Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee was nothing less than heroic. Listening to her recount her experience was moving, and for those of us who are survivors of sexual abuse, re-traumatizing. For many women, her appearance was galvanizing, and it resulted in a flurry of news coverage about the effect the hearings will have on the “women’s vote.”`
But headlines claiming that “Republicans Just Lost Women For Good” and that Democrats are gaining support among “women” ignore some key facts about white women. Often buried in stories about women voting patterns are persistent truths about white women: a majority of married white women (51 percent) and white women without college degrees (56 percent) still support Republicans.
White women have been voting for the GOP for generations, and will likely do so again this November. In a poll taken after the hearings, only 29 percent of all women in the U.S. want Kavanaugh confirmed, but 70 percent of Republican women do.
Why do white women keep voting for the GOP? It’s because Republican women are just as sexist as Republican men are. Why is that? The underlying reason has to do with the way that conservative white women understand gender, race and their particular position in the world.
In a poll taken after the hearings, only 29 percent of all women in the U.S. want Kavanaugh confirmed, but 70 percent of Republican women do.
Conservative white women believe that gender is binary and that men are inherently aggressive and selfish. Despite lots of scientific evidence to the contrary, they believe firmly that there are only two genders, and that men and women are fundamentally different from one another.
This conviction is supported by the centuries-old belief that women and men belong in “separate spheres” ― men in the public sphere, and women in the domestic. The idea of separate spheres emerged in the Victorian era, when the conventional wisdom held that “men possessed the capacity for reason, action, aggression, independence, and self-interest.” Women, meanwhile, “inhabited a separate, private sphere, one suitable for the so called inherent qualities of femininity: emotion, passivity, submission, dependence, and selflessness, all derived, it was claimed insistently, from women’s sexual and reproductive organization.”
One reason Republican women don’t believe Blasey is their belief that if women insist on being in the public sphere, they have to toughen up and learn to thrive in an inherently hostile male environment. If they complain about their treatment in the rough-and-tumble public sphere, they’re called “phony” (as Phyllis Schlafly called Anita Hill) or “deeply troubled,” (as Laura Ingraham called Dr. Blasey). At a pro-Kavanaugh rally organized by the California Federation of Republican Women, women attendees said that they thought Blasey’s story was “ridiculous” and “didn’t add up.” One woman said, “I think all men need to be scared after this.”
One reason Republican women don’t believe Blasey is their belief that if women insist on being in the public sphere, they have to toughen up.
The separate spheres ideology feeds another belief in conservative white women, which is that of course men are naturally “rape prone,” but sexual assault isn’t that bad, and that women can, by and large, prevent or avoid it.
Following Dr. Blasey’s testimony, many conservatives have downplayed what it means to be assaulted. Some men, like Simon Powell, a former federal prosecutor appearing on Fox News, said Blasey was “far from being raped ... It was all a fumbled attempt to make out at a party.” Steve King (R-Iowa), called the attacks on Kavanaugh a form of character assassination. He said, “If that’s the new standard, no man will ever qualify for the Supreme Court again.”
Equally disturbing, and perhaps more puzzling, are the women, almost always white women, who say some version of the same. For example, when one white Trump supporter from Boseman, Montana, spoke to a reporter, she said ― in the presence of her two white daughters ― that men groping women is “no big deal.” Whether it’s the alleged pedophile GOP candidate Roy Moore, or Donald Trump confessing to sexually assaulting women, there are white women who are ready to vote these men into power. Once you understand the conservative worldview that men are, after all, inherently rape-prone, then the “well, of course they did, so what?” defense begins to make a little more sense. This is just what men will do.
Research has found that the more traditional a person’s view of gender roles, the more likely she is to attribute a sexual assault to the woman victim’s violation of those gender roles. These so-called violations can be any attempt at treating men and women mostly the same, or recognizing multiple gender expressions, or simply advocating for women to have control over their own bodies. Dr. Blasey, by her very existence as a woman with a Ph.D., claiming her right to say that what happened to her body at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh was wrong, violates the core values of conservative women. It’s Kavanaugh they see as the real victim.
A recent study from Data for Progress confirms these attitudes shape people’s responses to the Kavanaugh hearings. Researchers found that people who agreed with statements like “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist” were more likely to support Kavanaugh’s confirmation ― no matter their age, race, party preference, education or income.
The white women who vote for the GOP believe that white people are America’s virtuous middle. The virtuous middle is how the Republican Party has distinguished its core beliefs from those of Democrats, whom they characterize as the party of intellectual snobs and the undeserving rabble. Central to this “virtuous middle” is white identity and, specifically, white femininity. The white women who are backing Kavanaugh and who will vote for the GOP in November are the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) descendants of the white women who joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, used their Daughters of the American Revolution club membership to exclude Marian Anderson, and the women who resisted racial integration.
The more traditional a person’s view of gender roles, the more likely she is to attribute a sexual assault to the woman victim’s violation of those gender roles.
Contemporary conservative white women see charges of sexual assault or harassment against white men as unfair maneuvers in the race and gender culture wars. That’s why right-wing media darlings like Martha MacCallum warn that the real danger is false accusations, and Ann Coulter shouts that the Kavanaugh hearings are “unfair to white men.” White women like MacCallum and Coulter are the handmaidens of contemporary white supremacist patriarchy. They are not just protecting white men, they are protecting themselves against the elites and the riff-raff of the Democrats.
White women have always been involved in white supremacy. And since the civil rights movement, white identity has become more challenged, and less a taken-for-granted standard for everything. The GOP has been successful in using this shift to their political advantage. Republican strategists have mobilized white resentment by depicting Democrats as the party of intellectual snobs and undeserving rabble and the GOP as the party of the virtuous middle.
Dr. Blasey’s testimony has been heralded as a new moment of sisterhood and a harbinger of a Blue Wave that will save us all from the many evils of Trumpism. But don’t count on all white women to join the swell.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at the City University of New York and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.