Why do women fail to vote as a class?

Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

In the wake of Trump’s victory, we have sought explanations: how can this nightmare have actually come true? Always a popular scapegoat, women have been getting a lot of the blame. While the majority of U.S. women voted for Clinton (54 per cent), the majority of white women voted for Trump (53 per cent). In The Atlantic, Clare Foran explains:

Women failed Hillary Clinton — and none more so than white women. That idea has congealed into conventional wisdom in the aftermath of the election. Vanity Fair published an article titled: ‘Why Hillary Clinton Couldn’t Win Over Female Voters’ while Time ran a story headlined: ‘Why So Many Women Abandoned Hillary Clinton.’ Slate declared: ‘White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump.’”

The focus on women and the invisibilization of the fact that the majority of males (53 per cent) voted for Trump (including the majority of white males) betrays a nasty boys-will-be-boys dismissal of men’s actions. In every political party and in every recorded racial category, a higher percentage of men voted for Trump than women.

However, there is still a conversation to be had around women’s failure to vote in their own interests. It is shocking that more women didn’t vote for Clinton, considering Trump’s egregious misogyny and the fact he is a self-professed sexual assaulter. It’s true more women voted for Clinton than Trump, but there was no notable surge of women voting as a bloc beyond the usual female slant to the left. In fact, a higher percentage of women voted for Obama in 2012 than they did for Clinton this year. Post-election, the question remains for stunned and disheartened feminists: why don’t women unite in order to collectively fight for their political interests?

Simone De Beauvoir famously attributed this, in part, to the fact that women are  uniquely “dispersed” — not grouped together like other oppressed peoples, but always intimately attached to their oppressors. She writes, “If [women] belong to the bourgeoisie, they feel solidarity with men of that class, not with proletarian women; if they are white, their allegiance is to white men, not to black women.”

However, the liberation of women is not hopeless, according to Beauvoir, as women’s failure to unite is not a facet of their nature, but rather the result of an intentional engineering of society for the benefit of males. Because this engineering is socially constructed, it can be resisted. We can see that the American right thwarts female class consciousness by promoting women’s attachment to and dependence on men in the traditional familial mode of patriarchal control — they achieve this by enforcing compulsory heterosexuality, demonizing reproductive autonomy (literally), and downplaying the realities of sexual inequality. (Conservative anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, argues that females aren’t oppressed at all —  rather, she says, “it is [males] who are the second sex”).

The American left is less straightforward in its promotion of this division among women, but it is nonetheless present. After all, there wasn’t a notable uptick of Democratic and Independent women voting against the Republican candidate, either, despite him being a frothing-at-the-mouth, humping-at-the-chair sexual exploiter, assaulter, and all-around hater of women. (His grandfather first amassed the Trump fortune as a brothel owner in NYC, for crying out loud.) And yet it still seemed like, throughout the campaign period, leftist women — even some feminists — just as readily declared that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the terribly inadequate Clinton, despite it meaning a Trump presidency.

While the right was able to take a piece of human garbage, straight out of reality television with no political experience, and stand behind him (even begrudgingly — as Republican leaders who had been personally insulted by Trump still supported him, in the end), the left still could not bring itself to come together in a decisive and categorical opposition to Trump. The fragmentation of the left is reflective of the fact that its rhetoric has become increasingly steeped in postmodernist ideology — particularly on women’s issues.

Postmodernist feminism sees the path to political change as not something achieved by females uniting as a class to change the material conditions of their lives, but rather, as carried out through erasing the “exclusionary” category of femaleness itself. Feminism, we’re told, can happen on a symbolic level. Postmodernist feminism says that gender oppression, for example, can be abolished by adopting gender-neutral language, and that males will stop exploiting females if we simply make the words “male” and “female” meaningless. Oppression is not seen as something that happens when one class subordinates the other, but instead as something rooted only in the social labeling of the those two classes in a binary way: male vs. female.

Marxist theory (once influential to leftists), which advocates for the exploited class to unite against the exploiter class, seems unfashionable today, as it relies on a “binary opposition” between economic classes. Even worse, it is a binary opposition that sorts people into categories of either/or, without recognizing that each individual is a special snowflake — a complex and unique being unlike any other. Contemporary theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have tried to remedy this awkward gap in thinking. In their book, Multitude, Hardt and Negri claim that Marx’s class binary was really meant to refer to a more nuanced field of unique individuals: “a multitude,” who are each an “irreducible multiplicity,” and thus “can never be flattened out into sameness, [or] unity” of one class of the binary opposition or the other.

This hollowing out of Marxist theory, represented in the push to make everything “non-binary,” works to obliterate the potential for class conscious — the fundamental condition behind political revolution. Women are told they cannot join in resistance because joining the class of women (in order to fight the oppression of females as a sex class) is said to reinforce the gender binary. Female political unity is said to erase the various differences between women — that, tied to the fact that female unity excludes men, has been turned into a sin. Women are told they are not supposed to fight against men, but rather, work to erase the distinguishing lines between themselves and men entirely — to erase sex-specificity from language, social spaces, infrastructure, and even political consciousness. (It’s quite an ingenious move, really). In the rubble of female solidarity, postmodernist ideology erects the liberatory promise of individuality. Women are told they can each find their own freedom by expressing their unique, individual identity.

With such a perfect system of ideological control choking the women’s movement and discouraging female political solidarity, it sadly makes perfect sense that the left failed to act decisively to stop Trump. Women have comprised the majority of votes for every Democratic candidate in the U.S. since 1980. We are a crucial political force.

So, the bad news is that we are currently in hell. There’s no reversing this election. The senate and house are both under Republican control. We are facing a terrifying intensification of the GOP War on Women and a societal valorization of racism and sexism embodied in the soon-to-be President Rapist.

The good news is that women will most likely be the group who puts a stop to this madness.  Sisterhood is powerful, and we can resist the strategies that keep us divided. I will be marching in D.C. on January 21st with my sisters. Thousands of women will unite in opposition to Trump and his male-supremacist regime, because female liberation is the path to a better world. As Gail Dines says: “Women have been the leaders of every single major movement that has made this world livable. We have moved this world. And we have the power to change it.”

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.