Should women vote for women?

Feminists must continue to prioritise a gendered analyses of politics, Chilla Bulbeck demonstrates in her examination of the ‘gender gap’ in voting.

Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017, Washington, D.C, USA. Photograph by Ted Eytan. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Donald Trump is now the 45th President of the United States. Progressives take heart, however, at outpourings of unpopularity: diminished crowds at his inauguration, the Women’s Marches across the globe, and a 38% approval rating. This makes him, according to journalist Mark Murray, the ‘most unpopular incoming president in the history of the NBC/WSJ poll.’

As the New York Times reported, ‘crowd scientists’ calculated that there were three times as many in the Washington, D.C. Women’s March on January 21, 2017 than in Trump’s inauguration crowd the previous day. Women were urged to wear pink pussy hats, re/claiming Donald Trump’s brag that he could grab any pussy he wanted.

Jezebel drew its own rather astute crowd comparison between January 20 and January 21, asking ‘Where is everyone?‘ on Inauguration Day and finding the answer – ‘Oh, here is everyone‘ – on the day of the Women’s March.

And yet Trump has contested these statistics:

A similar suggestion was directed at young people after the Brexit vote. Instead of signing a massive petition, it was said, they should have registered and voted to Remain, on the basis that there are three times more British people aged 20-24 than the small Leave versus Remain gap of 1,269,501 votes.

Perhaps 2016 was not so much the year western democracies became deeply divided as the year when the older white formerly blue-collar workers won decisive victories, forcing the chattering educated classes to take notice.

In his promise to ‘put America first’ in his inaugural address, Trump did not specifically identify his constituency. He spoke rather of ‘American workers and American families’ and of ‘mothers and children trapped in poverty’, noting also that we all share red blood whatever our skin colour. He vowed to end crime, gangs, drugs and ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. The same day, Trump signed an executive order that any agency or individual burdened by Obamacare, fiscally or otherwise, were free to use all available means to refuse to implement the legislation.

Anti-Trump protest, November 10, 2016, Minneapolis, USA. Photograph by Fibonacci Blue. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Older whites without a college education know that Trump is hailing them and blacks know he is not. In the United States’ 2016 presidential election, Trump won the votes of whites without a college degree by the largest ever recorded margin: 67% for Trump versus 28% for Clinton. The race gap was massive (an 80 percentage point difference), but not as wide as in Obama’s elections (87% versus 91%). However, many whites with college degrees also voted for Trump: 49% compared with 45% for Clinton. Similarly, the gender gap (54% of the female vote going to Clinton and 42% to Trump) was large, indeed the largest recorded since 1972. But it was little more than the Obama-Romney gender gap.

In Australia, an analysis of support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in 1998 recognised older males with blue-collar jobs identifying as working class and living in regional areas as their core constituency.  The expressed concerns of these voters were excessive immigration, excessive expenditure on Aboriginal affairs, political alienation, unemployment and gun control.

Similarly, Brexit appealed to those who identified as white (53% compared with 27% of those who identify as black) and the young. A gender gap only featured significantly among those aged 18-24, where the biggest category voting Remain is found: 80% of 18-24 year old females (compared with 61% of 18-24 year old males). As with Pauline Hanson’s and Donald Trump’s patriotic inward- and backward-looking ‘locals’, Brexit voting was linked with disliking multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation, environmentalism, feminism, social liberalism, and even the internet!

Anti-elitism has been pursued effectively by conservative parties in the United States and Australia for some decades. ‘Howard’s battlers’, referring to then-Prime Minister John Howard, were encouraged to vent their anxiety in downward envy of ‘political correctness’: of the ‘chattering classes’, and the ‘welfare industry’, as well as the Aboriginal ‘industry’, the feminist ‘mafia’, and the multicultural ‘lobby’.

While directing the battlers’ attention away from growing economic inequality, the Howard government enacted a massive boost to inequality with a transfer of public money away from those relying on public schools, hospitals or welfare to those who did not. New tax cuts and changes to negative gearing and superannuation for the middle and upper classes primarily benefitted the wealthy. Punitive work for the dole schemes were enacted and supporting parents and people on disability were moved onto Newstart. The government redirected support for those on working-age benefits towards older people generally, and particularly the upper middle class. By the calculation of The Australia Institute, the most affluent 20% of income earners got more than the bottom 80% in income tax cuts.

Women’s March on Sydney, January 21, 2017, Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Nick-D. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

While gender identity is obviously part of this story of the victory of those disenfranchised by economic neoliberalism, class location and racial identity appear to be more salient.

It is not that each of these politicians has not spoken out about issues of particular concern to women. Pauline Hanson’s current family law policy implicitly situates domestic violence as the response to burdensome settlements on the non-custodial parent (usually the male). Trump’s statements on abortion, sexual assault and even paid maternity leave are contradictory but appear to support outlawing abortion except in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s health is endangered.

Apart from Trump’s proclaimed policies, how could any women vote for a man who not only deplored ‘Crooked Hillary’ (slurs which are unhappily par for the course), but also incited his followers to shoot Hillary Clinton if she won the presidency?

The ‘Crooked Hillary’ slur echoes Alan Jones’ epithet towards then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard – that her father ‘died of shame’ because she lied to the Australian people. As Carol Johnson notes, Hillary Clinton and even Margaret Thatcher after her death were also subject to ‘vicious online sexist attacks’. Terms such as ‘witch’ and ‘bitch’ were commonly hurled at all three female politicians. But Trump also incited his followers to murder Clinton if she won office.

I think the answer is that women in politics continue to struggle with a role marked as masculine. Where a vast majority of African-Americans are happy to have one of their own as president, a minority of women still adhere to patriarchal gender roles. Trump hailed them as ‘mothers’ just as he implicitly hailed men as ‘workers’. It remains an ongoing challenge for women politicians to ‘perform gender’ successfully, Johnson continues. They are caught between being declared feminine and incompetent or masculine and unlikeable. Little wonder, both Clinton and Gillard were accused of ‘wooden’ performances.

Women’s March on London, January 21, 2017, London, UK. Photograph by Garry Knight. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In one poll, six out of 10 women were bothered by how Trump treated women, compared with about four in 10 men. In Australia, almost twice as many men (22% compared with 12%) described Gillard’s sexism and misogyny speech as an over-reaction, while 83% of women (compared with 72% of men) said the response was ‘about right’. In contrast, young respondents were the least likely to consider former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as sexist. As with the response to Trump’s harassment, party political support in Australia was a better predictor of people’s attitudes to the misogyny speech than was gender. 43% of women and 35% of men said Abbott had behaved in a sexist way, compared with only 13% of Coalition supporters (Abbott’s party) compared with 66% of Labor supporters (Gillard’s party).

The ‘gender gap’ in voting appears to have narrowed since the early 1970s when the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) asked every candidate their views on issues like abortion and equal pay. When published in the press, these opinions appeared with the tagline ‘Think WEL before you vote’. In times of global climate catastrophism and when income inequality is the widest it has been for 50 years and growing, perhaps it is not so surprising that progressive women join causes such as Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and GetUp!

Twenty-first century feminists are right, I believe, to campaign also for a safe climate and social justice. But in our multi-tasking, we should continue to wear our pussy hats and go on campaigning for control over our bodies in terms of sexual and physical assault and reproductive rights, for respect for our labour and our worth. We should continue to highlight the gender elements in everything, from global warming to the fact that more women than men are CentreLink clients suffering from the Turnbull government’s recent heartless assault.

In our campaigns and on election day, let’s continue to think WEL before we vote, perhaps this time checking in online with Renee of Fair Agenda.


Chilla Bulbeck, at her retirement, was Chair in Women’s Studies at the University of Adelaide, where she taught and published at the intersections of gender and class, ethnicity/nation and then generation. Since retiring, Chilla has become a full-time activist (oh bliss!), primarily for The Greens (WA) where she has been or is Secretary, Green Issue newsletter co-editor, Convenor of the Election Research Working Group and Assistant Field Director of the 2017 State Election campaign. In March 2015, she established the community group Curtin’sCASE to encourage Julie Bishop, Australia’s lead negotiator at the United Nations climate talks in Paris in November-December 2015, to sign Australia up for appropriate emission reduction targets. A team of 15 co-leaders and active supporters prompted over 7,000 conversations in Julie Bishop’s electorate and beyond.

Follow Chilla on Twitter @ChillaBulbeck.

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