With the dark cloud of the US presidential elections almost over, there are signs that things are slowly improving. We are not only cracking the gender ceiling with Kamala Harris as vice-president elect, but we’re seeing diverse women taking up positions of power with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her ‘squad’ all being re-elected.
These moments should be celebrated. They give us hope that we might actually live to see the end of white heteropatriarchy. And I am elated.
But I also still have about 73,600,000 reasons to worry.
It’s not that I like being a killjoy. In fact, growing up I was taught not to ‘paint devils on the walls’. The old Finnish proverb cautions against emphasising worst-case scenarios for the fear of jinxing them and making them come true. A darker, so quintessentially Scandi version of ‘don’t worry, be happy’, if you will.
In 2016, a large number of white women helped solidify Donald Trump’s victory. Back then, pleading ignorance or turning a blind eye to his character was, if not excusable, then at least theoretically plausible. But now, four years later? Nuh-uh.
The currently available election statistics are largely based on exit polls and as such subject to change, but some clear trends are emerging. Somewhere between 40-55% of white women voted for Donald Trump. If you do the maths, it is of course not fair to blame only white women for the narrow margins. However, they are, as political science and gender professor, Jane Junn, recently noted in The Cut, the “800-pound gorilla in the American elections”. In other words, collectively they do hold a lot of power. So what gives?
Sexism, racism and internalised misogyny
After the 2016 election, research showed that while explicit racism and sexism may have cost Trump some votes from more educated whites, it may have actually won him even more support among whites with less education. The study authors wrote at the time:
“Whether the 2016 election will simply be an aberration or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen. However, there is reason to think that Trump’s strategy of using explicitly racist and sexist appeals to win over white voters may be followed by candidates in future elections. After all … there is no longer a price to be paid by politicians who make such explicit appeals.”
Is it surprising that white women still continue to support Trump? Not so, according to some experts. As Junn points out, white women continue to support Republicans because of the way they are socialised growing up. Patriarchy is the known element, and therefore appealing. However, wanting to stay on top of the racial hierarchy is also a factor. “These women,” she argues, “have agreed to accept second-class status with their gender, as long as the Republican Party puts them first with race and keeps them safe.”
Internalised sexism among women – that is, women enacting learned sexist behaviours upon themselves and other women – is an insidious issue, firmly embedded in the fabric of our everyday lives.
A study of pairs of female friends found that internalised sexism was a routine social practice in women’s dialogues, with on average 11 such instances taking place per 10-minute conversation. In mere 10 minutes women made 11 statements that included assertions of incompetence, competition between women, construction of women as objects, and the invalidation or derogation of women.
We can ridicule the superstitious beliefs about the power of speech acts turning into self-fulfilling prophecies, but we should not underestimate the extent to which these everyday conversations – especially when repeated frequently – shape the ways in which we see the world around us.
Why ‘sisterhood’ isn’t the answer
“I ask, where was the sisterhood. We know that Gilead will only be created if women bow down. So rise?”
The text message from an old friend popped up on my screen a few weeks before the US elections. It was designed to irritate, to elicit a reply, because the sender knew that perhaps one of the most grating arguments regarding the nature of the current predicament revolves around narrow conceptualisations of the ‘sisterhood’.
Why isn’t ‘brotherhood’ ever the go-to solution? If sexist politics appeal to both men and women, why is it up to women only to fix it?
In other words, the idea that women should support women with little regard to their individual circumstances is as tired as it is naive. The reductive stance poses women as the problem, the fix, and everything in between, which in turn begs the question: Why isn’t ‘brotherhood’ ever the go-to solution? If sexist politics appeal to both men and women, why is it up to women only to fix it?
But let’s stop being facetious and focus on the data.
As a study on gender, class and whiteness in the 2012 and 2016 presidential races showed, focusing on women’s greater average liberalism over men “masks considerable heterogeneity in political identity and behavior among women based on race, class, and other key socio-demographic characteristics”.
In plain English, women aren’t just one big cohesive group who all care equally about women’s rights. And more to the point, even if they do care, it is dangerously elitist to suggest that all women have the capacity to act in an equal manner. It’s all too easy to wax lyrical about social issues when you don’t have to worry about the next pay cheque and where your next meal is coming from, let alone being able to pay rent and provide and care for others.
However, it would be equally elitist to assume that socio-economic status is a clear predictor of behaviour. So, what do we know about income and voters in 2020 election? According to exit polls, Trump gained support from wealthy households (over half of families with income over US$100,000 a year voted for Trump), but lost support among low-income earners.
At the same time, level of education is becoming a more important divide, clashing with racial identity, which indicates that increased racial diversity will not automatically lead to increased support for the Democrats.
So what it boils down to, is that yes, we can and we should celebrate the gains. Seeing more diverse role models in the public sphere undoubtedly helps establish new norms. It shows the possibilities within the current systems for a fully functioning representative democracy.
But until we see proper, enduring, sustainable change, we should also keep painting devils on the walls. We have 73,601,647 reasons to do so.