What's with White Women?
December 27th, 2017
On the evening of December 12th - defying the expectations of Democrats and Republicans alike - Alabama elected a Democratic Senator for the first time in 25 years. In the special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, Doug Jones won by a close margin over his opponent Roy Moore.
Moore is a conservative Republican with a history of controversial statements and actions - for instance, his refusal to take down a statue of the Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court where he served. But most prominent in Moore’s public view in this election, however, was his history of misogyny and inappropriate treatment of women. Since his candidacy was announced, several women have alleged that Moore, an adult at the time, pursued sexual relationships with them when they were in their teens. One woman, Leigh Corfman, reported to the Washington Post that Moore had initiated a sexual encounter with her when she was 14 (and he was 32). Moore has denied all of these allegations, calling them “fake news,” and, in one instance, attempted to blame the LGBT community, and socialists, for the allegations.
Given this extremely fraught background, I was extremely relieved to witness Moore’s defeat that Tuesday night. Even setting aside my repulsion with Moore’s long history of racist and homophobic comments and actions, if that man, credibly accused of pursuing a 14 year old girl (my age) at the age of 32, could still be chosen by the general public to hold federal office -- that would have been humiliating and saddening.
But what seemed to me like a clear-cut distinction between candidates - one, a man with a clean slate on sexual harassment and a history of distinguished work in the justice system, and the other, a bigot with little respect for the bodies of girls like me - wasn’t so clear for the demographic of white women in Alabama (into which I fall); 68% of white women voted for Roy Moore.
This statistic was received with shock and sadness by many, including me and my (very liberal) friends and family.But just a little bit of digging into the matter shows that white women’s support for conservative, even anti-feminist, candidates is not something to be surprised about.
First of all, we all should remember that white women voted for Donald Trump last year; according to many studies, in fact, their votes were some of the principal factors that pulled the vote to Trump’s side. But looking even further back into history, white women have a dark track record when it comes to supporting racist politicians and policies, even when these policies hurt other, nonwhite women. Even from the advent of the women’s vote, the suffragist movement inspired resentment among white suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, who argued that black people shouldn’t gain the right to vote before (white) women did. And white women (less represented in government and therefore less recognized, but equally influential), especially in the South, played a major role in shaping segregationist policies like Jim Crow and supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, Associate Professor of History at Western Carolina University, writes that “[the] persistent voices of white women who worked to make conservatism meet their interests [shaped] the conservative movement from the ground up and [prodded] politicians into action.” Even when the politicians they supported promoted views and policies that restricted women’s rights, or hurt women of color, these white women prioritized maintaining the privilege that they got from being white, over the disprivilege of being a woman.
So the narrative you might have heard about white women being demonized by Trumpian nationalism and populism isn’t true, or at least isn’t the whole story. White women’s support of conservatism has centuries of precedent. Roy Moore, despite his history of sexual violence toward women, harbors racist ideas and supports racist policies that allow white women to exploit their whiteness to the max.
Coming back to the present day, there are a few more factors that could contribute to white women’s votes in this election. The most obvious one is that, as you’ve probably heard (it’s true), Alabama is a deeply conservative state. The majority of Alabamians are also religious, many evangelical Christians. For many, this faith is accompanied by strong “pro-life” viewpoints, among support of other conservative policies. For instance, according to exit polls from the recent election, of the group that said that they believed that abortion should be illegal in all cases, Moore won over 70% of the votes. So perhaps white women thought it was more important to elect a candidate whose viewpoints aligned with theirs on religion and policies like abortion, than a candidate free of allegations of sexual misconduct.
But while conservative policy might have been one factor, it can’t have been the only guiding principle in all of the votes many white women cast for Moore. What other advantage might these women gain from electing men like Moore to public office?
One theory is that of the “patriarchal bargain,” which theorizes that, essentially, women support people and systems that uphold the patriarchy because of the rewards society gives them for doing so. These rewards include anything from the praise women get for meeting problematic beauty standards to the advantages and influence they might attain from supporting (misogynistic) men in power. And while women who act in ways that uphold the patriarchy for their immediate benefits, in the long term, only uphold a societal system that oppresses women, on a day-to-day basis and in interpersonal relationships, the rewards are appealing. For example, the standards of behavior and dress for professional women, while often oppressive and unrealistic, are widely obeyed because the consequences of violating these unwritten codes - like losing respect, credibility, or opportunities in the workplace - seem greater than the benefits of taking an ideological stand. The same applies to this election. “When [women] openly support candidates like Trump and Moore who seek to silence women, they earn praise for their ability to see past trivial ‘women's issues,’” sociologist Colleen Butler-Sweet writes.
But did the white women who voted for Moore realize the true cost of their “bargain,” not only to victims of sexual harassment and assault, but to themselves? Maybe not.
Personally, I know that for a long time, I’ve recognized sexual harassment as a serious problem, but as a problem that, like war or famine, might happen but would never happen to me. In reflecting recently on the source of this delusion, I’ve grown more and more convinced that it has to do with my whiteness, and the privilege that comes with it. Like war or famine, there are a whole host of issues that I don’t, and likely will never, have to deal with - like racism, like deportation, like serious financial instability. And as a result of this mountain of unearned fortune, it’s easy to accept all of this privilege and then extend its influence to apply to areas that it really doesn’t cover. I am a very privileged person. But my privilege isn’t 100% complete, and I shouldn’t forget that. That’s not to say that my white privilege doesn’t protect me from a host of race-based sexism, or that my affluence doesn’t mean that I’m less likely to spend time in environments that are less safe for women to be in. But I am still vulnerable to sexual harassment, and yes, assault. And so are white women in Alabama. It’s not just necessary empathy for racial minorities that white women lacked. It was a very personal decision to support a candidate that had respect for their bodies, or not.
98% of black female voters cast their ballots for Doug Jones. There are some really evident reasons for this demographic to reject Moore’s candidacy. Like his racism. But perhaps this also shows that it’s white women’s privilege that allows them to engage in the patriarchal bargain and vote for Moore without recognizing that they’re helping create a space that’s unsafe for the bodies of all women; theirs included. Black women might reject this bargain because they realize that, just as they aren’t guaranteed certain privileges because of their race, they aren’t guaranteed to be safe from sexual predators like Moore. Black women, without the same sort of privilege that white women have, could be less susceptible to the delusion that they are exempt from the vulnerability that comes from being a women in today’s society. The “well, it won’t happen to me” sentimentality doesn’t apply - as it shouldn’t.
Now, let’s imagine Roy Moore had won. His victory would have reinforced the idea that it is acceptable for men to abuse their power to demean women and their bodies. It would have helped to maintain an environment in which women have to feel unsafe.
Then, would the white women who voted for him have realized: the ballots they cast not only hurt other people - people of color, the LGBT community, and so on - but in fact helped fuel an environment in which their physical and emotional safeties could be threatened and devalued? Historical trends say not; but I certainly hope so.