For many women, the confirmation of new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has been a shattering event. But the high-pressure confrontation may have shattered nothing as much as the myth of a monolithic female response to the charged questions of sex, power and the shifting roles of women and men.
The bitter nomination struggle revealed the persistence of deep differences among women, especially white women, about growing female assertiveness in society and the uprising against sexual harassment symbolized by the #MeToo movement. President Donald Trump, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a wide array of conservative media voices aggressively tugged at those seams to consolidate Republican support for Kavanaugh after his nomination was staggered by the detailed allegations from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her in high school, along with other charges of sexual misconduct by a classmate at Yale.
With this counterattack, Trump, Graham and other Republicans displayed how instinctively the party now identifies with the elements of American society that are uneasy about almost any form of social and cultural change – and how powerfully those voters respond to those messages of solidarity.
Since the 2016 election, scholars and political analysts alike have exhaustively studied the extent to which hostility about racial change and immigration motivated support for Trump in the primaries and general election. (The overwhelming academic consensus is: quite a lot.) But the arguments Trump and other Republicans used to rescue Kavanaugh made clear that they also view unease about shifting gender roles and growing challenges to male dominance in the workplace and beyond as a powerful motivator for what I’ve called the Republican “coalition of restoration,” for not only its male but also its female members.
“There’s always been a segment of … women who conform to very traditional gender roles who feel threatened by gender-nonconforming women,” said Erin Cassese, a political scientist at the University of Delaware who studies gender attitudes and politics. “That same process is what we’re seeing here.”
In that way, the Kavanaugh fight is likely to reinforce a central political dynamic of the Trump era: growing GOP dominance among blue-collar, evangelical Christian and rural voters obtained at the cost of increasing resistance to the party in white-collar suburbs and intense alienation among African-American and younger voters.
That could help the GOP next month in the battle for the Senate, which is unfolding mostly in rural and preponderantly white states. But it would diminish its odds in the struggle for the House, where the central battlefield is white-collar suburbs around major metropolitan areas. It could also contribute to a record divergence between college-educated white women, breaking toward Democrats in unprecedented numbers, and white women without degrees, who still generally lean toward the GOP.
“For people on the left, this idea that there is a threat to a more egalitarian perspective on gender, and policies that would be aligned to that, is more mobilizing,” said Cassese. “But this sexual harassment stuff is resonating as a threat on the right. It is actually motivating people on the right to be engaged, both men and women, as a threat to the gender status quo.”
How Republicans saved Kavanaugh
When Ford emerged to challenge Kavanaugh’s nomination, his defenders responded with two overarching messages. The loudest note was that the accusations were part of a political plot from Democrats: Kavanaugh led that charge with testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that was unprecedented for a Supreme Court nominee in its open partisan hostility.
Other Kavanaugh defenders also sought to reframe the debate by enlarging it. They portrayed Kavanaugh as the victim of a movement against sexual harassment that they implied had spiraled out of control and was indiscriminately threatening men.
Graham opened that door with his red-faced, finger-jabbing tirade against Democrats during Kavanaugh’s testimony responding to Ford’s appearance before the Judiciary Committee. “I know I’m a single white man from South Carolina and I’ve been told to shut up, but I will not shut up,” Graham insisted.
Trump characteristically barreled much further. At a raucous rally in Mississippi he openly mocked Ford, saying her failure to remember details of the alleged assault rendered her account unreliable (though experts say assault survivors usually remember the identities of their assailants with crystalline clarity, even if other details fade).
Speaking to reporters last Tuesday, Trump, who has faced over a dozen specific allegations of sexual harassment himself, portrayed the charges against Kavanaugh as the symbol of a feminist movement that now sought to impugn all men. “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” the President said. “This is a very, very – this is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.”
Even after Kavanaugh’s victory, Trump and other Republicans reinforced that message. “You have a lot of women that are extremely happy,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One. “A tremendous number of women. They’re thinking of their sons, they’re thinking of their husbands, their brothers, their uncles, and others and women are, I think, extremely happy.”
Flipping the script on #MeToo
In what appeared a systematic campaign, Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel all sought to further marginalize the women-led protests against Kavanaugh by each describing them with the same ominous word: “mob.”
The initial assumption among many observers was that these messages were intended to consolidate support for Kavanaugh among conservative men. But there is strong evidence that the pushback against the #MeToo movement – and the other signs of growing female assertiveness in society – also finds an audience among large groups of women, including white women without college degrees and those who describe themselves as evangelical Christians. On Kavanaugh specifically, a National Public Radio/Marist poll conducted just before his confirmation showed a huge gap between college-educated white women and African-American women on one side and blue-collar white women on the other.
In that survey, college-educated white women said they believed Ford over Kavanaugh by 66% to 26% and African-American women believed her by 73% to just 5%. But among white women without college degrees, only 33% said they believed Ford; the rest divided closely between those who believed him and those who were unsure.
Likewise, while about three-fourths of college-educated white women and African-American women said Kavanaugh should not be confirmed if doubts remained about the conflicting accounts, blue-collar white women split almost exactly in half on that question. (On both questions, Latino women tilted more narrowly against Kavanaugh.)
A CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released Monday also found a continuing divide, but with Kavanaugh’s position among blue-collar women eroding since the earlier NPR/Marist survey. In the CNN poll, college-educated white women opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation by a 21 percentage-point margin, nonwhite women by a 39-point margin and non-college white women by only a 12-point margin. In contrast to the earlier NPR/Marist survey, the CNN/SSRS poll found that just over half of non-college white women believed the women accusing Kavanaugh, but they were still much more closely divided than the college-educated women (three-fifths of whom said they believed the accusers).
“We know blue-collar women face discrimination in the workplace and they often have less recourse than professional women do,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “But I do think that when the ‘me too’ discussion seems to devolve into bashing men, that’s when white blue-collar women in particular get defensive, around the perception of attacking men. Some will say, ‘He did it when he was 17 and was drunk, and it shouldn’t ruin his career.’ I hear that in focus groups: ‘We shouldn’t go too far. Tt shouldn’t be man-hating.’ ”
The great divide on gender roles
These divergent reactions continued a long pattern of polls documenting a persistent gap among different groups of American women about shifting gender roles. Cassese and Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky found in a recent study that attitudes among white women about the prevalence of sexual discrimination predicted support in the 2016 presidential election far more than in the past. Results from the University of Michigan’s 2016 American National Election Studies poll provided by Cassese reveal a head-turning difference between white women who voted for Hillary Clinton and for Trump on fundamental questions of gender relations.
Among the striking results:
- Three-fifths of white women who voted for Trump said it is “harder for mothers who work outside the home to establish a warm and secure relationship with their children than it is for mothers who stay at home.” Only about two-fifths of white female Clinton voters agreed.
- Nearly half (47%) of white female Trump voters agreed it is better “for the family as a whole if the man works outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Only about one-in-six white female Clinton voters agreed. (Fewer than one in 10 college-educated white female Clinton voters agreed.)
- Over three-fourths of white female Trump voters agreed that at least some of the time “when women demand equality these days” they were “actually seeking special favors.” About three-fifths of white female Clinton voters said that was never the case.
Other studies have found comparable contrasts. An extensive examination of gender roles last summer by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that a plurality of Republican women said the trend of more women working outside the home had made it harder, not easier, to raise kids; non-college white women split almost exactly in half on the question.
By contrast, Democratic women, by nearly two to one, said the change had made it easier to raise children, while college-educated white women and minority women concurred by margins nearly that great. Asked if the movement of more women into the workforce had made it easier for marriages to succeed, Democratic women said yes by more than two to one, and college-educated white women and nonwhite women again agreed by nearly that margin.
But a narrow plurality of Republican women said the changes had made it more difficult for marriages to succeed and blue-collar white women rendered an equivocal verdict as well, with just above a third saying things were easier and slightly fewer saying they were more difficult. Republican and non-college white women were also far less likely than their Democratic, college-educated and African-American counterparts to say these changes had made it easier for women to lead more satisfying lives.
Another survey, by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Atlantic, completes the picture. In fall 2016, that poll found that 45% of non-college white women-and a striking 58% of evangelical white women-agreed that “society is better off when men and women stick to the jobs and tasks they are naturally suited for.” Only about one-fifth of college-educated white women, and one-fourth of African-American women, concurred.
These groups don’t differ on everything. The Public Religion Research Institute has found that college and non-college white women, as well as minority women, are all about as likely to describe sexual harassment in the workplace as an important issue. Other surveys have found relatively small differences in the share of each group that reports having faced sexual harassment on the job.
But these different groups of women are dividing over the proper response to that risk – and the wider issues that it touches of recalibrating relations between men and women. Marital status matters, too: Traditionally, married white women have leaned Republican while single white women tilt strongly Democratic.
Harnessing a backlash
A generation ago, these differing female responses to evolving gender roles helped conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly organize the backlash that contributed to blocking the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. In 2016, the stark contrast between Trump – facing those widespread allegations of sexual abuse – and Clinton, as the first major-party female presidential nominee, made attitudes about changing gender relations more relevant to voting choices, as Cassese and Barnes found.
Trump’s decision to transform the Kavanaugh struggle into a much broader referendum on #MeToo and the role of women suggests he may more explicitly braid together opposition to shifting gender dynamics with his repeated attacks on undocumented immigration, black NFL protesters and other manifestations of demographic change. The Kavanaugh fight is equally likely to provide a rallying cry for the women, especially professional white women and African-American women, most infuriated by Trump.
Like virtually everything else about the Trump presidency, this heightened focus on changing gender roles appears destined to widen the gulf between those who welcome the economic, demographic and cultural changes transforming American life and those who fear them. And even the bitter storms of the past few weeks may be only an early squall if Kavanaugh, still shadowed by the allegations of sexual assault, at some point joins an all-male Republican Supreme Court majority to retrench or eliminate the national legal right to abortion.