Let me be clear. Certainly female candidates are subjected to sexist attacks, and politics is a gendered arena. But for the future of feminism, and for young girls particularly, it’s equally important that we do not learn the wrong lesson from Clinton’s defeat. Now is the time to pass the baton, not throw in the towel. More women have to step up to run for office. They should do so with confidence that sexism will not mow them down. — Nancy L. Cohen, Washington Post
The following column by Nancy L. Cohen originally appeared in the Washington Post on Nov. 16, 2016.
To some, it seems an open-and-shut case that a woman faces an insuperable double standard on the road to the White House. “America was never ready for a woman president,” one headline declared; Clinton’s defeat “is what misogyny looks like,” a Guardian columnist lamented; her own running mate, after the loss, described the United States as a nation that “has made it so uniquely difficult for a woman to make it into federal office.” No, America is not ready, not now and not in the foreseeable future. After all, Americans twice elected an African American president, but Hillary Clinton, an inordinately qualified woman, came up short. Only 41 percent of men voted for her. And just look at the sexism and misogyny of this election.
But Clinton did not lose because of sexism, and future female candidates for president are unlikely to, either.
Let’s start with a basic fact: Clinton won the national popular vote, and but for the electoral college, America would have its first female president. It seems fair to conclude that groups voting for her by large margins view women as qualified to be president. According to exit polls, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans — notably, between six to eight out of 10 nonwhite men — favored Clinton over Trump. In addition, Jews, people of other non-Christian faiths, those with no religion and Christians who are not evangelical or born again went for Clinton by margins of 25 to 47 points. Clinton mostly held the Obama coalition but failed to excite it; lower turnout for her played a role in her electoral-college defeat.
For those who see Clinton’s defeat as a sign that Americans are resistant to a female president, the relevant question is whether those who chose Trump over Clinton were motivated primarily by gender bias — or something else.
The first clue that sexism isn’t the prime culprit is the fact that nationwide, 53 percent of white women favored Trump. Given some of Trump’s statements and behaviors toward women, that seems shocking, until you consider the role partisanship plays in American politics.
One, a majority of white women typically votes Republican, albeit by far smaller margins than white men do. Two, evangelical or born-again white Christians overwhelmingly identify and vote Republican. And this group includes 27 percent of all white American women.
Nationally, 90 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of evangelical or born-again Christians voted for Trump, despite the speculation they would quietly cast their vote against the interloper. GOP women supported Trump at the same level as men. These reliably Republican voters weighed their reservations about Trump against the alternative — a liberal, pro-choice Democrat whom they intensely dislike — and stuck with the GOP standard-bearer. Party, ideology and policy overcame any gender solidarity. That’s not a surprise.
Make no mistake. At the end of the day, Republicans elected Trump. Without loyal support from Republicans and white Protestant evangelicals, Trump could not have pulled off his upset.
Yet he needed more to win. Trump found his path to victory with the help of white working-class voters in blue states. Most dramatically, 72 percent of non-college-educated white men voted for the male candidate in this race. Of course, Obama lost them too in 2012, and Democrats have performed poorly with this demographic for decades. But Clinton lost them by a 49-point margin, far worse than Obama fared against Romney.
But this, too, is no smoking gun that sexism decided this election.
There is some evidence that gendered views influenced their vote. Two-thirds of Trump supporters and Republicans think American society “has become too soft and feminine,” according to surveys done by PRRI. Another pre-election analysis, by ABC, found that seeing too little influence for whites and men, and too much influence for minorities and women, predicted support for Trump.
As this latter study suggests, a closer look reveals a much more complex portrait of anxieties about immigration, class, race and culture among Trump voters.
Nearly two-thirds of Trump supporters, according to a PRRI poll taken during the primaries, said they were bothered when “I come into contact with an immigrant who speaks little or no English.” A Pew survey found that 75 percent of white non-college Republicans and Republican-leaners favor building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. In exit polls, Trump voters rated the economy as poor and their own financial situation as worse today than a year ago. “High levels of racial resentment,” according to one study, correlated with support for Trump. Seventy-two percent of Trump supporters, in PRRI’s American Values Survey say “American society and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s.”
Undoubtedly sexism is in the mix for some of the men in Trump’s world; it was on bold display at his rallies. But this election was not primarily a referendum on whether America is ready to elect a woman to the presidency. Hillary Clinton brought unique talents and experience to this race, as well as distinct liabilities. Fatally, she was the all-too-familiar face of the establishment in a burn-the-house-down moment.
The next potential female president will step into an arena in which her gender won’t be irrelevant, but it won’t be determinative. Recent research powerfully indicates that, today, women do not lose elections because of sexism. Political scientists are currently finding little evidence that gender bias significantly influences how we vote. Women win elections at the same rates as men. The research shows that partisanship trumps gender — as it did in the 2016 presidential race.
Granted, the presidency is the highest hurdle to surmount and hard to compare with any other election. Still, there’s good cause to doubt the conventional wisdom that it’s harder for women to win an executive than a legislative election because of gendered stereotypes about power. In a large-scale survey by the Pew Research Center, when asked whether women were better at legislative or executive roles, more than 8 in 10 respondents saw no difference between how capable women were in the two types of office. Nor did they see any difference in how capable men were in these different roles.
What about the double bind — the walk on the tightrope of likability and strength — that many pointed to as a key source of Clinton’s low approval rating? Political scientist Deborah Jordan Brooks, in award-winning research, found that voters did not view female candidates who demonstrated toughness to be uncaring or unlikable. Nor did they penalize them for being tough. Indeed, acting tough outside the bounds of conventional femininity boosted women’s favorability ratings, and tough women were viewed as more likely to be effective presidents.
Let me be clear. Certainly female candidates are subjected to sexist attacks, and politics is a gendered arena. But for the future of feminism, and for young girls particularly, it’s equally important that we do not learn the wrong lesson from Clinton’s defeat. Now is the time to pass the baton, not throw in the towel. More women have to step up to run for office. They should do so with confidence that sexism will not mow them down.