by Laura Jean Moore
The hierarchy of freedom in this country is an Escher-like maze of steps through and up the intersecting privileges of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability. Who has the most freedom? Able-bodied, wealthy, straight white men, and just beneath them are able-bodied, wealthy, straight white women. After those two categories, the maze becomes tangled. What of able-bodied, middle class or higher straight black men? While they may have more economic power than able-bodied working class straight white men, they are still subject to profiling by law enforcement and the racial violence of white supremacist groups. And able-bodied working class straight white men, while identifying with and having some of the freedoms of their wealthy counterparts, remain increasingly left behind by an economy that has nothing for them to do.
Think of the people that are invisible to you, and no doubt, you will have imagined the people who have the fewest freedoms in our country. Think of able-bodied, working class straight Latino men who are the ignored deliverers of our food, builders of our buildings, and pickers of our produce. Think of queer, working class women of color. Think of disabled, straight, working class black men. Disabled, queer, working class women of color may hold the worst hand of all.
This essay is not about the struggle for freedom of the groups who have the least. They know where they stand and they are organized and they are working to better their lives. This essay is about the able-bodied straight white women, middle class or higher, who have chosen to align themselves with the able-bodied, straight white men on top, rather than fight for the freedom and rights of people who like them, know the bitter taste of dehumanization. This essay is about the white women who voted for Trump.
As our culture is now, and has been for some time, white girls enter adolescence feeling powerful and independent, but they leave with the knowledge that their future power is connected overwhelmingly to how they define themselves in relation to men. Did Melania know this? Certainly. Did Hillary? I’ve no doubt. One chose to survive by aligning herself with a white man whom she believed would be a good protector and provider in this world. And one chose to attempt autonomy and take on the responsibility of being her own protector and provider in mind, spirit, body and economy—despite marrying a white man, or should I say: in spite of. It is for this reason that she is believed to be a bad wife. It is for this reason that she is vilified, even though we all know that a divorced woman or a single woman would have as much chance of winning the presidency as Donald Trump has of saying I’m sorry for anything he’s ever done.
For affluent, and especially straight white women in various socio-economic circumstances, the choice to be one’s own protector and provider remains a radical departure from social expectation, whether done within a partnership or in the world alone. And to do it, such women must be willing to lose social and economic standing in order to gain their independence. Few white women take the chance, and those who do must reckon with the practical fallout of their choice. Being independent is only possible inasmuch as the community and culture allows. Many white women who attempt autonomy find the path too difficult; it is no secret that women of all races continue to face discrimination in the boardroom, in the trenches, in government, and elsewhere. Likewise, aligning with a white male protector or provider—or the values that say a woman needs one—can quickly prove dangerous; women in such alliances often find themselves abused, beaten, raped or cast aside. This survival strategy is only as good as the man at the helm
The fact is that most women of color and queer women never have the opportunity to gain the same social and economic collateral as a straight white woman in good economic circumstances. And the terrible truth borne out by this election is that most white women—and especially wealthy white women—are willing to bear the weight of patriarchy so that they do not have to face the same hurdles as women who are socially and economically less advantaged than themselves.
This is what betrayal looks like. This is what people mean when they talk about the goals of white feminism. The goal seems always only to be as powerful as the white men at the top, with no consideration for the women of color who have been supporting white women in their struggle, hoping the goal was to make life better for all, rather than just the privileged few. Ninety-four percent of black women voters chose Hillary Clinton in this election. Fifty-three percent of white women chose Trump.
White feminists may affirm women’s autonomous power and attendant rights and abilities, but to do so requires that American women walk, quite alone, into a cultural and economic lion’s den. Progressives have yet to succeed in creating the necessary social apparatus for women of all races and economic standing to access opportunities comparable to those of wealthy white men. The Democrats in the last election tried to make such reforms a cornerstone of their campaign, but they did not succeed. Our country has no mandated parental leave—maternal or paternal—and with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, it is unlikely to see these reforms anytime soon. Culturally, single mothers are still treated like failures rather than the monumentally self-sufficient women that they are. Those white women and women of color that do manage to successfully navigate different roles at home and in the workplace do so in a jujitsu mishmash of either-ors. They either do not procreate and doggedly pursue their careers; have kids and find a man or another woman willing to take on the role of caregiver at home; become a homemaker or stay at home mother; or amass enough wealth to hire someone else (usually economically less advantaged) to take care of their offspring.
Whether we want to admit it or not, women of all races in this country will not achieve equality with any men until having a child is either as much a burden on men as it currently is on women, or as little a burden on women as it currently is on men.
Conservatives are aware of this conundrum, and their solution has been to double-down on the 1950s ideal of a nuclear family unit with a breadwinner father functioning as protector and provider to a caregiver mother and the children they have produced. When conservatives talk about the breakdown of the family and the home, their concern is preoccupied with men’s ability to keep women safe to raise children. For this reason, conservatives hate the idea of single mothers benefitting from a social safety net because such assistance liberates any woman from relying on a man for economic stability or protection during childrearing. It should be noted that such talk of “welfare queens” is also a racial dog whistle, by which white conservative women are alerted: we don’t mean you.
Trump, knowingly or not, has played up his position as the ultimate protector, saying, “I have so many women that really want to have protection, and they like me for that reason.” Many conservative white women believe Donald, despite his documented history of misogynist behavior, because they function in a culture that denies the fact that the white male figureheads who are trusted with protecting them are actually their biggest threat—Donald included. There will always be women who vote for the conservative candidate of choice, whether he is Donald Trump or a more subdued man in a suit, and the feminist left would do well to consider the reasoning behind their choices.
According to Tetlock and Mitchell’s “Liberal and conservative approaches to justice: Conflicting psychological portraits,” conservatives are more likely to commit the fundamental attribution error when interpreting an individual’s behavior. This leads conservatives of all genders to interpret violence towards women as an aberration of character rather than endemic to conservative beliefs. Not unsurprisingly, the conservative solution to men’s violence and failure as partners is to emphasize more character training for men, rather than to empower women.
That men and women of all races might function as economic, political, and sexual equals is maximally destabilizing and threatening to this world-view. No matter that people of both genders report greater satisfaction in their interpersonal relationships when there is more parity between men and women. The conservative instinct is to maintain what is familiar at all costs.
And so, even as it infuriates me to the core, I am not surprised that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, or that many continue to vote conservative at all. The white women who have chosen to align themselves with this thinking have made a calculated gamble on the fitness of their partners to be a shield and breadwinner in a world that is still hostile to the very idea of their independence. They are afraid to face the dangers, social and economic, that women of color already face every day.
White women know that in order to maintain their own status, to see maximal success in their choice, and to feel secure in the sacrifices they have made to reap the benefits of their male provider’s success—they must side with a status quo that is in favor of men’s continued dominance. They know the world they live in; the gleefully sexist criticisms of Hillary and the contemptuous slut-shaming of Melania make that quite clear.
More needs to be done. Until white feminists are willing to risk losing social standing to make the struggles of their sisters of color as much a priority as their own, all women will continue to live without equal pay in the workplace, equal respect on the street, and equal treatment under the law. The election of Trump may be the last gasp of white patriarchal dominance reasserting itself in an increasingly plural society—but only if white women are willing to make it so.