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The “Women’s Vote” Never Existed

It’s an emotionally compelling notion for activists and a tidy narrative for pundits. But it’s a 100-year-old myth.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What, exactly, counts as a women’s issue? In 1972, the activist Johnnie Tillmon famously argued in Ms. magazine that welfare was a women’s issue because the overwhelming majority of recipients were women with families, who were forced onto the program by poverty wages and then subject to sexist surveillance by both society and the state. “Survival. That’s why we had to go on welfare. And that’s why we can’t get off welfare now,” Tillmon wrote. “Not until we do something about liberating poor women in this country.” A few decades later, though, Hillary Clinton, a self-described champion for women and girls, would press for the dismantling of that very safety net. The ambiguity and built-in contradictions over what gets branded as a “women’s issue” or “good for women” has only multiplied since then: In recent years, advocates have claimed that both gun rights and gun control are women’s issues, as are both combating climate change and strengthening the fossil fuel industry. Becoming a successful capitalist is a women’s issue, but so is fighting them. And while Planned Parenthood operates on behalf of women, the Susan B. Anthony List—the anti-abortion PAC that’s pledged $52 million to Trump’s reelection—says that it does, too.

That’s to say that there are multiple and often incompatible ways of defining women’s interests that make it extremely difficult to sustain the notion of a coherent “women’s vote,” even (or perhaps especially) a hundred years after the franchise was extended to women nationwide. The early women’s suffrage movement itself contained several competing visions of what women’s political participation and womanhood itself meant. White suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton notoriously juxtaposed their own cause with voting rights for Black men, and Anthony once declared, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” On the other hand, the Black suffragists of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs—including Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin—fought for laws around lynching and other forms of racial violence in addition to the right to vote themselves. “White women were seeking the vote as a symbol of parity with their husbands and brothers,” The New York Times’ Brent Staples wrote in 2018. “Black women, most of whom lived in the South, were seeking the ballot for themselves and their men, as a means of empowering black communities besieged by the reign of racial terror that erupted after Emancipation.”

This summer marks the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which enshrined women’s right to vote after suffragists of all backgrounds marched and petitioned for them. A hundred years later, women in the United States now vote at higher rates than men, and the idea that women can, en masse, change or even overhaul the political system is pretty much an accepted fact that cuts across political ideology. (In fact, such women-led political revolutions in the U.S. have often been in service of changes that are weaponized against millions of other women.) While that broad appeal makes the idea of a “women’s vote” emotionally compelling, it also means that the concept is often thin on substance.

“When women vote, Democrats win!” goes one cheerfully partisan bumper sticker, and in some ways that’s true: According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 56 percent of women in the U.S. identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic, while only 37 percent identified as or leaned Republican. The 2018 midterms, in which Democrats gained 40 congressional seats, were powered largely by women, including some who had previously voted Republican. “Having had daughters, I wanted them to have opportunities, which is part of the reason I can’t stand Trump, because he’s such a misogynistic jerk,” one such voter told Politico that year. As of this month, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in the polls by a staggering 25 points among registered women voters.

Democrats, the argument goes, are friendlier to women. In addition to defending reproductive rights, including upholding Roe v. Wade, and working to expand funding of organizations like Planned Parenthood, Democrats are also the party that’s been more amenable—if only modestly—to public programs that are disproportionately used by women, such as food stamps. They have also fought, with varying degrees of success, for equal pay and affordable childcare. By contrast, the increasing cultural conservatism of the Republicans since the 1980s, particularly through opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the push for draconian anti-abortion legislation, has been characterized by politicians and activists as a war on women. “It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans clearly showed women that there are sides,” political scientist Kathleen Dolan told The Washington Post.

Yet the broad migration of women to the Democrats is underlain by other demographic trends. Specifically, this political turn has largely been driven by women of color—Black, Latina, Native American, and Asian American women, all of whom vote for Democrats at higher rates than their white counterparts and who, together, constitute one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate. In the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, for instance, Black women voters overwhelmingly backed Democrat Stacey Abrams, nearly propelling her to victory in a historically red state. (Exit polls found that 75 percent of white women voted for Republican Brian Kemp.) A year earlier, in Alabama’s special election for the Senate, 98 percent of Black women voters in the state cast votes for Democrat Doug Jones, who won the seat. At the same time, while Black women are the most consistent Democratic voting bloc, they unsurprisingly vote at lower rates when politicians don’t meaningfully engage them. “They take us for granted,” California Representative Barbara Lee told NPR. “And over the years, it’s been up and down, up and down. But for the most part, I don’t believe that—until now, at least—there’s been a recognition of the value of African American women, not only to the Democratic Party but to the country.”

You can observe a similar pattern among Latina and Asian women voters. As the Center for American Progress has noted, 76 percent of Latinas and two-thirds of Asian women voted for Barack Obama in 2012, compared to only 42 percent of white women. Yet both groups turn out to vote at lower rates than white women—the result of scant outreach from politicians and, in some cases, language barriers. “If Democrats don’t act, we predict nearly 60 percent of eligible Latino voters in battleground states will stay home,” Stephanie Valencia, the co-founder of a group that studies Latino political participation, wrote in May of the upcoming election. Women of color voters consistently cast ballots for Democrats, then, but whether they’ll be compelled to turn out for politicians that ignore them or fail to adequately address their concerns is another matter entirely.

Around half of white women voters, on the other hand, regularly vote Republican. That fact surfaced to some shock in the aftermath of the 2016 election, where exit polls found that around 53 percent of white women voters had supported Trump. That was just a few points lower than the percentage of white women voters who had voted for Mitt Romney in the presidential election before.

As anti-abortion organizations like the SBA List and Phyllis Schlafly’s infamous STOP ERA campaign demonstrate, women—and white women, in particular—have also played central roles in organizing for and around the right-wing causes that make up the so-called war on women. (“I would say, more often in American politics, women have been a conservative force rather than a liberal one,” historian Jill Lepore told The New York Times in 2018.) In the minds of plenty of Democrats, the explanation for conservative women’s political ideologies is a kind of false consciousness: As former first lady Michelle Obama put it in an interview after the 2016 election, “Any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice.”

But it could also be the case that those women simply heard their voices elsewhere. According to Melissa Deckman, a political scientist and author of the book Tea Party Women, women on the right frequently employ a type of gendered rhetoric to describe their political activity; they describe themselves as acting as women and in the interests of women. “They talked about being mothers who didn’t want to hand a debt to their children and grandchildren,” Deckman told me. “They felt the policies proposed by Obama and the federal government were usurping the role of family.” It wasn’t a new sentiment for the right, but it was funneled through a brand of right-wing women’s empowerment. But if that language sounds somewhat different from that used by feminists on the other side of the political spectrum, there are also overlaps that illuminate how politically expansive the idea of women’s representation can be.

For instance, many women who became active in the Tea Party during or after the 2008 election were inspired by Sarah Palin, who was then the governor of Alaska and John McCain’s running mate. “Sarah Palin was symbolic to a lot of white middle-class women because for the first time they saw someone who looked like them on the national stage,” Deckman said. “She was pro-life, she was pro-gun, she was conservative, and she was very feminine.” The women who gravitated toward Palin also felt that she had been unfairly maligned by the national media, and, in at least one case, they connected that to the media’s depiction of a different famous politician. “The way they treated Hillary is unforgivable, and then they did it to Sarah Palin,” one Tea Party activist told Slate in 2010.

Conservative women activists are predominantly white, and white grievance plays a clear role in their political organizing. (Onetime Tea Party star Michele Bachmann, for instance, once groused that Obama’s immigration policies would lead to “millions of unskilled, illiterate, foreign nationals coming into the United States who can’t speak the English language.”) While white women’s commitment to white supremacy at the expense of sisterhood emerged as the prevailing explanation for Trump’s victory with that demographic during the last election, even the concept of a “white women’s vote” unravels somewhat under closer inspection: 53 percent of white women is a majority, but it’s also just over half, which means that a not-insignificant number of white women didn’t vote for Trump.

In fact, political scientist Theda Skocpol has found that middle-aged suburban white women—“not a glamorous category,” as she put it—ended up providing a substantial portion of the grassroots muscle behind the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms. According to Skocpol, around 2,000 decentralized groups of mostly suburban women (and some men) formed across the country in the wake of the 2016 election. Galvanized by the election of Trump, these women were less interested in staking out specific policy positions than in simply turning out Democratic voters for the midterms. “The major activity that these groups engaged in, in 2018, was going out and canvassing,” Skocpol told The New Republic.

Some of those women said they had been moved to organize as a reaction to Trump’s grotesque hostility to women. “It wasn’t just that Hillary lost,” Beverly Tuberville, the founder of Indivisible Oklahoma, told Mother Jones in 2017. “It was that she lost to a disgusting man that none of us could stand.” But the burst of anti-Trump activity wasn’t only about sexism. Rather, the women that made up the suburban anti-Trump resistance were engaged—much like Tea Party activists on the opposite end of the spectrum—in what Skocpol calls an ongoing battle within the white middle class over the meaning of America. “The people who organize these groups that actually meet and do things politically are a minority,” Skocpol said. “But they’re all active citizens who are, in their opinion, trying to save America—that’s the way they talk about it. They just have completely different views about what America is.”

The way that women vote in 2020 and beyond likely won’t be a matter of gender, strictly speaking, but something rather more predictable. As Melissa Deckman put it, “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.” The notion of a coherent women’s vote, then, is in most ways still as illusory as it was on the eve of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, when male political scientists pondered whether women’s political attitudes would end up being “determined by social and economic factors rather than by sex” once they had officially joined the electorate.

For all the worry and anger over the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, there’s also a different 53 percent that had a significant impact on the 2016 election and could very well determine the outcome of this year’s: During the last presidential election, an estimated 100 million people—or a greater number of people than voted for either Clinton or Trump—didn’t vote at all, and 53 percent of those nonvoters were women. According to a 2020 report from the Knight Foundation, nonvoters in 2016 were more likely to be lower income and disproportionately people of color (though, in raw numbers, majority white). As journalist Rishika Dugyala wrote in Politico, “The results suggest that the large numbers of women who are engaged in politics—planning massive events like the Women’s March on Washington and leading activist groups—are nonetheless struggling to connect to women with significant financial needs and family responsibilities, or who aren’t inclined to believe that politics can change their lives.”

Studies have consistently suggested that nonvoters are more amenable than regular voters to initiatives like raising the minimum wage and increased government spending on health care, public education, and social safety net benefits—or the types of reforms that Johnnie Tillmon and her group, the National Welfare Rights Organization, fought for some 50 years ago. Perhaps even now, engaging the crucial swath of women who don’t vote will depend less on which party can effectively brand their policies as “women’s issues” than on forging a type of politics that actually helps the majority of women at a time of massive inequality and economic insecurity.

The high percentage of nonvoters in the U.S. also shows that there’s no such thing as electoral destiny, whether it’s the assumption that Republicans will drive increasingly more women to the Democrats through their unfailing misogyny or that America’s changing demographics will naturally reshape politics. In the end, maybe the significant divisions in our elections aren’t whatever broad-stroke differences exist between the political inclinations of women versus men, but—as with almost every other aspect of political life—the widening gaps between who crafts policies, who votes for them, and who goes missing entirely.