Those angry white women who came out in droves for Trump were there all along, but most of us didn’t see them. Their stories and struggles were overshadowed by a drama where it simply was assumed that the part of the Angry White Voter—like most leading roles—would be played by a man. And what happened is a stinging reminder that sexism isn’t just Trump’s problem: it’s all of our problem.
It’s now clear that many women were not sufficiently moved by the idea of electing a woman president to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton. For these women—who span the political spectrum—other issues took priority. I suspect that for many of them, the things they consider to be really important aren’t perceived as women’s issues at all. That’s a mistake. To take but one example, in a country where three-quarters of people earning minimum wage are women, why were coal miners and steel workers presented as the archetypal disillusioned worker? The point we needed to make—but didn’t—when talking about the stakes of electing a woman to the White House is that women’s issues matter to all of us, not just those who happen to identify as feminists.
Of course, given that this election pitted the first woman major party nominee against a candidate who takes evident pride in being a male chauvinist, it’s not as if gender talk was completely absent. And yet, the big headline turned out to be a gender bombshell that few saw coming: the pivotal role that white women generally—and non-college educated white women in particular—played in muscling Trump over the finish line.
In retrospect, it was a stunning oversight—and ironically, one that reveals a deep disregard for women as members of our polity, even among those who claim to know better. From the earliest stages of the campaign, as the pundits fumbled to explain the unexpected rise of candidate Trump, the dominant narrative emerged: that this would be an election pitting angry white men—guys aggrieved that a comfortable perch in the middle-class no longer can be counted on as their birthright—against the rest of us (who presumably aren’t as aggrieved because this privilege was never ours to take for granted in the first place). This story made sense, except that it failed to account for the formidable political power of all the mothers and wives and daughters living alongside those angry white men.
Could it be that even those of us who think of ourselves as “getting it” when it comes to gender still fell into that age old habit of paying attention to the man in the room while treating the women around him as if they simply don’t exist? The reality is that Trump got elected because of voters who are angry and white. And just because some of those angry white people also happen to be women doesn’t mean they should have been written off or taken for granted—or that their votes wouldn’t count just as much as their male counterparts’ surely did.
Of course, this election was determined, as virtually all elections in this country are, not just by those who did vote, but also by those who didn’t. And the reality is that Clinton wasn’t able to get enough people to the polls, particularly in those Rust Belt states where the Democratic base had been so energized by Bernie Sanders just months before.
The question we have to face now isn’t why so many Democrats preferred the idea of a Sanders presidency to a Clinton presidency: that’s an easy one. The hard question is why so many people couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton once it was determined that she would be the nominee. This is the question I find myself coming back to again and again as I think about all those Bible Belt conservative women who must have been gritting their teeth so hard their gums bled as they cast their votes for Trump. But cast their votes they did.
I’d like to think the takeaway message here is that disgruntled Democrats are by-and-large a more principled bunch than their Republican counterparts. And maybe that’s true. But I can’t help wonder why it is that the idea of supporting Hillary Clinton struck so many voters as somehow beneath them—as if supporting her candidacy would constitute a singular abdication of moral standards, rather than registering as just another instance of the perennial electoral tug-of-war between principle and pragmatism. Did people hold Hillary Clinton to a higher standard, judge her more harshly, or just experience a widely-acknowledged visceral dislike of her because she’s a woman? We’ll never know for sure, but hopefully this election will be a chance for each and every one of us to think long and hard about why gender remains such a problem in this country, and what exactly it would take to convince us that now is finally the time to do something about it.