Are white women to blame for Kavanaugh?

October 19, 2018

Tess Carter and Leela Yellesetty make the case that blaming white women as a whole for Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh lets the real culprits off the hook.

“THESE WOMEN are gender traitors,” wrote Alexis Grenell in the New York Times on October 6, the day that Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as Supreme Court justice.

Grenell was referring to Republican women senators who voted for Kavanaugh, like Maine’s Susan Collins — who claimed she was concerned about women’s rights up until the hour she cast her vote for the right-winger judge accused of sexual assault.

But Grenell didn’t stop there — she included all white women in the blame, writing:

We’re talking about white women. The same 53 percent who put their racial privilege ahead of their second-class gender status in 2016 by voting to uphold a system that values only their whiteness, just as they have for decades.

Grenell described what she calls a “blood pact between white men and white women,” where white women will “defend their privilege to the death.”

Protesters oppose Kavanaugh's nomination outside the Supreme Court

But blaming white women for Kavanaugh’s nomination or Trump becoming president is not only an inaccurate view of what happened in both cases, but one that will mislead activists who opposed Kavanaugh and want to continue building an opposition to the right wing.

THE FIRST thing to note about this discussion, which has gotten plenty of attention on the Internet, is the sleight of hand in saying that majority of white women supported Donald Trump in 2016 — and, by extension, Kavanaugh today.

The 53 percent figure Grenell cites is the exit poll estimate of the percentage of white women who voted for Trump among those who voted in the 2016 presidential election. Only 55 percent of the voting-age population took part in the 2016 election, so only about a quarter of white women eligible to vote actually chose Trump.

When it came to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, polls showed that 45 percent of white women supported his confirmation, with 46 percent opposed. A considerably higher proportion of white men — 59 percent — supported Kavanaugh, while a plurality of white women did in fact oppose him.

This isn’t to say that these levels of support aren’t alarmingly high and worth trying to understand, but Grenell doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing that. Instead, her emphasis is on shaming white women into voting for the Democrats in midterm elections.

She’s using a strategy that the Democratic Party regularly uses to evade it own responsibility for any number of things — including its stunning defeat in the 2016 presidential election.

In fact, the Democratic Party establishment wasted no time in turning the Kavanaugh confirmation into an opportunity to argue for why people had to vote Democratic — even as people around the country grieved the defeat they suffered despite survivors like Dr. Blasey Ford finally being heard.

Just hours before the Senate voted to confirm Kavanaugh, Sen. Elizabeth Warren declared in a speech: “Now is the time to turn our hurt into power.” She presented her “30-day plan,” which focused on getting Democrats elected in the midterms.

During the Kavanaugh hearings, #MeToo showed its potential power in the streets — including protests, occupations and walkouts around the country, but all Warren and other Democrats acknowledged was the potential to get out the vote.

The Democrats would prefer to put the blame for their failures on anyone else but themselves. We heard the same complaint over and over again after Trump’s election, claiming the “white working class” was responsible.

This ignores the facts — Trump voters had higher than average incomes throughout the primaries and general elections — and the unavoidable reality that many working people simply stayed home in November 2016 because they weren’t motivated by either candidate.

Now, those who want whip up votes for the Democrats are shifting the blame for Kavanaugh onto a target that is most convenient.

FOCUSING ON a group of individuals as broad as “white women” ignores other contributing social factors. It completely disregards class, suggesting that there’s a unity of interests between someone like Susan Collins and “white women” in general.

In fact, while people of color will be even worse off, Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Court is likely to be devastating to the majority of white women who are working class. For instance, white women, most of them low income, obtain more than half of all abortions — a necessary medical procedure that Kavanaugh opposes.

The same can’t be said of Collins, whose success is no doubt in part due to the legacy of the women’s liberation movement, yet whose current position in power puts her interests at odds with most ordinary women. As Jill Filipovic wrote in Vanity Fair:

When women break into these spaces — the Senate, the Supreme Court — it is a groundbreaking moment, but it takes even more to bring actual systemic change...

In a more feminist country, it is now unbecoming for male senators alone to push through the confirmation of a man accused of attempted rape — a step forward from the all-male panel who grilled Anita Hill. And so the women who benefit from proximity to white male power step forward, knowing their gender offers some cover to the misogyny they’re enabling.

That was certainly Susan Collins’s she gave a long speech, flanked by two other female Republican senators — there are just six of them, all white women — justifying her decision to vote yes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Her decision, contrary to her own claims, was not about a sacred process or constitutional safeguards. It was about power, and the ways in which she will personally benefit from playing her role keeping these fundamentally imbalanced systems in place.

Thanks to her vote, she will have her party’s support when she’s up for re-election in 2020, maintaining her own position of authority at the cost of her own integrity, women’s rights broadly and the legitimacy of the Court.

Collins deserves all the heat she gets for helping to vote in Kavanaugh, but she isn’t actually more to blame than any other of the 50 senators just because she’s a woman. Yet the idea of the female “traitor” is posed as a more important issue than the downright misogyny so blatantly displayed by Republican men. This is completely antithetical to fighting sexism.

The same dynamic can be seen in the perception of white women’s role in Trump’s election. Despite a gender gap caused by fewer men voting for Clinton in 2016 than Barack Obama in 2008 — no doubt due in part to sexism toward Clinton — white women got the blame.

Yet while Clinton experiences sexism, she also, like Collins, occupies a position in a class and political party that backs up the system that scapegoats women. We saw this throughout Clinton’s career — as she helped water down the party’s support for women's right to choose by arguing abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” and excused her husband’s history of sexual harassment.

It’s abundantly clear that issues of sexual violence and violence against women are in no way a central concern of the Democratic Party. But this is true of the entire party, not just female senators.

Clinton’s lack of any real alternative for ordinary people was ultimately the reason so many people stayed home and Trump was able to win with a minority of support, even if there was a section of working- and middle-class white women who voted for him and who remain supporters.

WRITERS LIKE Grenell appropriate and distort the arguments of generations of Black feminist authors who have taken up the question of the interlocking forces of racism, sexism and capitalism.

One of the main arguments they put forward is that any movement against sexism that doesn’t forefront the demands of women of color actually hampers the movement as a whole, because it misunderstands the fundamental role that race has always played in perpetuating women’s oppression, including that of white women.

Angela Davis’ masterful Women, Race and Class charts this historical legacy, beginning with the institution of slavery and the systematic rape of Black women. She chronicles the betrayals of the white women’s suffrage leaders who got their start in the abolitionist movement.

Likewise, Davis writes about how the liberal women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s failed to address the particular issues of women of color, such as ways that race shapes issue of sexual assault in this country — with Black men being far more likely to be accused of rape while Black women are more likely to be victims and victim-blamed.

Davis’ point wasn’t that sexual violence wasn’t a problem for white women, but that ignoring race means not fully understanding the roots of the problem and opening up our movements to being divided and conquered.

Unfortunately, after decades of backlash against the gains of these movements, arguments once raised by Black feminists as a way to strengthen movements against injustice — under the understanding that “unless all of us are free, none of us are free” — are being appropriated and repackaged to claim that none of us can ever be free.

As Sharon Smith explained in an SW article:

More recent evolution of the post-structuralist approach to identity politics and intersectionality, which has a strong influence over today’s generation of activists, places an enormous emphasis on changing individual behavior as the most effective way to combat oppression.

This has given rise to the idea of individuals “calling out” interpersonal acts of perceived oppression as a crucial political act. More generally, intersectionality in postmodern terms, even among those who have no idea what postmodernism is.

PUT SIMPLY: the demonization of white women as culpable for the Donald Trumps and Brett Kavanaughs of the world lets the real culprits off the hook. Without an understanding of the roots of the problem, these arguments can be appropriated to perpetuate the status quo.

There was a similar dynamic expressed in the criticisms of the Women’s Marches for being predominantly white.

It’s absolutely right to insist that the voices and demands of women of color be incorporated and brought to the forefront of our struggle. But rather than asking what we can do to bring more women of color into the movement, these critics effectively asked women who were too white and middle class to vacate the premises.

There’s an obvious contradiction in arguing that white women are supposedly responsible for Trump’s election — and also that they are overrepresented in mass protests opposing him.

The idea that white women, instead of protesting, should “go get their people” and hold themselves responsible for the actions of supporters of Trump is a recipe for paralysis.

What we can take away from all this is the importance of united anger — but directed at the system, not objects of blame. Unity won’t come on the basis of downplaying our differences, but understanding and combating them. Right now, millions of white women — and, of course, white men and people of color of all genders — are open to this argument if we make it.

The #MeToo movement presents an opportunity to highlight and draw attention to the struggles of the most oppressed. While it started with wealthy white actresses, we are now seeing female hotel workers and McDonald’s workers striking against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Women who are the most likely to be harassed and assaulted, who face the greatest consequences for speaking out, are finally finding a space to do so. This is an important development that must be built upon if we have any hope of beating back the combined forces of racism, sexism and capitalism that form the breeding ground for sexual predators.

Along with the confirmation of Kavanaugh came the recognition that if Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony was disregarded, then any woman’s would have been. Even when the social factors of whiteness, affluence and advanced education are all working in your favor, being a woman is enough reason to discredit you in that forum.

This should be a point of unity, not difference. Blaming white women for Kavanaugh when his confirmation sent the message that sexual violence against women doesn’t matter, even if they are white, does nothing for more oppressed women. It solely benefits the powerful abusers who depend on blaming anyone but themselves.

Further Reading

From the archives