Less than half of white women voters in the United States believe Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. A poll released by Quinnipiac University on Monday revealed that 46 percent of white women believe Ford’s accusation, 43 percent believe Judge Kavanaugh’s denial, and 11 percent are undecided. The poll also revealed that 83 percent of Black people and 66 percent of Latinx people believe Ford. (Reflecting a lack of intersectional methodology, the research did not disaggregate non-white racial categories by gender.)
This statistic, while deeply troubling, is by no means a surprising turn of events. A majority of white women voters went Republican for the better part of three decades. Last year, 63 percent of white women voters in Alabama pulled the lever for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually violating girls as young as 14. In 2016, 53 percent of white women voters went for Donald Trump, who himself had been accused of sexual assault and misconduct by at least 20 women.
Still, the collective ambivalence of these white women voters about Ford’s allegations is difficult to grasp. Ford is highly educated and articulate, a remarkably likable white woman. She meets all measures of respectability. Her public testimony last Thursday was received by both left and right-wing media as credible and deeply persuasive.
What, then, undergirds the failure of white women Republican voters to unite behind Ford? Is it genuine doubt about the veracity of her testimony? Fear of facing our own vulnerability to sexual violence? Internalized sexism? Or does loyalty to the Republican Party trump loyalty to fellow women?
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Earlier this year, when asked about losing the white female vote in 2016, Hillary Clinton said, “[Democrats] do not do well with white men, and we don’t do well with married, white women. And part of that is an identification with the Republican Party, and a sort of ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.”
It’s true that for white women voters, marriage is politically consequential. Married women largely vote for the same candidates as their husbands, and white women in particular grow more politically conservative after marrying. Since white women are more likely than women of other races to be able to support a family solely on their husband’s income, they tend to vote according to the perceived economic interests of their husband—interests that often don’t converge with the collective interests of women. A 2017 study found that, while marriage in general alters women’s perceptions of self-interest and leads them to feel less politically connected to other women, this is especially true of married white women (as well as Latina women), who experience significantly lower levels of “linked fate” than their unmarried counterparts.
Still, there’s likely more at play than financial self-interest. A deep and abiding loyalty to whiteness, and an underlying politics of racial resentment, is irrefutable. Throughout history, white women—including those who identify as feminists—have routinely thrown people of color under the bus to advance their own interests. Romanticized references to the women’s suffrage movement often skirt discussions of the movement’s blatantly racist views. Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke frequently about the superiority of white women over Black men, making statements like, “If American women find it hard to bear the oppressions of their own Saxon fathers, the best orders of manhood, what may they not be called to endure when all the lower orders of foreigners now crowding our shores legislate for them and their daughters?” More often than not, Black women were left out of the conversation entirely (as they were often left out of the broader abolitionist conversation).
This intersectional erasure occurred because it was socially and politically convenient for white suffrage activists to foreground white, middle-class, heterosexual women. They discovered that they could make greater political gains by forsaking women who were not viewed as “respectable” by the white men in power. Today, it is convenient for some groups of white women, especially married white women, to align themselves with the white men in their lives and, consequently, hold onto the political, economic, and social capital afforded to them by whiteness and by their proximity to white men.
Sociologist Lisa Wade defines the patriarchal bargain as “a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.” Monday’s poll revealed much about the state of racial and gender politics in the United States, including the fact that at least half of all white women voters in the United States appear to be deeply beholden to the patriarchal bargain.
Over the past fortnight a surge of commentary pairing the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings has hit news outlets. There are obvious parallels between Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations that rocked the nation in 1991 and Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual abuse allegations, which have catapulted the #MeToo movement from the entertainment sphere to the highly traditional and conservative legal fraternity. What is telling about both then and now is the profound leadership roles that women of color assumed in speaking truth to power.
As they did during the Thomas hearings, women of color are leading the charge against Kavanaugh. Many of the protests taking place in Washington, D.C., and across the United States each day are being spearheaded by Black women, and last Friday, a Latinx activist played a huge role in altering the course of the confirmation writ large.
Mere moments after Sen. Jeff Flake announced his support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Ana Maria Archila, along with Maria Gallagher, confronted him in an elevator, sharing their stories of sexual assault and urging him to consider the message he was sending women. A few hours after the powerful encounter, which was captured on film, the Arizona Republican requested a week-long FBI investigation before the vote is brought to the Senate floor.
For white women, Ford’s testimony should uncloak an existential conflict that precludes continued affiliation with the Republican Party. Rather than continue to be complicit in our own dehumanization, we have an opportunity to transform this moment of cognitive dissonance into a much deeper reckoning about the interlocking nature of our oppression to that of others: to recognize that the same forces that enable our abusers to reach the highest levels of power and prestige also enable police officers to kill Black people with impunity and allow immigration officers to separate children from their parents at the border; to recognize our own complicity in systematic racism and to take action to undo this harm; and to practice mutual solidarity by speaking and acting out against police violence, mass incarceration, educational inequity, and other issues disproportionately affecting communities of color. We can do that by joining together with people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups to build a broad, intersectional movement that recognizes overlapping layers of institutional oppression and works toward the liberation of all people.
And yet the question remains—how will we learn to show up for others when we can’t even show up for ourselves? Though white women voters are not likely to become the bedrock of progressive politics anytime soon, hope is not entirely lost. Just last year, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie to become the 73rd governor of Virginia. This victory was, in large part, due to grassroots organizing that both increased voter turnout and changed preexisting voting patterns. Whereas in the 2016 election only 41 percent of white women in Virginia voted Democrat, 48 percent of white women voted for Northam in 2017.
Clearly, there is much work to be done, but through organizing, education, and grassroots movement building, we can make a difference in how white women vote and show up for other women.