“The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” President Trump asserted this week on Twitter, quotation marks and all. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”
Indeed, women are especially concerned with safety right now — though they’re more focused on viral invaders than low-income ones. And Trump, polls show, has been losing suburban support for months.
But let’s start with Trump’s terminology, which seems to have forced the “soccer moms” of the ’90s into the wayback machine of the past four years and produced a campaign slogan for the 1950s.
“He seems to think we’re still living in ‘Leave it to Beaver’ time,” said Shannon Watts of California, who used to be “a stay-at-home mom” before 20 first-graders were shot in a suburban Connecticut classroom in 2012. Then she founded Moms Demand Action, a grass-roots organization fighting gun violence.
Twenty-first century stay-at-home moms don’t typically stay home much, since they’re busy orchestrating tightly choreographed daily agendas for their families.
But let’s be real here — these days, we all stay home because no one feels particularly safe. Governor Charlie Baker actually named an early phase of the state’s response to the pandemic “Safer at Home.” The year 2020 has been nothing short of apocalyptic, delivering the American carnage that Trump foresaw in his nomination speech four years ago. And the danger lurks in suburban supermarkets and schools, where no white picket fences or racial fear-mongering can keep it out.
Suburban women are scared, certainly, as are urban women. Their children’s education is on hold. Those who still have jobs are perilously close to having to give up them up because their day care centers aren’t reopening. The coronavirus threatens to turn women back into the “The Suburban Housewives of America” that Trump remembers.
Trump’s appeals to the suburbs likely owe to recent polls showing he’s losing them. Surveys have found him down by a historic margin among suburban voters, an average of 15 points. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 66 percent of suburban women disapproved of the job Trump is doing overall, and 58 percent said they “strongly” disapprove.
“He’s trying to make a desperate plea for the votes of suburban women, yet his rhetoric is racially motivated, it’s outdated,” said Watts, who noted that the suburbs are far more diverse than Trump may realize. Roughly one-third of suburbanites are now people of color, according to the Pew Research Center in 2018. “The polling shows that because of the way the suburbs look now, they reject not only the president’s anachronistic view of them, but his agenda.”
Not that there’s ever a good time to romanticize segregation or cloistered domesticity, but this moment seems particularly ill-suited.
All across Massachusetts this summer, suburban lawns sprouted signs denouncing hate and standing up for Black lives. It was especially notable in places we don’t think of as particularly diverse or radical: Hingham. Cohasset. Hamilton. Ipswich. There is a lot of guilt to be found in the suburbs and a lot of dawning awareness. As one white suburban mom’s sign put it at a Black Lives Matter vigil in June: “I am listening.”
Last month a Wall of Moms was built in Portland, Ore., where women trying to change the narrative that Black Lives Matter protesters were rioters put their own “mombods” on the line to be tear gassed by police.
“Trump thinks that suburban women are all white women and heavily independents and Republicans who he can appeal to. The fact is, he began to lose suburban women long ago,” said Lauren Leader, cofounder and CEO of All In Together, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to advancing women’s civic leadership. “It was suburban women that delivered Congress to the Democrats.”
In the 2018 midterms that sent a record number of women to Congress, 38 of the 41 districts that turned from red to blue were suburban, according to an analysis by The New York Times.
Despite his “colossal gap with women,” as Leader put it, Trump needs to turn out the vote of white women and suburbanites who helped him win in 2016. Her organization, working with Lake Research and Emerson College Polling as the COVID-19 crisis plays out, has identified the swing voters it believes will be key: “Guardian Women,” who are defined less by their neighborhood boundaries and more by their security concerns and commitment to showing up to vote. They tend to be married women over 50, not college-educated, and to have an annual household income over $50,000. During this crisis, they’ve been working especially hard, caring for relatives.
“My assumption is that Trump sees that and thinks they’re persuadable. And they are persuadable,” Leader said. “My view is that decrying diversity is not the issue that he’s going to win them on.”
“What She Said” is an occasional column on gender issues.