America was supposed to elect its first female president in 2016. National polls, media elites and political scientists all pointed to victory for Hillary Clinton. Women’s rights organisations were certain that US voters would finally embrace female national leadership and give an inspiring example to America’s daughters. It was hoped that she would guarantee the continuation of practical advances on childcare to abortion rights, on which candidate Clinton had taken an emphatic stand.
To most feminists it was unimaginable that America and especially American women would embrace Donald Trump, the man who had shown the sort of contempt for the female half of the electorate which even bigots
with political ambitions would ordinarily reserve for small minorities. America had—lest we forget—heard him cuss one woman journalist for “bleeding out of her whatever,” blame Bill Clinton’s infidelities on Hillary’s inability to “satisfy” him, and bragged about his own ability to grab women’s private parts. In the end, women voters did vote for Clinton in higher numbers than Trump, but not by the margin required. The bitter truth for those women’s rights groups is that women were pivotal to Trump’s success: exit polls revealed, among white women, that Trump secured an outright majority of 53 per cent. How could this happen? What sort of women made it possible? And what sort of role will they play in the incoming administration, and indeed in Trump’s America?
Not for the first time, American feminists have been reminded that women in the US are far from uniform in terms of political ideology—many are deeply reactionary, and some are increasingly energetic about it. If November’s result—and particularly Trump’s advantage among white women—strikes many as a bolt from the blue, that is probably because they’ve not been paying adequate attention to the American right these last several years.
In Tea Party Women, I profiled a new generation of conservative women activists, many of whom first became active in politics with the launch of the Tea Party movement after Barack Obama’s election. While right-wing movements in US politics are nothing new, the Tea Party is distinctive in the leading role that women played as leaders. Decentralised and operating through social media, it allowed conservative women opportunities to become leaders in their own right, bypassing more hierarchical, traditional conservative organisations—including the Republican Party. And some female leaders of the movement have achieved an extraordinary profile—think of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann (opposite).
So how does conservative women’s thinking go? Margaret Thatcher made great media play with “housewife economics,” Angela Merkel deploys the same trick, invoking the thrifty Swabian hausfrau. Tea Party women also adopt gendered rhetoric to promote conservative policies, often using a “motherhood” frame to argue that reducing the size and scope of government is good for American families. As Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots group, told me: “When it comes to their own personal family cheque-book, women are the ones who pay such close attention to it. And we are saying we want government to do the same thing.” Trump, however, is far from a model “housewife economist,” and not only because of his gender. Support for him was far from uniform among Tea Party leaders during the primary phase of the election—many prominent Tea Partiers, including Martin, initially endorsed Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator, because they worried that Trump’s populist streak could steer him away from fiscal conservatism.
But other “mama grizzlies”—the motherhood term popularised by Palin—who maintain that American families are threatened by unsustainable federal government spending, found reason to support Trump. These include Katrina Pierson, a co-founder of one of the largest local Tea Parties in Dallas, Texas, who was hired by the Trump campaign as its national spokes-person late in 2015 and later took up a role in his presidential transition team. Pierson decided to work for Trump precisely because of the approach that riles many Clinton-supporting women.
She told Politico magazine that Trump is “not politically correct. He sort of calls it like he sees it, I’m kind of that way, too.” She admired his disruptive style, especially his ability to rankle the Republican Party establishment.
Palin, an inspirational figure for many Tea Party women and an early Trump backer, also cited his willingness to “tear the veil” off the political system as the reason for her endorsement. Data from a 2015 survey of American values by PRRI, the research and analysis organisation, shows that only about half of women who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party have favourable views of the Republican Party. So Trump’s criticism of the GOP likely found a favourable hearing among many of them during the presidential primaries.
Resentment of a “politically-correct establishment,” then, was certainly a major draw for Trump’s women voters—another huge factor was fear. A PRRI/Atlantic poll last April found that 59 per cent of Republican women expressed worry about a terrorist attack against themselves or a family member compared with 50 per cent of independent women and 42 per cent of Democrat women. Trump’s harsh anti-immigration campaigning and his alarmism about national security played particularly well. Indeed, two-thirds of Tea Party women view immigration as a critical issue, almost twice as important for them than among Democratic and independent women. Indeed, his early calls for building a wall along the Mexican border, mass deportation of illegal immigrants, and suspending the immigration of Muslims all likely helped Trump to secure a plurality of women voters in the primaries and caucuses.
Not surprisingly the Trump campaign and its surrogates appealed directly to the safety concerns of women in its messaging. For example, the Great America PAC (political action committee), an organisation that raised and spent money to promote Trump’s election bid, ran an ad in early GOP primary contests featuring a white woman in her kitchen, getting her kids ready for school. She told viewers she intended to vote for Trump because he was the only candidate “who will control our borders and stop letting in dangerous people.”
In the general election, Trump’s campaign hammered home the idea that he alone could keep America safe, at one point running an ad with footage of Clinton fainting during her bout of pneumonia and telling viewers that she lacks “the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world.” Critics on the left descried the mean-spirited ad, with its tired gender stereotyping, as an attempt to shore up Trump’s advantage with male voters. However, this overlooks the fact that many women found the ad appealing. The PRRI/Atlantic survey found that 68 per cent of Trump supporters believe America has become “too soft and feminine.” More than three-quarters of Trump’s male supporters agreed with the statement—but so did around half of his female backers. Just 26 per cent of Clinton’s supporters agreed.
This should not suggest, however, that Trump’s well-publicised, derogatory statements about women—particularly those Access Hollywood tapes in which he bragged about sexual assault—did not upset conservative women. Prominent Republican women in Congress, for example, denounced Trump’s statements along with their Democratic counterparts, although many did not go so far as to rescind their endorsements. Most Republican women chose Trump despite his boorish behaviour because of their opposition to Clinton and her policies. They, like most of the GOP, support gun rights rather than gun control, oppose increasing the minimum wage, and believe that tax cuts will spur economic growth.
Moreover, they hold positions on cultural issues poles apart from Clinton, another factor explaining why they stuck with Trump on election day. Trump’s selection of Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his vice-president, a devout evangelical and strong abortion opponent, sent an important signal to this sizable and important constituency within the Republican Party that this playboy’s administration would respect their perspective. Evangelical groups, along with other conservative organisations, have long opposed the Affordable Care Act—or “Obamacare”—in part because it requires employers to provide birth control at no cost to women employees; they see this as an affront to private business owners whose religious beliefs do not condone artificial contraception. The country’s rapid embrace of LGBT rights, including the Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 to legalise gay marriage, has also alarmed religious conservatives, as have pitched battles in many state legislatures over the rights of transgender Americans to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.
Abortion—long a divisive wedge issue between the two parties—was something Trump never worried about until recently. But it very likely played a role in the decision of right-leaning women to back Trump over Clinton. Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of the Susan B Anthony List, a leading anti-abortion organisation, told National Public Radio that for pro-life Americans, the choice for president was easy given that Clinton endorsed allowing the federal funding of abortions for low-income women and that the next president would probably have the opportunity to appoint several pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. Most Republican women hold strong pro-life beliefs: in PRRI’s 2015 American Values Survey, 68 per cent of GOP women believed abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, compared with just 41 per cent of Democratic women. As with national security, Republican women rank this issue as crucial.
"The number of Republican women elected to Congress has stalled—with only two new arrivals in 2016"Right-leaning women who backed Trump are also notable for their rejection of identity politics, at least as employed by liberal lobbyists in their struggle on behalf of marginalised groups, based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender. Progressives, of course, argue that this brand of activism is really about ensuring equal rights for all, and that government is the best way to remove the structural and socioeconomic barriers that lead to discrimination. Conservatives, however, denounce such tactics as divisive and reductionist. This disdain is nothing new: many conservative women I spoke to for Tea Party Women vehemently opposed the idea that a more activist government is needed to address gender inequities, cases of which they believe are often exaggerated or may actually be the result of women’s own choices. For example, the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think tank that promotes libertarian economic policies, argues that the wage gap between men and women is far more likely to be the result of women’s preferences for flexible jobs with fewer hours or for jobs that traditionally pay less, rather than discrimination by employers.
More fundamentally, in the 2016 presidential race, right-leaning women were especially resistant to the notion that Clinton’s historic achievement in becoming the first woman presidential nominee of a major party should compel them to vote for her. In reality, there is little evidence in this election that American women vote for candidates because of their gender. While 2016 was special because of Clinton’s candidacy, it was very similar to previous elections: both men and women largely voted as they consistently have done in the modern era—by party. Exit polls show that 89 per cent of Republican men and 88 per cent of Republican women voted for Trump, while 87 per cent of Democratic men and 91 per cent of Democratic women voted for Clinton.
The next question is what part conservative women will play in US politics more broadly as Trump moves into the White House and Republicans control a unified government for the first time in more than a decade. Given the ascendancy of conservative women within the Tea Party, can we expect more right-wing women as leaders in Washington?
Trump has tapped a few powerful women to serve in his mostly male administration, including some rising GOP stars, such as Kellyanne Conway. She is the first woman to manage a Republican presidential campaign, and is largely credited with softening Trump’s hard edges with women voters. Many hailed the selection of Nikki Haley, the popular Republican governor of South Carolina, as his UN Ambassador as a smart political move. While some express concern at the role Ivanka Trump seems poised to play in her father’s administration, she is enormously popular with many of Trump’s women supporters, who point to her success as a mother and businesswoman as indications that Trump is supportive of women in the workplace.
However, the number of Republican women elected to Congress has stalled in the last three election cycles: only two new Republican women were elected in 2016 and Democratic women in the House of Representatives outnumber Republican women by roughly three to one. In the Senate, four Republican women serve alongside 11 Democratic women. And Trump is poised to nominate fewer women to his cabinet than either Barack Obama or George W Bush.
If right-wing women want to secure the policies they believe will help women and their families, they need to broaden their appeal among women voters and recruit more like-minded women to run for political office. Yet this will be a challenge, given that Republicans still make up a minority of women in the US—roughly one in four. A strong majority of American women are far more comfortable with government providing a strong social safety net, keeping abortion safe and legal, and taxing the wealthy—all policies resoundingly rejected by the GOP and the Tea Party.
Also, Republican women are less likely to run for office than Democratic women, a phenomenon for which identity politics is partially responsible. The Democratic Party celebrates diversity and has invested millions of dollars in resources for candidate training and the recruitment of women; Republican efforts pale in comparison and many conservative women prefer the autonomy of the Tea Party to the “good ole’ boys” network that they believe often characterises the GOP, particularly at the state and local levels of government.
Just as the Democrats paid a price for assuming that they could rely on women to vote as a bloc, so a male-dominated Trump administration could easily suffer if it entirely forgets that there are times when a “female perspective” is most, if not all, women voters.
Yes, Trump has a strong cadre of women who support him. If he can deliver on the economy and satisfy the evangelical wing, he may even draw in more support from women who are happy to ignore his indiscretions. The women voters who put him in the White House were, after all, ready to ignore a great deal. But his wiser advisors know that it would not take much for women voters to change their view of Trump. After all, people can only ignore so much, and his next indiscretion is surely close at hand.