For months now, I have been hearing about all of these suburban women reportedly fleeing the Republican party in droves post-2016. Trump’s outdated messaging — “Housewives of America!” — seemed directed more toward a 1950s stereotype than the diverse, college-educated suburban women living here in reality. No one, myself included, thought it would land.
I was wrong.
Democratic women not only failed to decisively knock Conservative women from their seats, the GOP actually added 10 women to the House of Representatives, including avowed QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia. And despite polling and predictions, Republican Senators Joni Ernst and Susan Collins fended off their Democratic women challengers.
After watching women Republican senators like Ernst and Marsha Blackburn repeatedly praise Amy Coney Barrett more for her athletic womb than for her judicial record during her confirmation hearings, and seeing Kellyanne Conway state to the media (with a straight face!) that Trump is the real candidate best for women, I was expecting to watch women vote these people out.
Since the ‘70s, it’s been understood that the Republican party is fueled by an imaginary white, patriarchal, nuclear family idyll that of course appeals to white men, and even to some (though far fewer) Latino and Black men. This sentiment has only increased under Trump. But it turns out this highly gendered societal structure also appeals to white women. Only they call it “conservative feminism.”
These white women seem to interpret the word “feminist” as an attack against them by the hysterical, braless, man-haters on the radical left. Their attempts to reclaim the word revolve around this idea, perverting the definition of feminist to refer to a woman who takes pride in upholding gender stereotypes, believes toxic masculinity to be an immutable characteristic of men, and enjoys defining herself in opposition to this. They are women who describe themselves primarily in terms of “mom” — soccer mom, wine mom, working mom, boy mom — and to argue that not all women are moms is, to them, to argue against their own biology, to argue against motherhood itself and, therefore, womanhood.
“If you don’t buy into their feminist propaganda, you aren’t a real woman in their mind,” Sen. Blackburn tweeted after Justice Barrett’s confirmation hearing. The argument feminists actually make, that womanhood has nothing to do with conforming to any cultural expectation or idea, doesn’t seem to compute. This idea was supposed to have been repudiated on Tuesday. But it wasn’t. Along with whoever finally does win the presidency, this worldview has unquestionably won as well.
It isn’t all that jarring to hear Donald Trump declare to the women of Michigan, “We’re gonna get your husbands back to work!” or to hear Lindsay Graham say women have a place in South Carolina as long as they understand where that place is, young lady. But I must admit, it’s still upsetting to see other women embrace such a restrictive and punishing outlook, one that keeps them one peg down even as it provides them a ladder of other women to climb on.
Another factor that cannot be ignored is that this is overwhelmingly a white women problem. White women can be more comfortable with their own subjugation because it is cushioned by the privilege of whiteness. When, against all logic, Trump actually improved his numbers with white women (52% in 2016 to 55% in 2020), there is no conclusion to be reached other than that these women decided the primacy of whiteness was worth trading their own autonomy, bodily or otherwise.
I can’t be surprised to see conservative patriarchy make gains with men, but, and maybe this was naive, I was surprised to see it resound so decisively with women, as well.
That said, it wasn’t an absolute victory for the Handmaid’s Tale ideology. Delaware also elected the first trans woman, Sarah McBride, to the U.S. Senate, which gives me hope that the Upside Down World Feminism espoused by Conway, Barrett, and their ilk doesn’t have a totally iron grip on our government just yet. And while I expected more solidarity ~in the age of MeToo~ we shouldn’t ignore the gains we made, either.
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