At its best, electoral politics is the closest we can get to an expression of the collective will of the working class. In a fair election, the electorate as a social body makes a collective decision. The media tend to see the working class as a “special interest” segment of the electorate. But by definition, the vast majority of us comprise the “99%” that the Occupy movement identified so clearly, and we each have one vote.
Voter suppression of all sorts distorts the collective expression of the working class that elections have the potential to represent. Telling people their votes don’t matter, intimidating voters, making voting difficult and even unsafe, and using millions in corporate donations to feed voters misinformation: all these methods twist election results and produce an invalid collective expression.
This week we celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment, which passed on August 26 and ended one of the grossest distortions of the electorate, that is, the prohibition against women casting ballots. Women comprise at least half the working class, and one of its most exploited segments. A vast amount of the labor that women contribute is unpaid, and their labor creates super-profits for the ruling class. Having their voices in the democratic decision making brings us closer to the true expression of working-class will.
Women and elections of the recent past
Looking at recent political science literature on women and electoral politics, it is striking how irretrievably outdated anything published before the 2016 election seems. That election was a watershed, a qualitative shift in gender dynamics in the electorate. The first major-party woman candidate for president was defeated by one of the crassest sexists on the national scene. With a majority of the votes, she lost the election because of the way those votes were distributed across the electoral college. The inauguration the following January was met with the Women’s March, the largest mass demonstration ever in Washington, D.C., and in cities and towns across the country. Organizing for the 2018 midterms began immediately.
The results of the midterms showed that a seismic shift had occurred. Voter turnout for midterm elections was unprecedented. Many more women ran for office and won. There were some stunning victories like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of a long-term incumbent. There were historical firsts like the first Somali-American, first Native American women, and first openly bisexual woman in Congress, and the first transgender person in a state legislature. There were even sweet vindications, like the bicyclist who lost her job after being photographed flipping off a Trump motorcade, and then won a seat on her county board of supervisors.
The 2020 elections hold the potential to be a decisive blow to the extreme right, especially if the Senate changes hands. Women will be central. In this article, we’ll consider women in their roles as members of the broad electorate, and as candidates and office holders. We’ll end with the question of what damage male supremacy causes in the case of electoral politics.
Women as voters
Although women won the right to vote in 1919, they voted in lower numbers than men throughout most of the twentieth century. The gender gap closed steadily until 1980, when a higher proportion of women than men voted for the first time. In every election since then, the gender gap is slowly getting wider. In the 2016 election 73.7 million women and 63.8 million men voted (63.3% and 59.3% of those eligible, respectively).
Women are said to be more strategic or pragmatic voters than men. A common polling question this year asks voters if they would prefer a candidate who agrees with them on the issues or a candidate who can beat Trump. Women in primary election exit polls were much more likely to be in the latter category: 65% of women say they would prefer a candidate who can defeat Trump, compared to 59% of men.
What are “women’s issues”? That is, what concerns are women actually weighing when they decide whom to vote for? The biggest gender gap is revealed on issues about social welfare. Women reliably vote in greater proportions for candidates that support government programs for children, the poor, and the elderly. While women are more likely than men to vote for Democrats over Republicans, that is only because such a large majority of African American women vote for Democrats over Republicans. More white women voted for the current president (47%) than for Hillary Clinton (45%). (Despite the current president’s boasts, he didn’t receive 52% of women’s votes.)
While women in general do not vote as a bloc, African American women have emerged as a potent force in electoral politics. In 2016, for example, 98% of Black women voted Democratic. The following year, U.S. Senator Doug Jones of Alabama won his seat with 98% of Black women’s votes. This year, African American women helped propel Biden to the nomination, probably as strategic voters, then issued a powerful challenge to the presumptive nominee demanding that he select a Black woman for vice president. On August 11, he announced his selection of California Senator Kamala Harris. Before we address that choice, let’s turn in general to women’s experiences as candidates in U.S. electoral politics.
Women as candidates
Even after the gains of the 2018 midterms, women remain grossly underrepresented in Congress, at only 24%. Although many white women vote for the Republican Party, far fewer women run as Republicans compared to Democrats. Furthermore, they are not as successful in winning elections as are Democratic women. In 2018, only 27% of the 59 Republican women who ran with their party’s nomination won, while half of the 198 Democratic women who were nominated won. In all, following the midterm elections, the 116th Congress included the largest delegation of women in U.S. history, with 105 Democratic women and 22 Republican women.
What are some of the barriers that prevent women from running for office and from winning their elections? In some cases, structural sexism is built into the way elections are carried out, including the resources necessary for a campaign. The rigid oppression of the gender hierarchy saps women’s confidence, making women notoriously reluctant candidates. Sexism in the electorate proves to be rampant, as evident in the 2016 election. Furthermore, the media are a hindrance to women candidates who receive proportionally less coverage than men do in media. Stories are more likely to focus on their appearance and family than stories about male candidates. The media also question women’s competence with more scrutiny than men’s.
One carefully constructed scholarly study measured two kinds of sexism among voters. “Benevolent sexism” was identified in people who agreed with statements like “Women tend to have a higher moral sensibility than men” and “Women should be cherished and protected by men.” “Hostile sexism” describes voters who agreed that “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist” and “women seek to gain power by getting control over men.” The authors argued that both benevolent and hostile sexism (in other words, paternalism and misogyny) are barriers to women’s gaining leadership positions in every realm of society. In 2016, they found that “hostile sexism played an important role in the voting process, a role that cannot be fully explained by political ideology.” Hostile sexism even shaped many women’s voting behavior. Women are less sexist than men, but those who are were more likely to vote for Trump. Political ideology and attitudes toward minority groups also explained some of the variation in voting choices, but the relationship between hostile sexism and support of Trump was still strong when those other variables were controlled.
Working-class women as office holders—one example
The AFL-CIO program has a program to support union members, women and men, to run for public office. At all levels, it reports, 964 union members were elected in 2018 to public offices. In my research for this article I was struck especially by the success of women in general, women of color, and women union members in the New Mexico state legislature. Five women members of the American Federation of Teachers won seats in 2018. New Mexico elects more women of color than any other state, with 16% of the statehouse seats held by women of color. Indeed, recruiting women of color has been an intentional project of Democratic organizations there that have trained 350 women over the past 14 years, half of whom have run for office.
What were the accomplishments of the women- and union-friendly candidates that the New Mexico electorate voted into the 2018 legislature? The Albuquerque Journal reported as the session ended, “A lot of big ticket items did get through,” comprising a “big capital outlay infrastructure bill,” gun control legislation, pension solvency, and education spending, including a new college scholarship program. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Latina, signed the bills passed by the legislature into law.
Part of the post-2016 shift in the gender dynamics in the electorate was revealed in the unprecedented number of women—five—who competed for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. They faced the same sexism that helped Trump defeat Clinton in 2016, and their campaigns ended one by one. Rather than voters holding sexist views themselves, as National Public Radio reported, an even more important factor was voters’ perception that other voters hold sexist views. Eighty-four percent of Democrats said they were comfortable with a woman candidate for president, but only 33% thought that their neighbors would be. Still stung by the 2016 results, they chose the candidate who they thought could best defeat Trump, that is, who was “electable.”
Accepted wisdom in political science is that the vice presidential nominee doesn’t matter much in the presidential contests—but that was all in the before-times. The selection of Kamala Harris no doubt brought joy and enthusiasm to a number of constituencies, including HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) alumni and citizens of Jamaican and of Indian heritage, and the all-important bloc of Black women voters. They feel vindicated with Biden’s choice, and with a 77-year-old white man at its top, the ticket is less likely to suffer from the benevolent and hostile sexism that was experienced by Clinton in 2016.
Another reaction to 2016 was an acute awareness of sexism in media coverage of women candidates. Even before Harris was selected, women’s organization leaders issued a memo entitled, “We Have Her Back,” addressed to “News Division Heads, Editors in Chief, Bureau Chiefs, Political Directors, Editors, Producers, Reporters and Anchors,” warning against the sexist scrutiny and stereotyping that has long plagued all women candidates, and is especially amplified for Black and Brown women.
Biden’s selection of Harris was so widely predicted that it seems “safe”—polls had shown Harris to be the favorite of intended voters—but having an African American woman on the Democratic ticket does represent a breakthrough in U.S. electoral politics. Her candidacy for veep touched off a misogynist swell, from Trump’s “nasty” and “angry” characterizations to members of Harris’s own party claiming she was “too ambitious” or “not remorseful enough” after her conflicts with Biden in the primary debates. The backlash shows that gender remains a raw nerve in U.S. electoral politics.
Sexism chains both
Paraphrasing the famous Hugo Gellert poster, it is clear that like racism, male supremacy holds us all back, by undermining our ability to plan and act collectively as a society. It deprives government of innumerable creative and hard-working people who could make a real contribution. It generates negative dynamics in politics even when two men run against each other. Jackson Katz, author of “Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity,” argues that presidential elections have become an arena for debate about and definition of masculinity. Republicans, especially Trump, mock their opponents as soft, weak, and effeminate, and portray themselves as embodying the characteristics we recognize as hypermasculinity: strong, aggressive, even bullying, and decisive.
The 2020 elections could represent a defeat for the extreme right at the ballot box, and an opportunity for progressive movements to continue to make gains after the new administration is in place. The enthusiasm for voting that we saw in 2018 seems to be continuing, and we may this year get results from the electorate that more closely mirrors the actual sentiments of the working class at large. It’s clear that women, especially women of color, will be a decisive factor moving us forward.