More white women voted for Trump than for Clinton, despite his horrid sexism. People blame the defeat on Democratic Party failures. But feminism also failed, and now women must review how and why we let her down and what’s next.
Ask a feminist why she thinks 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump, and she’ll say something like “the women have internalized men’s misogyny.” They bought into their men’s need to feel superior, going so far as to praise their chest-beating machismo. These women have absorbed their men’s feelings, beliefs, and actions and made them their own. They even defend their men before themselves, because deep, way deep, it aids their survival.
The tendency is to think of such women as suffering from something akin to battered-wife syndrome. But with that must come the understanding that, foolishly or not, these women love their husbands, warts and all. And being women, they inherently feel their working-men’s pain, anger, anxiety, and fears about being unable to get ahead financially. Fortune magazine explains, “The Trump campaign tapped into fears and frustrations among white working-class women about diminished possibilities for their husbands and sons to provide for their families.”
One can see these women as sadly clueless to reality…or as women of compassion who deserve compassion in return. We can disagree with their thought processes, but we certainly can also identify with how they feel and why. For all women have experienced some form of internalized misogyny. It happens every time we cringe at our image in the mirror.
Even so, it boggles the liberal mind that any woman could be so unaware as to overlook Trump’s egregious sexism. The Guardian offers a possible explanation, noting that most women who voted for Trump come from America’s heartland. “These are resilient women, often working two or three jobs. For them, boorish men are an occasional occupational hazard not an existential threat.” So, “they rolled their eyes over Trump’s unmitigated coarseness,…and they wondered why his behavior was any worse than Bill Clinton’s.”
After the election, The New York Times interviewed 12 women to learn why they voted for Trump. One voiced nearly every excuse known to women: “I think he’s a really good man, deep down. This guy has such potential, and I truly believe he cares about our country and wants to help everyone. What he said about women was disrespectful. But I don’t get offended like some people do. You get through the bad and you focus on the good.”
Another woman explained, “I felt like once you got past the bluster, he really was interested in helping everyone.” And another said, “He speaks his mind and because of that, he’s not going to lie to you.”
Perhaps the most telling comment came from a 49-year-old homemaker and former attorney who considers herself a feminist: “Look at how much Trump hires women, how much he does rely on women, how much he relies on his own daughter….She’ll be a good voice for women.”
If you’re ready to pull your hair out and scream, you’re not alone. One can’t help but wonder where these women’s internal “bells and whistles” are. Why they couldn’t smell a dirty rat. How they could go deaf, dumb, and blind to the biggest narcissist since Narcissus himself.
But what’s worse? A woman who pardons a man’s sexism and narcissism, or a woman who jumps on every reason she can find to take down another woman? Said one respondent to the NYT interview, “All of it was so egregious. I hated it, I cringed…but it didn’t stop me. And it’s like Hillary has the right to talk about Trump when she stayed with a guy who was in the White House and took advantage of a young intern?”
The truth about women’s internalized misogyny is the messages in our psyches come not just from men, but also from other women—at home, in the workplace, on TV, and elsewhere. And that may be the best explanation yet for why women still struggle to achieve equality.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to lead his new Commission on the Status of Women. Although she died the next year, a report was issued in ’63, documenting substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and recommending improvements. Among them were fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable child care.
From 1963 to 1978, as the Women’s Movement broke loose and took hold, legislation and court decisions steadily advanced women’s causes. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was followed in ’64 by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The next year, the Supreme Court ruled that married couples’ use of contraceptives is legal. (The ruling was extended to single women in 1972.) In 1967, civil rights protections were expanded to cover discrimination based on sex.
Five years later, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments, which guaranteed equal education opportunities in schools receiving federal funds. The law also set the stage for women in sports. The Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, followed next by the U.S. military integrating women into all its branches. Finally, in 1978, hiring discrimination against pregnant women was banned.
Then progress stopped. From 1979 to 2009, when the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed, women made little headway with legislation. The Supreme Court upheld a number of judgments that favored women’s rights, but little was gained in terms of federal law. One exception was the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act; the other, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
So what happened? Why did the movement loose steam? Where did all the forceful, determined feminists go for the past 38 years? We went to work…and we reared children, maintained households, took care of families, loved on our mates, sometimes went out, and occasionally squeezed in a long, nurturing bath. We got immersed in the world, especially the man’s world, and, oh, did we ever learn.
Compared to the roar of “second-wave feminism” (the first being the suffragists’ fight for the right to vote), third-wave feminism was virtually silent. While the issue of equal rights remained important, both women and men tended to think the genders had achieved parity or that society was well on its way to delivering it. Starting in the early ’90s, the third wave took on an intersectional focus, embracing differences in ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. Even the words feminism and feminist fell out of grace—as much from the new generations’ shifted attention as from conservatives’ association of the words with male-bashing and extremism.
That is not to say the lull was entirely uneventful. The emphasis just shifted away from being free of men’s definitions and restrictions. Instead of fighting for rights, efforts focused on changing the systems from which those rights had been gained. And no system was bigger than the world where men worked.
Within that world existed another kind of internalized misogyny, which I call the “Women’s Ladder Syndrome.” The name stems from a comment my boss made in the early ‘80s, when women were just starting to make strides in men’s work realms. I was a novice administrative assistant, but it wasn’t hard to see the company needed serious changes across the board. When I said that to my boss, he replied, as if patting my head, “You have to be part of the system to change the system.” Unfortunately, that’s not what I observed then and there, or at the next place I worked, or at any place where I consulted over the next 20 years.
Instead, I saw that, to be a change agent in the business world, a woman had to internalize men’s definition of how she should be in the workplace and adapt herself accordingly. She had to downplay her womanhood, even dress in suits, so men wouldn’t be distracted. She had to climb and claw her way up the corporate ladder, master corporate politics, and work extra hours to prove herself, often compromising time with family. And along the way, she frequently had to suppress her innate abilities to empathize, compromise, communicate, and intuit. Thus, by the time many women reached a level where they had some power to change the system, their desire to do so had dwindled—and sometimes so had their womanly traits. For they, themselves, were the system.
I also saw the competitive nature of business take a toll on women and lead to a different form of internalized misogyny. Pursuing a career, making a name for oneself, getting ahead, or even just keeping a job caused many women to resent and pit themselves against one another. Their antagonism ranged from branding an assertive woman a bitch (men’s favorite insult) to preferring to work for a man instead of a woman (keeping men in control). Women judged one another fiercely—criticizing their intellects and capabilities, ridiculing makeup and apparel, and tattling on work performance. In short, women became their own worst enemies.
One can argue that competition is just part of the natural order. Men have competed for power since day one; women have competed for social stature just as far back. But in both cases, the competition has been based on men’s definition of the game and how to play it. Men have consistently been the referees, arbiters, wage-setters, decision makers, directors. And each time a woman has cut down another woman, she has validated some man’s stereotype of our gender as catty, gossipy, sneaky, crazy, hormonal, vacuous, vicious, or whatever. Men have then judged us as being less capable of playing the game, less trustworthy, less talented, less deserving. The ultimate irony is that men act out in many of the same ways some women do. But it’s their game. So it’s okay.
The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore writes, “It is impossible to be a feminist and not be appalled by the complicity of women in their own oppression. But it is impossible to be a woman and not have some knowledge of how this works.”
Sadly, we still live in a world “where men who seek power are real men but women who seek power are innately distrustful and fake.” Both women and men want to think this is no longer true. We really need to believe it isn’t. But if delusion or illusion has kept us marching confidently forward, we only had to experience November 8, 2016, to know we’ve been far off track. We only had to watch Hillary Clinton—the single most-qualified person in the country—lose the presidential election to the Misogynist King Trump.
So, we morph.
During third-wave feminism, efforts to achieve equality focused on the “empowerment” of individual women. The organized protests and rallies of the second wave were replaced by workshops and conferences, where women taught women how to throw off the cultural ideologies that had trained them to be subservient to men. Both liberal and conservative women taught one another to find their own voices and express their views more effectively—personally, professionally, and politically.
The third wave ended in the mid 2000s, but we need to resurrect its use of workshops and conferences. They need to include, among many things, role-playing exercises, activist training, and the use of social media. We need to add weekend retreats and in-home “girls’ nights,” where women can share their personal stories and, if needed, begin to heal. College coeds need to be educated on the past, present, and future of sexism and feminism. And we need to extend such education to women and men of all ethnicities, economic classes, gender orientation, and political persuasions.
Most of all, however, we need to embrace and teach the heretofore-quiet fourth wave of feminism. This is often said to have started in 2008, as social networks were making feminism more accessible to the general public. But Pythia Peay described and defined the movement first, in 2005, as a fusion of spirituality and social justice reminiscent of the American civil rights movement and Gandhi’s call for nonviolent change. Researcher Diana Diamond has similarly described the fourth wave as a movement that “combines politics, psychology, and spirituality in an overarching vision of change.”
With the election of Trump, Mike Pence, and a Congress full of sycophantic Republicans, one can say traditionalist, hierarchical conservatives have reached their nirvana. And how happy the conservatives must be. They can imagine and laugh at Trump grabbing women’s genitals. They can rest easy and praise Pence for his sanctimonious refusal to dine alone with a woman colleague. They can revel in Paul Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s successful push to defund Planned Parenthood. They can bask in the rising sun of a personhood law and the punishments it could contain. And they can finally sleep at night, knowing that, surely, abortion will be made illegal in each and every case.
We have no choice but to fight the political oppression of women, but rallies and protests will do little to aid our cause. It’s going to take hands-on work in communities, workplaces, schools, and churches. It’s going to take commitment, courage, compassion, and faith. And at every turn, we’ll need to remind one another that we’re perfectly capable of doing it all.
Next issue: Sexism in the Age of Trump: Feminists for Justice and Spirituality (Part 4)