“Why is it so hard to believe that white women who voted for Trump are mostly as fixed in their views as you are?” Katha Pollit recently asked in a wickedly funny column for The Nation. “They voted for him for dozens of reasons: to fit in with their family and community, to preserve or gain status, to piss off the libtards, to ally with their menfolk, to keep MS-13 from killing their children, to bring back jobs stolen by Mexico and China, to keep taxes low and black children out of their schools or because it’s what Jesus wants.”
More personally and more queerly, I would add that these are the same women who are throwing me out of public bathrooms because I’m too butch. (I don’t believe for a second that they really think I’m a man. I think they are picking up on a right-wing discourse about masculine-of-center women as dangerous.) We can’t even agree that we have a common gender, probably because we don’t—nevermind come to some common belief about where our interests as white women lie.
“Calling [these women] out as racist, xenophobic foot soldiers of the patriarchy isn’t going to make a dent,” Pollit asserted to her readers. “Just as you don’t want to be the obedient wife of some porn-addicted Christian bully, they don’t want to be a slutty baby-killer like you.”
This might explain why I am so very tired of people telling me that as a white woman, it’s my responsibility “to get my people”—and “convert” the majority of white women who vote Republican into feminist activists.
These women don’t need me explain to them that they’re voting against—and fighting against—their best interests. Offred isn’t going to change Aunt Lydia’s mind.
It’s piety, not politics, which shape this call, full of the thrill of a deeply personalized anti-racism, the pretense of having said something difficult and powerful. But our misty-eyed pronouncements about how we can change the hearts and minds of Republican-voting white women gloss over the hard work and organizing that must go into an effort to stop Trump’s anti-woman agenda and the anti-feminist backlash which defines it, reducing such a behemoth undertaking into a matter of a single difficult conversation over Christmas dinner.
Such declarations fail to take seriously the rising influence of right-wing anti-feminism—and mark a major categorical mistake for the movement. The call to “get our people” confuses our exhortations to each other within feminism to assert, and rightly so, that anti-racism is white women’s work, with a project beyond the feminist movement.
It’s critical to be aware of how much racism and sexism—what others call “traditional values”—are central to anti-feminist recruitment. Indeed, anti-feminism is what brought white women into the fold of the Republican Party.
As Marjorie Spruill has pointed out, in the 1970s, the GOP made a bid to include feminists and feminism under its umbrella, but then rejected it. Richard Nixon promised universal daycare and was stopped by conservative activists, mostly women, who called it “socializing children.” For a minute, there was bipartisan support for the Equal Rights Amendment. President Gerald Ford appointed a presidential commission to design an agenda for women’s equality, and Republicans in Congress supported funding for International Women’s Year meetings to be held in every state, to elect delegates and design resolutions for an International Women’s Year convention in Houston in 1977—and First lady Betty Ford and dozens of prominent Republican women activists even spoke from the stage.
This gambit failed, however, when members of the party, notably among them women like Phyllis Schlafly, organized against feminists. Schlafly originally made her mark by arguing that the Republican Party had become too liberal—singling out even (General) Dwight Eisenhower. She went after supporters of feminism, building a national anti-feminist women’s movement dedicated to the “traditional” family. She organized a counter-conference to Houston. She fought against the passage of the ERA, and gave us the fear-mongering argument against constitutional equality that continues to haunt queer and trans folk: that it would put men in women’s bathrooms, where they would rape and terrorize women.
Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, in coalition with a growing number of right-wing religious organizations, was just beginning to find its feet in that decade, welding together “family values” with support for racism and militarism in the process. And the modern Republican Party is exactly what they were working toward. White women are not accidentally members of this coalition—the anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-abortion, racist, “pro-family” politics around which they have formed their core identities are its core.
Today, women following in Schlafly’s mold are closer to power than ever before. Increasing numbers of them are working at cabinet-level agencies, working to promote the idea that women mostly lie about rape, that sex is binary and trans people don’t exist, that birth control doesn’t work, that sex education should be abstinence-only and that abortion is murder.
These are not “my people.” These are not “our people.” They stand against everything we are for. Instead of worrying about how to bring them into our movement, we need to get serious about the work of organizing in opposition to their agenda.
Laura Briggs is Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico and in 2012 won the James Rawley Prize on the history of U.S. race relations for her book on how mothers of color lose their children to the state, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. Most recently, she wrote How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump.