White women during the 2016 election voted in the majority for Republican nominee Donald Trump. He won about sixty percent of the white woman vote over his opponent Hillary Clinton – a white woman. How did a white woman, a representative for the demographic, lose that voting bloc? Especially when pitted against a man embodying both incompetency and, more importantly regarding this question, the misogyny that infects American society. Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won women of every other racial group (black women, Latinas, Asian women) so the issue does not necessarily have its roots in her gender. Identity markers like economic class, ideological leaning, age, and others certainly factor into why white women turned away from Hillary and certainly can have been compounded by the fact that Clinton is a woman.
Women in a broader sense are at a disadvantage in the rhetorical sphere and – as is imperative to acknowledge in Hillary Clinton’s case – the political arena as well. Originally, rhetoric was a place for men to make their opinions heard and have their attempts at persuading the people who would listen to them. Only after some time were areas carved out for women in rhetoric (although modern theorists will argue that women found ways to make rhetoric informally), yet due to their later entry into the field women are inherently distrusted. To dissuade constituents from listening to female rhetoricians their male counterparts looked to portray them as incompetent, unintelligent, and improper. Many were pushed to only discuss certain matters, and even first ladies who had originally helped with political decisions instead shifted to simply encouraging republican motherhood (The Rise of the Rhetorical First Lady). This lasting mythos is especially ironic, considering how unprepared Donald Trump is for the position of president and how extensive Hillary Clinton’s resume was. Another question thus comes to mind – is being a woman considered more of a preparatory failure in the political arena than actually having never served in politics in any capacity? A man with no experience has attained possibly the most important job in the world – is it simply because his foil was a woman?
Men are typically suspect of women because they are the other, because if a woman is equal to them then they cannot look for another gender to scapegoat to prove their superiority. On the other hand women are distrustful of each other not because they view fellow women as the other, but because they are conditioned to butt against others. In order to achieve any semblance of equality in the male world women for many years wanted to emulate men, to achieve the same goals that men pursued to prove that they could be on the same level as men. Women were forced to compete with one another, to even denigrate one another to prop one’s self up. Feminists up until the middle of the twentieth century maintained this thinking, and it was in this environment that Hillary Clinton came up and developed her feminism. How Hillary learned to navigate patriarchy through this feminist strain of thought is articulated by clogan in her exploration “The Ironic Absence of Hillary Clinton From America’s New Brand of Feminism”:
“In order to combat male criticism she joined the ranks, walled off her emotions and became more and more traditionally “masculine” as her societal and political exposure increased, which is reflected most clearly in her rhetorical style. Clinton channels strength and unemotional view of the issues she champions. She is based in facts, realistic goals, data and she delivers these facts to the American public in a matter of fact tone that many Americans do not gravitate to. She rarely shares personal anecdotes or family stories. If the canons of rhetoric stopped at invention, Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election in a land slide, but she seems to loose a significant portion of her would be voters in the canons of style and delivery, a fact that strongly reflects on her gender, how people perceive her through a gendered lens and also, how she has come to perceive herself through that same lens, simply by way of living in American society.”
Hillary Clinton has practiced competitive behavior, when she protected Bill from “loony toon” Monica Lewinsky and when she put down women who “stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” Thankfully popular thinking has moved away from this and is now following logic that says regardless of whether women behave like men or not, they are still equal and deserving of the same rights and possibly special accommodations as well. However, the instances of Hillary Clinton’s misogyny can be a reason for why women would not like her. Janis Edwards’ article about Hillary Clinton’s 2008 candidacy points out that Clinton “… uses indirect methods to make emotional appeals,” the same kind of appeals that are seen as typical for women (“The 2008 Gendered Campaign and the Problem With ‘Hillary Studies'”) Her outsourcing continues to this day as can be seen from emotional speeches made by Michelle Obama and other similar instances (Beyond The Rhetorical First Lady, Do You Trust Her?, Behind The Stare.) While Hillary Clinton herself has said she comes off as “cold” or at the very least “measured” in her image, she claims that it is because it’s what she had to do to attain her position. Yet she hasn’t done much to change this image, despite her proclivity for embodying both masculine and feminine identity.
Young Hillary Clinton was decidedly more liberal and more outspoken in her opinions than her current incarnation. Since her time at Wellesley College Ms. Clinton fought hard for women’s rights – often dressed up as a pseudo-hippie chick, organizing for change – and she even went as far as attacking the establishment in her commencement speech. Yet even this was out of character for Clinton, who often worked within the establishment to achieve goals (Hillary Clinton’s Breakout Moment at Wellesley College). Within a few years, Hillary was married to gubernatorial hopeful Bill Clinton and finding herself pushed into conforming to male ideals of femininity – something that wasn’t natural for her (For Hillary In Arkansas First Came Rejection, Then Rebranding). She kept up this image during Bill’s presidential campaign as well, but she was still able to shift to masculinity despite her visual presentation. She showed her own political aspirations in consideration of running for Bill’s governor seat (What Hillary Wants) and in subtly criticizing China during her Women’s Rights are Human Rights speech. This constant switching back and forth keeps Hillary tied to both feminine and masculine ideals while she remains distanced from them – in this regard, she looks exploitative of both genders and ends up as some agender enigma. This can be seen as a betrayal of her original gender and women can feel abandoned by Clinton for this.
Female disdain for one another is not enough to explain Hillary’s loss though, because she won a majority of women in demographic groups outside of the white one. She made compelling pleas to women at large in her speeches. We can consider that white women have to hate Hillary because she’s a woman – they cannot oppose her based on her whiteness because it’s something they embody as well. They also had the option in the 2016 election of choosing from two white options – for women of other races, they didn’t see themselves represented at all outside of Hillary’s gender. Would we then say that these women of color were “voting with their vaginas” ? I think the issue is compounded, and while there may be a few who simply would want to support a women no matter what there are still many of those who had to find other reasons to support Ms. Clinton.
For these non-white women, the ultimate reason is probably just that they are simply more likely to be liberal. Women vote for the left at higher rates, as do people of color, so fusing the two probably makes the liberal ideology of these voters that much stronger. Yet on interesting factor in this election that is not found in many is Donald Trump. He was outspoken about both his misogyny and racism (while also vehemently stating that he was not those things) and this surely drove many away. Clearly most white women were not turned off by his comments on women – maybe most women at large weren’t offended, but for these voters of color racism in his campaign pushed them away. Maybe the white women who supported Trump didn’t like what he had to say about women, but just distrusted another women so much that they had to vote for him. There could also be the possibility that they were racist, Islamophobic, or simply already Republican.
Yet the more interesting thing here is that Hillary Clinton’s own people did not show her support. As White and Farnham discuss in their analysis of Massachusetts State Senator Mary Fonseca, women should be able to form unique rhetorical appeals based on their personal experiences (“Were Those Hard Times For Women or What?” The Practical Public Discourse of Mary Leite Fonseca, Massachusetts State Senator, 1953-1984). Hillary Clinton should be the perfect person to persuade white women according to this logic. A possible reason why she wasn’t able to reach out to white women is the fact that she attempted to include so many non-white women in her campaign. By making it her goal to create a diverse coalition (much like Obama in 2008) Hillary Clinton focused her efforts on minorities – by prioritizing them she let the desires/needs of white women fall by the wayside. Belinda A. Stillion Southard contends that exclusion is part and parcel with inclusion, and as a movement pursues a specific goal it risks ignoring portions of its constituency (A Rhetoric of Inclusion). In trying to be as diverse as possible, the Hillary Clinton nomination – which could be considered a historic moment and culmination of a movement for women – lost a possible membership in white women.
Hillary also lived comparable experiences to those of common women throughout the campaign that should’ve engendered more to come out for her. Trump and many of his supporters vehemently hated her, some even threatening her. She got called names and had serious accusations thrown at her. The fact that she often has to choose between two impossible choices – called the double bind – (Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage) and gets mocked (#ImANastyWoman) shows that she is a real woman who still gets treated the way many others do. Trump’s codeword for Hillary during the presidential debate was simply another attempt at what men had been doing since women gained any rhetorical/political power, trying to shut them out. (Containment Rhetoric in American Politics). It’s happened in the media too (“Cable News Has a Sexism Problem”), most recently to people like Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson. It happens to a lot of women. But why doesn’t this make her relatable? Is it because people know that she has the power to survive regardless of these attacks? Is it because she’s made similar attacks on women in the past?
Rebuking Hillary could come from a more socio-economic standpoint as well. Women are already conditioned to be jealous of one another, so to be faced with a woman who is much richer and much more relevant than the average woman is can be upsetting. And Hillary has portrayed herself in ways that can be seen as unnecessarily extravagant – whether it be in clothing (Jewel Purpose) or her ability to compel celebrities and other media representatives to support and aid her (Iconic Hillary, “A Deadpan Hillary Clinton Visits ‘Between Two Ferns’,” Hillary’s First 100 Days). Yet she has also learned to temper herself as time has gone by, clear in her simple pantsuits that she’s been wearing to speeches that remind of us of the simplicity that people like Eileen Fisher encourage older women to pursue (Nobody’s Looking at You).
One might wonder now if this argument makes sense when you consider the fact that women of color are more likely to be in a lower economic bracket and generally more disadvantaged. If anyone would be jealous of Hillary Clinton shouldn’t it be them? I would contend that in this situation white women develop the higher levels of jealousy because the grandeur of Hillary Clinton unseats them as the “most privileged woman”. Also brought up in the aforementioned article by Janis Richards, Hillary Clinton has become such an iconoclastic figure in American society that it is almost impossible to compare her to a “common woman” – her level of celebrity makes her practically enigmatic. Women of color come to realize early on that they experience a much more difficult path to achievement, and thus become more realistic. White women (whether they acknowledge or not) are the most privileged women and appreciate it when it stays that way.
Another lens through which to study why women would move away from Hillary Clinton is because of conservative ideology. While I do think you can make the case that Hillary Clinton does embody some conservatism (Hillary Clinton: Conservative Ideas or Conservative Rhetoric?), she is not a conservative in the way much of the right/Republicans are. The GOP has encouraged and utilized racism and anti-govt assistance sentiments in its appeals, which impacts many women in disadvantaged communities in the country. In this regard, women of color are already pretty much out – but white women can still find their niche in the GOP, or more broadly the right-wing. Despite growing sexism, there have been strong female Republicans in the past – consider Elizabeth Dole and Sarah Palin. They both ultimately failed and suffered a lot of criticism but during their initial introductions to the nation they were extremely popular. (Sarah Palin’s 2008 Speech to the RNC, From Spouses to Candidates: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, and the Gendered Office of U.S. President). They were similar to Hillary Clinton in their strength, but Clinton was never as well liked as them. The right has long had disdain for the Clintons – is it enough to rationalize that almost 60% of white women are conservatives?
There is also the perceived holier than thou attitude that Hillary Clinton embodies. In the 90’s Peggy Noonan complained of her moral superiority and Arianna Huffington described her as having “self-righteousness” (Hating Hillary). When it comes to the white women vote in terms of educational background there was a split – ones with college education went to Hillary while others without did not. But in terms of other groups of women there are significant barriers to education, barriers that white women often don’t face. Of course there’s layers here though, considering the state of the public education system in the United States and the small “privilege” some white women can be seen as having in the lack of a need for a college education (because they are already supported/in a good situation). Does lack of an education excuse a vote for one side when that side is clearly morally reprehensible and grossly uninformed? Do these uneducated voters have less of a right to make decisions that will affect everyone? This is a question that’s persisted for way too long (and won’t be answered here). Yet it is clear that people do not like it when they perceive someone as believing they’re better than them.
This may be tangential but this question is plaguing me at the moment. Is it unfair of us to expect Hillary Clinton to carry a majority of female votes? Simply because she is a woman, we expect her to attract all women? (The Atlantic: “Women Aren’t Responsible For Hillary Clinton’s Defeat”) Not discussed often in our class were past elections, and how women voted in those. While women tend to go Democrat and we can assume that Democratic nominees in the past have gotten most of their vote, do white women tend to go Democrat? Does the Democratic nominee typically attract white women? At this point there are three options to consider when thinking of what way white women could go – the white male candidate, the black male candidate, and the white female candidate. Who prevails? In addition do we expect too much of women if we require them to support a woman? Clearly a Trump is not in their interest, but is the fact that he’s bad for women and she’s not a compelling reason to support her?
Ultimately there is no one singular reason for why white women departed from Hillary Clinton, and the reasons we do come up with aren’t clearly the motivators for why they left. While there is clearly the racial aspect of this dilemma, many other axes of identity operate that affect how women vote. Women of higher education (who were white) supported Hillary Clinton. White women dwelling in urban population centers mostly went to Clinton as well. The most compelling reason to me why Hillary Clinton lost white women is the idea of the inclusion/exclusion dichotomy – that Hillary tried to bring back the diverse coalition that propelled Obama into power. Were there men in that diverse coalition that supported Obama, but not Clinton, because of gender? Was she not “unprivileged” enough, because of her whiteness and position, to relate to this coalition of disadvantaged peoples? It is not clear.
All things considered I think the more probable answer to why Hillary Clinton couldn’t win over white women is because the majority are probably trending towards racism, internal misogyny, and conservatism more than other groups of women. I like to believe this isn’t true, but at the same time I realize the issue with me (a white male) insinuating that women should follow a certain path that I believe is in their best interest. Here I’m stuck in a double bind, much like Hillary has been in this campaign (and for her whole political career). Be emotional and warm or be stoic and cold. Be masculine acting or feminine acting. Be accepting of diverse narratives or rely on white people to vote for you. In reality, I’m not sure even making more attempts to include white women would’ve helped Ms. Clinton win this election. At