If Hillary Rodham Clinton had triumphed in Tuesday’s presidential election, it would have been a milestone for women’s political representation: a shattering of the hardest glass ceiling, as her supporters liked to say. Clinton’s defeat in the electoral college (but not the popular vote) is also the failure of a certain feminist stratagem: the cultivation of a highly qualified, centrist, establishment (and comparatively hawkish) female candidate, measured in speech and reassuringly moderate in her politics. But the victory of Donald Trump tells us just as much about the global politics of gender, and how it is being remade.
The election itself was predicted to be the most divided by sex in US history. Polls from a few weeks before the election had Clinton’s lead among women at the highest level for a presidential candidate since records began in 1952. A widely shared meme celebrated the trend and declared that “women’s suffrage is saving the world”. Activists from the alt-right trolled in response that the 19th amendment should be repealed. Time called the election a ‘referendum on gender’; The New Yorker a question of ‘manifest misogyny.’
In the end, the politics of race mediated the politics of gender: white women were by many leagues more comfortable with Trump’s candidacy than women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out on Wednesday morning, the claim for a singular female worldview that could be mobilised to ordain Clinton ‘Madame President’ collapses under the pressure of other cross-cutting histories, interests, and ideologies. NBC exit polls reported a 10% lead for Trump among white women, and an almost 20% lead amongst white women between the ages of 45 and 64. By contrast, CNN data indicated that 94% of black women voted for Clinton. Opinions now vary on how much blame to apportion suburban white women, or what have been called ‘Ivanka voters.’
And yet the power of race and racism in deciding the election should not be taken to mean that gender is irrelevant after all. As predicted, white men voted for Trump in the greatest numbers. And although the collapse in the predicted female vote for Clinton is surprising, it is at the same time no novelty to observe that women may also disqualify a politician on the basis of her sex — for example, in setting higher standards for female than male candidates, in believing that only men are aggressive enough for politics, or in judging women more harshly on their appearance and demeanour.
Instead of seeing gender as simply subordinate to ethnopolitics, we may instead ask how different versions of masculinity and femininity are deployed in the creation of political community. If the representative Trump voter is reacting to a sense of decay in the American system — defined variously as excessive ‘political correctness’; a condescending cultural elite; the decline of the US economy; the presence, success, and sometimes mere existence of immigrant and minority ethnic communities; and the weakening of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian morals as enforced by government — then their preferred solution is to resuscitate a highly masculine version of American power.
This projected return to ‘greatness’ — which allocates a special place to security measures to be taken against foreign and otherwise ‘un-American’ bodies — is also thoroughly white, as is indicated by alt-right renderings of Trump as a Spartan king (borrowing from Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and the later film, both of which contrasted the whiteness of the heroic Greeks with the exaggerated blackness of Persian invaders). No mystery is posed by the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan in this regard. And Trump’s infamous reference to Mexican rapists further reveals how the immigrant invader is already presumed male. To experience the loss of American greatness is to be emasculated; to achieve its return is to reassert privilege, status, and exceptionalism (liberals are exceptionalists too, if in a less crudely masculine fashion).
And yet in this act of reassertion gender itself functions in complex ways. As Jenny Mathers points out, many of the traits celebrated in Trump — impulsiveness, over-sensitivity, emotionality — are traditionally coded as feminine, while voters’ collective immunity to Trump’s gaffes and insults can in turn be read as the rejection of a mode of leadership — logical, calculating, authoritative — usually attributed to men, and which Hillary Clinton spent decades working to inhabit in conformity with the expectations for properly ‘presidential’ behaviour.
One explanation for Trump’s support amongst suburban and affluent women might indeed be his defence of a parochial sense of ‘home.’ Home not just in the sense of traditional domesticity, with basically heterosexual arrangements and women as stay-at-home mothers (as Trump voters prefer), but also in the adoption of isolationist foreign policy, and in his campaign-defining promise to build a wall to protect the ‘domestic’ space of the nation. Homeland security, in other words, is analogical to the safety of the family in its household. Trump’s electoral coalition represents a major reconfiguration of ideas about the body politic, and the reassertion of a nationalist idea of greatness that liberals had hoped dead, in which the terms of gender as well as race and political economy announce a kind of updated, authoritarian 1950s: stable and well-paid middle class jobs, in ethnically homogeneous and white Christian communities, but without full reproductive rights, trans bathrooms, trigger warnings or equal gender representation in political, military, economic and cultural life.
However divided the country, this is the posture that now commands the right to rule, within the republic and beyond it. Far from only elevating white men, this ideological configuration will also, as Jacqui True and Aida Hozić have argued, have to strike a new patriarchal bargain with its female supporters. It may, for example, lead to a settlement that accommodates some women’s economic self-interest, but which also further legitimises the entitled attitudes of ‘toxic masculinity.’ To the extent that a Trump presidency seeks to push back against the dislocating tendencies of globalisation (themselves gendered — just think of the feminisation of irregular labour), it will also be forced to navigate between a distinctly un-Republican policy of government support (the matriarchal ‘nanny’ state) and a more conventional escalation of military spending (to reassert America’s masculine prowess, as has been promised). Militarism itself can accommodate ‘the woman question’ by taking on the mantle of protector, reinforcing patriarchal authority as a solution to women’s vulnerability. Such an ideological thread will be most easily constructed not as a response to rape culture within the United States, but on the designation of foreign others as smugglers of an alien gender ideology and/or as rapists-in-waiting.
The ramifications of a Trump presidency will obviously be global. In the meantime, gender will shape multiple domains of world politics just as it always has. The spectacle of the election has concentrated minds on the politics of gender, framed as kind of battle of the sexes, but it operates far in excess of that frenzy. Politics as currently constituted is indeed everywhere a referendum on gender, not as a master conflict but articulated with, atop and sometimes inside other global contests of power and freedom.
Featured image credit: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.