Trump's win boils down to white women

Story highlights

  • Jill Filipovic: While women of color voted for Hillary Clinton en masse, a majority of white women preferred Trump. Why?
  • A closer look at the numbers, writes Filipovic, points to one obvious conclusion

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi and the author of the forthcoming book, "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)That Donald Trump won the presidential election Tuesday night was a nasty shock to many Americans, especially feminists who were thrilled at the prospect of our country's first female president.

Even more shocking, though, is that so many women voted for a man who has shown so little respect for women, has boasted about sexual assault, and who ran a campaign of aggrieved masculinity.
    Jill Filipovic
    While women of color voted for Hillary Clinton en masse, a majority of white women preferred Trump. Why?
    In the aftermath, there will surely be blame heaped on Democrats and feminists. The argument will go something like this:
    1. Racism and sexism are less at fault than an outsize focus on identity politics and a liberal failure to take into account the needs of the working class.
    2. If white women voted for Trump, how can we say gender is the issue?
    A closer look at the numbers, though, points to one obvious conclusion: Gender and race are the issues.
    First things first, this isn't about class or economic anxiety. Only 4% of black women voted for Trump, even though a majority of African-Americans are working-class and African-American women are more likely to be poor than white women. Americans who make less than $50,000 a year -- which encompasses, one would assume, most members of the working class -- also leaned toward Clinton.
    And among white Americans, income had little influence on whether or not voters cast their ballots for Trump. Even if we take college as a proxy for social class, the theory that class anxiety ushered in Trump doesn't hold: Non-white Americans without a college degree were more likely to support Clinton than their college graduate counterparts.
    What did sway voters was a combination of race, gender, and power. Most American women voted for Clinton, including majorities of women of color and white women with college degrees. It was white men, regardless of class, who voted for Trump overwhelmingly; and white women without college degrees voted a lot like white men.
    Even among voters of color, there was close to a 10-point gap between men and women, with men more likely to vote for the man. Those men nudged Trump toward victory. His overwhelming support from white men put him close to the finish line. And his narrow win with white women pushed him over it.
    In other words, two things made voters more likely to support Trump: Being white and being male. The big differences tracked with skin color and gender, not income or education.
    One of the more perplexing questions is why white women, who ostensibly saw themselves reflected in Clinton herself, didn't support her more strongly. White women voted for Trump in smaller numbers than their male counterparts, and a slimmer proportion of them voted for Trump than voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, turned off, perhaps, by Trump's misogyny.
    But the fact that most still cast a Trump ballot illustrates the degree to which womanhood is not a universal category, and shows that race animates voting patterns even more than gender. But so too does power and positionality.
    The white women who voted for Clinton are also the white women who, at least on paper, have the most freedom and independence: Those with college degrees, who are likelier than their less-educated cohorts to work outside the home and to marry later in life.
    White women who voted for Trump are more likely to be conservative, evangelical, over 45, and lacking a college degree. It's not that the Democratic Party hasn't served the needs of these women; it's that patriarchal authority is an evangelical norm and a conservative value, and many women adhere to it, too. Women are vastly outnumbered in leadership roles in evangelical institutions. And women without college degrees, who voted for Trump in large numbers, are also more likely to be stay-at-home moms, dependent on a husband's income.
    The conservative evangelical vision of America, so mainstreamed into the Republican Party, sees white women as delicate, maternal, and dependent, not authoritative and powerful. Trump knows this, and he plays on this racialized gender anxiety.
    When he calls Mexicans rapists, he is invoking an image of a vulnerable white woman attacked by a brown man. When he brings parents of children killed by undocumented immigrants on stage at his rallies, he invites grieving white mothers. Claiming black and brown men pose a threat to the safety and sexual purity of innocent white women is a very old trick, one used to justify slavery and segregation.
    To white men, Trump promises the restoration of diminishing supremacy over both women and people of color. To white women, he promises a return to a simpler time, when their race alone made them exceptional and worthy of special protection.
    American women of color have never been put on this particular pedestal, even as black, Latina, and Native American women are more likely than white women to be the victims of sexual and domestic violence.
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    The results of this election aren't a failure of feminism so much as a sign that our movement is an incomplete one, and the American promise of equality is yet unfulfilled. Still, race remains a potent motivating force. Still, men are more uncomfortable with female authority.
    And still, many white women will choose the authority and protection of men over the responsibilities and duties that come with real freedom.