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White women voters and the dismantling of democracy

When they vote for Republicans, white women generally are sustaining white supremacy.

Glenn Youngkin greets supporters at his election night event in Chantilly, Va., on Tuesday.MELISSA LYTTLE/NYT

Glenn Youngkin is Virginia’s governor-elect. White women helped seal the deal.

Exit poll estimates indicate about 57 percent of white women voted for the first-time Republican candidate, ensuring his victory over Terry McAuliffe, the state’s former Democratic governor. Generally, Republicans, including Youngkin, stand for weakening reproductive rights and against policies like paid family leave.

On the surface, these are issues one might assume most women would champion. Yet again that assumption has been proved wrong.

All politics are identity politics. And with white women’s support of Republicans, the identity that seems to take precedence is race, not gender.


Two years into Trump’s presidency, I had a conversation with Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers about her book “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.” Long after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape revealed Donald Trump on a hot mic bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent, political pundits were still parsing how a man accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women garnered about 52 percent of white women voters in 2016.

In her book, Jones-Rogers deflated the falsehood that white women were, at best, tangential participants through nearly 250 years of chattel slavery. She recognized them as the ideological ancestors of the women who put Trump in the White House.

“What begins in the colonial period is the emergence of a racially divided social order where whiteness has a value that being a woman just does not have,” she told me. “I see time and time again in my research that when white women are given a choice, they overwhelmingly choose to be empowered by whiteness and to embrace white supremacy.”

That’s why Michelle Obama missed the mark in 2017 when she said, “Any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice.” Those white women who voted for Trump used their voice exactly as they intended. It just wasn’t in a key many were prepared to hear.


White women who vote Republican seek to maintain their privilege. This means voting against candidates who back policies that could alter the racial inequalities that keep the deck stacked in white supremacy’s favor. I’ve long suspected that some white people oppose legislation that would help all regardless of race because what they’re really against is anything that could erode their unearned power by leveling the field for historically disadvantaged groups.

It’s why 63 percent of white Alabama women voted for Roy Moore, a Republican and accused sexual predator, when he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2017. It’s why only 31 percent of white women in Georgia voted for Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, whose victories in that state’s two runoff elections this year gave Democrats a fragile majority in the Senate.

“The elephant in the room is white and female, and she has been standing there since 1952,” Jane Junn, a University of Southern California professor of political science and gender and sexuality studies, wrote in her essay “Hiding in Plain Sight: White Women Vote Republican.” It was published days after Trump defeated Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

“This result has been hiding in plain sight, obscured by a normative bias that women are more Democratic than men,” Junn wrote. “They are, and it is also true that white women are more supportive today of Democratic Party candidates than white men. But this does not mean that white women are more Democratic overall. They are not.”


Only twice since 1952 have a majority of white women voted for a Democratic presidential candidate — Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton for his second term in 1996. Those are outliers. Though they won their elections, John F. Kennedy lost a majority of white women to Richard Nixon; Clinton lost that group to George H.W. Bush; Barack Obama lost it to John McCain and Mitt Romney.

With each election comes all the punditry over which party can win over the “soccer moms,” “suburban women,” or whatever euphemism is trendy for white women voters as if they are swing voters. Some might be temporarily siphoned off for an election cycle, but they are nearly as stalwart to the GOP as Black women are to the Democratic Party.

With GOP-manufactured panic about unvarnished American history, “education” is the new “economic anxiety.” Meanwhile, lies about the 2020 election, voter suppression, the erosion of reproductive rights, attacks on trans people, weren’t dealbreakers for white women in Virginia who voted Republican in Virginia on Election Day.

Neither was placing the perilous state of our democracy under further control of those fixated on dismantling it. The only thing surprising about white women’s support for Republicans is that anyone is still surprised at all.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.