(CNN)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.
There is still a huge divide on gender roles in the US
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."
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."
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-Americ