Like many of my fellow Americans, I was glued to the television on election night. After months of the media and politicos enumerating the many reasons why Donald Trump would never win, I watched in shock as he became president-elect of the United States. The following morning, I learned that 42% of American women who voted in the election chose to vote for a man who repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny in words and actions over the possibility of electing the first woman president.1 More significantly, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump, a statistic that continues to drive many conversations about the supposed demise of feminism and the rise of the new conservative woman.2 Liberal feminists who voted for Clinton, such as myself, are struggling to understand the growing divide in the gender gap of American politics.
In contrast to feminist notions of universal sisterhood, white women as a whole have always leaned towards being conservative, even as they have sought to create social change within American society. Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony radically challenged gender norms in their time period, but they held conservative views on issues of race.3 Alice Paul, the militant suffragist who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923, rejected the growing birth control movement and opposed abortion for fear that it would harm the suffrage cause by connecting voting rights to radical sexuality.4
During the 1960s and 1970s, feminists were split along color lines but also on ideology. Liberal feminists aligned with Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women to advocate for laws such as the ERA, while radical feminists like Valerie Solanas and Shulamith Firestone rejected liberal efforts to create laws within a system that was patriarchal and corrupt. These same radical feminists attempted to convince suffragist Alice Paul to advocate for the removal of voting rights for women because they did not believe in participating in patriarchy.5
The movement around the ERA reflects a broader struggle that has existed among American women, particularly white women, in that race and class privilege often trumps any notions of universal sisterhood. Since its drafting in 1923, the ERA was a controversial amendment because the wording was so vague:
It took fifty years for the amendment to pass Congress. In the 1970s and 1980s, the state ratification campaign contributed a national discourse on women’s rights in America. The ERA debate split women into three groups: feminists who favored the ERA and wanted equality, working class women who feared the ERA would eradicate protective labor laws that prevented discrimination, and conservative women who rejected any notions of equality because they wanted the “privilege” of being treated like a lady.7
Despite the misconception that the ERA would pass because of broad support from women nationwide, the ERA failed in large part due to the activism of women involved in the anti-ERA campaign. The STOP (Stop Taking Our Privileges!) ERA Campaign launched by Phyllis Schlafly was a well-oiled machine of conservatism, and through grassroots activism shaped the debate on the legislation around gender roles. The anti-ERA movement played on society’s perceptions of feminists as “man haters” and “radical lesbians” to argue against the legislation. Pro-ERA women argued the need for equality while anti-ERA women argued the need for protection and feared they would lose their “privilege” as housewives, that the law would wipe out Social Security for wives, and require women to serve in the military.
The basis for anti-ERA women’s arguments came from a fear of the federal government and a fear of male domination. However, rather than promote independence like feminists, conservative women viewed traditional institutions like marriage and family as protection against men’s baser instincts. Ultimately, the ERA failed to win broad support because the campaign became more about perceptions rather than a true understanding of the potential legal ramifications of the amendment.8
The inability of feminists to create a broad coalition of support for the ERA and the failure of the Democrats to make a convincing case for Hillary Clinton stem from the same innate problems. Throughout American history, the Left has failed to create and sustain a broad coalition among the diverse groups it represents: minorities, women, gays and lesbians, the working class. Feminists like me failed in this election too, because we did not learn from our own history. We failed to make a case for why Clinton would make a good candidate and instead allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth of universal sisterhood.
- “2016 Election Results,” CNN, November 9, 2016. Return to text.
- Jessica Valenti, “The Empowerment Trap: Ivanka Trump and the Art of Co-opting Feminism,” The Guardian, November 15, 2016. Return to text.
- Catherine Rymph, Republican Women: From Suffrage to the New Right (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006). Return to text.
- Christine Lunardini, Alice Paul: From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1986). Return to text.
- Alice Echols, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Return to text.
- Equal Rights Amendment. Return to text.
- Linda Kerber, No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York: Hill and Wang, 1999). Return to text.
- Kristina Graves, “‘Stop Taking Our Privileges!’: The Anti-ERA Movement in Georgia, 1978-1982” (Master’s thesis, Georgia State University, 2006). Return to text.