Of the many questions raised by Donald Trump’s election as president last month, a significant number relate to the status and perception of women in America. As well as questions regarding the practical effects of Trump’s presidency on women (particularly with regards to reproductive rights, LGBT+ women and women of colour), there is also the issue of the role misogyny played in the election itself. How was an openly misogynistic and racist man, with numerous sexual assault charges against his name and no prior political experience to speak of, able to defeat a woman who has been described as the most qualified presidential candidate to date? And, furthermore, why did so many – predominantly white – women help him to do so?
Exit polls indicate that around 42% of all American women voted for Trump, including 62% of non-college-educated white women and 45% of college-educated white women. (Trump was unsurprisingly unpopular amongst black women and Latinas, garnering 26% and 4% of their respective votes). In the build-up to the election, many sources predicted that women – who generally hold greater electoral sway than men, due to higher voter turnout, and are also more likely to vote Democrat – would be the key to defeating Trump. Back in May, an article in the conservative online magazine American Thinker reported that Trump was viewed at least ‘somewhat favourably’ by only 29% of American women, warning that this could be worsened by a Democratic strategy of drawing attention to Trump’s history with women. There was, it transpired, a lot to draw attention to. And yet, for many women, it was not enough.
So, why did women vote for Trump? Writing for The Independent, Hannah Fearn emphasised the role of internalised misogyny, identifying multiple reasons why the ‘uneducated’ white woman might be more vulnerable to this than her college-educated counterpart. She refers to a greater exposure to the everyday sexism of Trump’s ‘locker room talk’, and to a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism by such women, who (she believes) perceive the rise of women in the realms of politics and professionalism as threatening their sphere of influence as mothers and matriarchs. While these are valid points, the analysis falls short in its refusal to recognise factors besides misogyny, resting on the assumption that a woman’s presidency would automatically mean great opportunities for all American women and that it is only internalised misogyny keeping them from seeing this.
Others have taken a more psychological approach to deciphering the mystery of the female Trump supporter, with psychologist Susan Kolod claiming that many American women still subconsciously yearn for the familiarity and stability of a powerful ‘father figure’, with fathers still typically acting as the decision-makers at the heads of American families. Research does suggest that American men and women alike have been socialised to associate leadership with Trump’s domineering, aggressive form of masculinity, and there are numerous accounts of Trump supporters referring to how he reminded them of their father and/or was the ‘strict dad’ that America needed.
Trump’s actual daughter, former model and businesswoman Ivanka, is also popular amongst certain voters. A BuzzFeed article published shortly before the election described ‘Ivanka voters’, a lesser-known class of female Trump supporters who were middle-class, suburban and self -described as ‘socially moderate’. To return to the issue of internalised misogyny, they were generally not accustomed to hearing their husbands and fathers talk in the same way as Trump, and would usually object to explicit sexism or racism. Amongst their ranks were also up-and-coming professionals, making it seem counterintuitive that they should object to a woman having power in the public sphere. Still, they viewed Trump as the preferable candidate.
When it comes to sexual abuse claims specifically, Trump-supporting women have offered a variety of different justifications. Some have claimed that they were fabricated, while many others stated that this was simply typical, even desirable male behaviour. ‘Ivanka voters’ were more likely to refer to the allegedly ‘filthy mouth’ of Hillary and other prominent women, suggesting they viewed women making lewd comments as on par with (or even worse than) men actively harassing and degrading women. This demonstrates a subtler form of misogyny than the blanket disapproval of women in the public eye. These women were not opposed to women being in power in principle – several actually enthusiastically advocated for Ivanka to be on her father’s cabinet –, but, perhaps subconsciously, did appear to have held women to higher standards, believing that only ‘classy’ women like Ivanka belonged in the public sphere yet supporting a man as frequently crude and offensive as Trump.
However, while it is important to acknowledge the role of misogyny in influencing women’s votes, this should not be at the expense of other factors: economic fears, disillusionment with the ‘establishment’, and, perhaps most significantly, racial resentment. Survey data indicates this was the most significant predictor of voting after party allegiance, and it is further reflected in the fact that so few women of colour voted for Trump.
Of course, there are also many legitimate reasons to dislike Clinton unrelated to misogyny – but, considering the perspectives of racial and sexual minorities, women seeking birth control and the many others now fearing for their futures, it is difficult to sympathise with those who claim these were sufficient to justify Trump’s election.