Dear College-Educated White Women: Surprise! You Are Oppressed

Last week, Donald Trump won the electoral (but not popular!) vote to become our country’s 45th president. Even after The Washington Post released a video last month in which Trump claimed he liked to “grab [women] by the p****,” he still received wide support from white women in the polls. According to The Boston Globe, 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, including 45 percent of college-educated white women.[1] Many of these women may have disagreed with Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals or felt that she didn’t represent their interests in some way. But the fact that these same women would actively vote for Trump, who has publicly come out basically admitting to sexual assault, may blow some of our minds. How could this happen?

Full disclosure: I am a (beyond) college-educated white woman, and as a researcher who specializes in women’s health I have spent most of my professional life (and probably my life before I was a professional) thinking about gender inequality. Most of us don’t do that. In fact, gender is one form of inequality that we are actively discouraged from thinking about. As my former boss at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Marianne Cooper, pointed out to me, we don’t discuss gender inequality around the dinner table. We may discuss racial inequality, particularly among families of color who feel that children need to be aware of the dangers of policing, for example. We may discuss class inequality by complaining about the “elite.” But, as Dr. Cooper notes, these inequalities are generally shared within a family, binding them together. In many cases a discussion of gender inequality would do the opposite by pitting some family members against others. How can you have a functioning family dinner (or family, for that matter) when you have to pass the salt to someone who symbolizes your oppressor?[2]

Certainly discussions about gender inequality aren’t encouraged in most of our workplaces, with our romantic partners (particularly in heterosexual relationships), in our places of worship, at our fitness centers, or even amongst our friends. They would disrupt the established order in these places as well. And if we don’t have discussions about gender inequality, we lose sight of it. We experience things that feel odd to us, but we don’t have a name for them. So, we assume they are just the natural order of things. Gender inequality is not the natural order of things. It is a social order that we learn by watching our mother make dinner every night while our father relaxes after work. We learn it when we see mostly women occupying traditionally “feminine” fields like teaching and clerical work that pay less than fields like investment banking and engineering. We learn it when the Nobel prizes are announced and not one of them goes to a woman (and only two to men who are not white).

In short, white women tend to enjoy the privileges of race and class, but are not encouraged to examine the area in which they are not privileged: their gender. So, when faced with gender inequality, they either don’t recognize it or think it doesn’t apply to them. And if you can’t recognize gender inequality, then you are far more likely to vote for someone like Donald Trump.

Other white ladies of the world, maybe you have experienced some of these things: Have you made a point in a meeting and had it ignored, only to have a man make the same point later and it is well received? Have you crossed the street to avoid walking through a group of men on the sidewalk? Have you been in social situations where your male partner is addressed before you are, or is the only one addressed when discussing topics like finance, business, or politics? Has a man talked over you in a group without apologizing? Is your boss male and everyone who works below him is female? Has a man told you to smile? That’s gender oppression. Has someone tried to grab you by the p****? That’s assault.

[1] Although I would like to think our country is at a point where we can include transgender women in the category of “woman,” I am going out on a limb here and assuming these numbers are for cisgender women. I suspect they are different among women who identify as trans.

[2] Here I would like to acknowledge that, as the father of three daughters and husband to a pretty strong woman, my stepfather has been extraordinarily receptive and patient to just these kinds of conversations. They are tough, but they can happen. And I have seen his views on gender and race expand impressively as a result.