Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Her lesson stemmed from the notion that people know themselves better than any other individual ever could. When people express beliefs or exhibit behaviors that relate to their own commitments and ethics, we should take them seriously. It’s a wonder, then, why every election season, we express collective shock that a majority of white women voters have chosen patriarchy, white supremacy and anti-progressive values once again.
In 2016, the big takeaway was that 53 percent of white women voters cast their ballots in favor of Donald Trump, according to exit polls, helping cement his victory. But, in 2020, white women voters surpassed their 2016 levels of support as, according to exit polls, 55 percent of white women turned out to vote for the president who was recorded saying that men should “grab ‘em by the pussy,” who has referred to women as “horseface” and a “dog,” and who remains under intense scrutiny for the 19 sexual assault allegations levied against him. Maybe it’s time to start taking this massive failure to side with marginalized people as an indication of a widespread political orientation among white women, rather than as a shocking aberration.
Protectionism and White Femininity
As the majority of white women continue to support candidates whose policies stand in opposition to the concerns and experiences of vulnerable populations in the United States, there remains a proclivity among progressives to protect them from criticism.
This stems from a long historical trend and practice that allows for white women to actively engage in white supremacy while feigning helplessness. In the post-Reconstruction era, many Black Americans, especially men, were systematically targeted and hunted by white mobs in the name of “protecting” white women from the myth of the “brutish, sexually-uncontrollable” Black man.
The primary argument for lynching in the United States was about protecting white women from sexual violence. In 1892, Ida B. Wells, the most vocal and avid anti-lynching organizer in history, wrote in an editorial that, “nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women.” But whether people believed the lie didn’t keep mobs from murdering Black people, especially Black men, in cold blood.
There were no limits to the macabre violence. In 1955, 14-year-old Chicago resident Emmett Till was brutally lynched while visiting family in Mississippi because a white woman named Carolyn Bryant Donham claimed he grabbed and threatened her at a local grocery store. Three days later, the woman’s husband and brother abducted Till. They forced him to “carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the bank of the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to take off his clothes. The two men then beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head and then threw his body, tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, into the river.” Bryant Donham later admitted that she lied about the events that led to Till’s murder.
To this day, it is not totally clear how many cases of the more than 4,000 lynchings in the United States were spawned because white women used their femininity and proximity to white men to inflict all manner of violence on Black people. What is known, though, is that white women remain stationed at the nexus of white supremacy, gender minority status and the privilege of perceived faultlessness, a position that has garnered them immense power both politically and socially.
Political Solidarity Is an Action, Not an Idea
It’s not like 2016 was the first time that white women cleaved to a Republican Party and candidate that didn’t represent feminist values and ethics. White women have only voted in plurality for a Democratic presidential candidate twice since 1952: once in 1964 for Lyndon B. Johnson and in 1996 for Bill Clinton. And only 43 percent of white women voters turned out in 2016 to elect the first woman president of the United States, another fact we haven’t discussed enough.
Political scientist Jane Junn explains that, “The elephant in the room is white and female, and she has been standing there since 1952. This result has been hiding in plain sight, obscured by a normative bias that women are more Democratic than men.” While voting is just one aspect of the U.S. political process, it is inherently tethered to the sorts of social welfare policies, institutional changes and political outcomes of minoritized people. And white women’s voting behavior tells us what the majority of them are prioritizing.
However, because so many people believe that women are inherently democratic voters and oriented toward justice, they don’t actually hold white women accountable to being democratic and oriented toward justice.
While safety pins and “pink pussy hats” have become popular markers of white feminist “allyship,” they also signal the performative nature and limitations of white women’s commitments to actually effecting change for those who most need it. Moving forward, we will have to demand more of white women than costume changes and props. Showing up to protests is simply not enough. White women have to disabuse themselves en masse of the notion that they are inherently good. They have to put themselves in harm’s way, disrupt the status quo of their own complicity in white supremacy and defer to those who are more vulnerable than themselves.
We can’t keep being surprised when white women choose whiteness over everything else. Rather, let’s shift our energy toward holding them accountable, acknowledging the failures of mainstream white feminism and pushing until the veil of protectionism falls away completely.