexual patriarchy’s ass and taking names, but this kind of fantasy in which white women rewrite history and remake ourselves into better versions of our ancestors is not what we need right now. And, it’s certainly not the reckoning we said we needed after Central Park Karen and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among the other brutal acts of violence against Black people that had us rising up and marching at the height of the pandemic that summer of 2020.
Today, white women in the U.S. make up 39% of the electorate (a maddeningly difficult statistic to find—really pollsters, political scientists, and other data nerds break those numbers out by gender AND race). As such, we white women are one of the largest categories of voters. But, white women voters are consistently one of the most divided groups. This includes voting on issues that seem like they should be women’s issues, like access to abortion. Not so. It’s white women who have led the campaign to end access to abortion, a change that will disproportionately affect Black and brown women.
It’s not that white women are voting against their own interests (please, I’m begging you, stop repeating this line). It’s that many white women find more solidarity with whiteness and the idea of a white ethnostate than they do with other women who don’t share those views. We who do not share those views must let go of the fantasy of a sisterhood of all women. It simply doesn’t exist.
As we approach the midterms of 2022, and feckless Democrats dither about how to appeal to white women after Roe, the cancellation of student debt (a move that would improve the lives of many and Black women, especially), or to make meaningful change on immigration, or gun control, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
James Baldwin, in his 1992 essay “On ‘Being White’ and Other Lies,” tried to explain to white people what we didn’t understand about ourselves: “Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.” While we still have a democracy, we cannot continue to believe, as a child believes, in the fairy tale of the women’s vote.
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