On October 24, 2016, Carol Gilligan hosted a panel discussion at The New School titled “Election Game Changer: Is Gender the Explosive issue?” With election day fast-approaching, Gilligan and her fellow panelists, Wendy Puriefoy, Janet Reitman, Esther Franke, and Ali Shames-Dawson, engaged in a lively exploration of the political landscape in the aftermath of the infamous Pussygate incident, seeking specifically to unpack the question of why this episode in particular had become what many at the time believed would be the end of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Within this context, the panelists entertained such questions as: Is a gender conversation crucial? Will this election represent a turning point in American democracy? Are we witnessing the end-game of patriarchy? and, Who will vote for Hillary? Overall the debate was thoughtful and lively. Opinions were offered, challenged, and respected. The room was comfortable, and the implicit conclusion — that we were just days away from electing our first woman president — seemed foregone.
Of course, on election night it became clear that Gilligan, the panelists, and everyone in the room that night had missed something. Instead of the landslide vote for Hillary many expected to see in the exit polling on female voters, we learned that 53% of white women had voted for Donald Trump. Fifty-three percent. Put another way, that means that a clear majority of white women in this country walked into their polling stations and voted in favor of a confessed pussy-grabber, who, in the weeks following the hot-mic incident, was accused of sexually assaulting no less than twelve different human beings.
Who were these white women who voted for Trump? And, what’s more, how could they overlook his conduct to such an extent that they would actually choose to endorse him? In an effort to answer those questions New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg set out to interview white female Trump supporters, and overwhelmingly found a set of common themes. “Were they offended by Trump’s vile comments about women, captured on tape? Absolutely. Did they believe the women who came forward and said Trump had groped them? Not necessarily. Did any of it stop them from voting for him? No.” Ultimately, though they took the requisite level of offense at Trump’s language, 53% of white female voters reported that his revoltingly sexist devaluation of women and boasting endorsement of patriarchal power dynamics really just didn’t matter that much to them.
So what were we missing during the discussion on October 24th? One of the foundational assumptions upon which the panel based their commentary was that gender had “blown up” the election. Gilligan herself floated the idea that women’s votes would “bring down Trump,” and “decide this election.” Ironically, it is now apparent that gender actually was the so-called “explosive issue” many of us made it out to be, just not in the manner we expected. If we look closely, however, qualitative analysis reveals exactly how we landed so far off the mark.
To do so, it is necessary to return to the question of how and why, given all of the divisiveness of Trump’s campaign, this specific, highly gendered controversy became (or was thought to have become) the proverbial straw upon the camel’s back, and it is important to note that none of the panelists ever actually addressed this question head on. Initially posed early in the discussion, the actual “why” and “how” of the matter was largely overlooked in favor of several more theoretical explorations of women in politics, of how politics acts on bodies, of why many women have become empowered to reveal histories of sexual violence, of the nature of “the conversation” in this country, of archetypal representations of women in America, and of the potential last days of the patriarchy. Needless to say, we got a little bit ahead of ourselves.
However, with just minutes left to go, one audience member stood up and refocused the conversation on the specific mechanisms embedded in the question at hand: why and how did this tape elicit the type of reaction it did? In terms of the why: the truth of the matter is that all of those white male politicians who stood by Trump up until Pussygate did not denounce him afterward out of their established understanding that all women are autonomous, fully-realized human subjectivities, inherently equal to their male counterparts and thus equally deserving of respect. The reason why these men denounced Trump was because the majority of them had been looking for a reason to do so all along; they just hadn’t yet found one that fit neatly into the patriarchal, predominantly white narrative of hegemonic masculinity that exists at varying levels of consciousness in this country. Castigating Trump for calling Mexicans rapists, for proposing to ban an entire religion from entering the country, or for falsely equivocating emails with blatant racism, sexism, and xenophobia provided no such comfortable escape hatch. Castigating Trump for preying upon the fairer, weaker sex, and especially doing so from the position of saviors, did. Understood in this way, the backlash by white male politicians was more an affirmation of patriarchal values than any sort of repudiation of sexism or sexual violence.
For evidence to support this claim, simply refer to how the backlash was contextualized and communicated. Almost without exception, the white male politicians in question denounced Trump by characterizing themselves as some combination of “the father of daughters,” the “husband of a strong woman,” and, all of them, obviously, “somebody’s son.” Close analysis of these statements demonstrates how these men think of themselves in relationship with the women around them; namely, as masculine saviors. In a piece for Refinery 29, New School professor Natalia Mehlmen Petrzela frames this language through the lens of “the pedestal problem,” or what feminist scholars describe as the “subtly sexist intellectual act of elevating women to an almost otherworldly, less-than-human status by emphasizing their delicateness, supreme virtue, fitness for motherhood, and essential difference from men.” This is a far cry from denouncing Trump simply as human beings appalled by the treatment of fellow humans. In fact, such a paternalistic justification actively reinforces the understanding of women as objects, and is therefore part and parcel of the very same stance on women and gender that permits someone like Trump say what he said in the first place.
Seen in this light, the backlash by white male politicians in the wake of Pussygate was, once again, less an expression of male feminist outrage than the predictable response of a patriarchal establishment in search of a workable way to distance itself from Donald Trump. It did not “blow up” the election, but rather provided white male politicians with a familiar narrative within which they could comfortably express their disdain. What’s more, bearing out the paternalistic image of white men coming to the rescue of (white) women may actually have worked to moderate the impact of Trump’s words on the very women these men purported to defend. Remember, it was 53% of white women who voted Donald Trump into office. Compare this to the 26% of Latinas and a mere 4% of African American women who voted for him, and it becomes clear that taking an intersectional perspective on the values, narratives, and unconscious forces that motivated these white women might help us begin to unpack the etiology of the choice they made.
For example: fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump, and research shows that whiteness confers privilege. Typically a discussion of privilege revolves around its advantages, but in an intersectional approach toward understanding identity politics it’s useful to conceptualize privilege as a gradient along which different combinations of race and gender identity coexist and overlap. When it comes to the fifty-three percent, is it possible that the privilege of their whiteness acted as a kind of buffer against Trump’s attack on their womanhood? That their whiteness located these women within the larger narrative in such a way that their dismissal of his misogyny was facilitated? Or even expected? Was the simple image of a white men standing up “for” them enough to shield them from the impact of Trump’s denigration? Did they feel this somehow protected them from the tangible, even painful ways their lives and bodies might be affected by a Trump administration? Or are they comfortable with the “boys will be boys” excuse because they encounter it so often that they have internalized it as true? In another nod to the insidious nature of the pedestal problem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “the pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” Here it seems at least somewhat feasible that this 53% of white women found themselves in a cage constructed, in part, by the convoluted nature of their own privileged identities.
During her panel presentation, Gilligan made the observation that “patriarchy cannot continue without separating women from one another,” and now, in the aftermath of the election, her words sound almost like a premonition. While liberal feminists were ensconced in like-minded communities, prematurely toasting the imminent end of history (I can say this because I was one of them), differently minded women across the country were preparing to act upon a set of predispositions and priorities of which their coastal sisters had very little basic awareness, let alone claim to intellectual access. Among white women specifically, it is clear that we failed to imagine ourselves into the shoes of our similar others. We minimized, marginalized, and dismissed those with whom we did not agree. We failed to listen, and for that we may very well pay a heavy price. Going forward it is clear that all women will need to learn the value of occasionally choosing to identify with each other as women first, and as differently raced or affluent or educated or politicized individuals second. We cannot continue to be self-satisfied, or to believe that others are simply wrong. We cannot continue to get ahead of ourselves.
To that end, I’ve included an “I poem” constructed from an interview with political commentator Tomi Lahren. Tomi is a young, educated, white woman with whom I thought I shared almost nothing in common, despite the surface-level similarities. I made this personal judgment about the extent to which we could — or could not — possibly relate to each other after watching several of her militantly conservative segments on TheBlaze, because, to me, the extreme discrepancy between our political ideologies was somehow enough to render us fundamentally different. After reading through her I poem, though, I’m no longer so sure.
An “I poem” is one component of a relational, feminist method of qualitative research called The Listening Guide (Gilligan, Spencer, Weinberg, & Bertsch, 2003). I poems are constructed by isolating every I statement in a given text, such as an interview, and listing them in order of appearance. They are intended to draw the researcher’s attention to the first person voice of the narrator as she speaks of acting and being in the world.
Source text: Interview with Tomi Lahren (excerpt)
By Mark Bode, Harvard Political Review
September 21, 2016
I am an outlet
I’m not afraid
I don’t say
I really think
I was raised
I was raised
I was not privileged
I’ve never been wealthy
I’ve worked very hard
I have more
I’m an inspiration
I can be
I want to portray
I really do care
I just want
I’ve been able
I’m very appreciative
I don’t have
I don’t have
I tend to move
I’m so grateful