Stuck in the Suburbs
One day in September, en route to a long weekend getaway, I drove through the now-trendy upstate New York town that borders my hometown. As I slowed at a stop light, I saw a group of white, mostly middle-aged women gathered on the corner, holding up signs with slogans like “Dump Trump” and “BYE DON.” When I spotted one woman whose sign read “Honk to Resist!” I obliged and gave her a thumbs-up, mostly for the amusement of my boyfriend in the passenger seat. It was only later, when I recounted the scene to a friend, that it occurred to me: Had I spotted a mythical suburban woman voter?
I had and I hadn’t. The suburban woman voter is everywhere in our political discourse, but she is hard to pin down. Presidential campaigns have invented archetypes to describe the type of women I saw about seventy miles north of New York City going back decades: During Bill Clinton’s 1996 run for office, a veteran political strategist called them “soccer moms”; post-9/11, George W. Bush referred to them as “security moms”; for Joe Biden, they were “suburban Facebook empathy moms.” If pressed, candidates and consultants might attempt to paint a fuller picture of whom they’re talking about. She’s definitely white, probably married, and somewhere between thirty and fifty years old, with a mortgage on a house in a middle- to upper-middle class neighborhood. In 2020, she could be either a working mother or a stay-at-home mom, maybe with a college education, maybe not.
Additional description tends to obscure this woman further. Still, illusory as she is, this figure is a centerpiece of the modern presidential campaign, considered to be a crucial swing constituency that can decide elections. In the Trump era, her stature has only grown. After banking that women voters would be united in their overwhelming repudiation of Trump in 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the white women’s vote by 10 points in early exit polls, giving liberals a memorable statistic to hold onto for the next four years: 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Over the course of his presidency, much was made of segments of this nebulous voting bloc drifting away from the president, a trend that pollsters later predicted would give Biden an edge in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Biden did end up winning all three of these states, but nationally, Trump appears to have only increased his support among white women. As of this writing, he leads Biden with these voters 55 to 44 (though the unique circumstances of this year’s election mean we should interpret exit poll data with some caution).
The suburban woman voter is everywhere in our political discourse, but she is hard to pin down.
It’s difficult to say exactly what happened in the 2020 election just yet—how Trump managed to turn out more voters than he did in 2016, who those voters are, and who helped Biden eke out a win despite them. But it is clear enough that the Democratic Party has once again misjudged the so-called suburban woman voter by using her as a facile proxy for the women’s vote as a whole, which the Biden campaign seemed to believe was monolithic and coherent, when in fact it is fractured and amorphous, resistant to being interpellated by any single message.
In truth, there are few, if any, political views women share just by virtue of being women, a lesson Democrats might have learned back in 2016. Leading up to that election, many of them mistakenly assumed that all women must believe it is urgent to defeat a misogynist would-be president accused of sexual assault more than two-dozen times. Surely it was a truth universally acknowledged that Trump was sexist and the entire Republican Party was intent on stripping women of their rights and legislating their bodies? Instead, in the wake of Trump’s win, liberal women, particularly white women—among those who felt most indignant at the 53 percent statistic—wondered again and again: Why do women keep voting against their own interests? Some went so far as to hunt for clues that Republican women were secretly on “our” side, calling to “Free Melania,” or suggesting that the body language of the wife of a conservative lawmaker or judge signaled private regret for her political affiliation.
At the same time as they were attempting to decode these hidden signs of resistance, Democratic women began to speak emphatically of “women’s rage.” This trope cast women’s anger as naturally righteous and noble because it has been stigmatized by patriarchy. It was women’s anger, the thinking went, that was going to flip Republican seats and eventually defeat Trump. It may have played a role in 2018, when a record number of women ran for and won House seats; but as Jessa Crispin pointed out in a piece for this website that same year, it was never made wholly clear what women were supposed to be mad about, or where, exactly, to channel all of that rage. “Readers of [Rebecca] Traister and [Soraya] Chemaly”—two authors of books on the subject—“would never guess that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016,” Crispin wrote. “When a woman is angry in these tracts, she is Elizabeth Warren, not Marine Le Pen.”
These are arguments that refuse to account for history, which has seen groups of women enthusiastically oppose legislation and policies presumed to be de facto good for them, including the very notion that women should have a political voice to begin with. There were women who opposed women’s suffrage, for Black women (as many prominent suffragettes did) and for all women, contending that such an allowance would upend the nuclear family unit. Decades later, Phyllis Schlafly made a similar case when she led conservative women in opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, which seeks to give women equal rights to men under the Constitution.
Women are hardly united in their interests, politically or materially. Other facets of their identity—their class position, their religion, the job they have, how and where they grew up—might more readily determine the shape of their lives and the political beliefs they endorse as a result. So it should be obvious that women can be mad about attacks on abortion rights or they can be mad about abortion rights themselves; they can be angry about sexual assault or outraged by the ease with which other women seem to claim victim status. They might be incandescent that the president allowed a pandemic to claim hundreds of thousands of lives, or they may be incensed that they had to wear a mask to the grocery store. Women’s rage can be righteous and noble, but, as Intercept contributor Natasha Lennard once put it, it can also be “reactionary and fucking racist.” It can, of course, inspire a woman to vote for Trump.
It helps that the Trump administration has given conservative views a more fashionable container. Over the last four years, the Trump-led Republican Party has constructed a new ideal of the suburban woman voter in the mold of the president’s daughters, daughters-in-law, and female surrogates. No longer dowdy and passive—and no longer necessarily suburban, even—these women are sleek and modern, clad in sheath dresses and stilettos rather than pantsuits and sweater sets. Even Karen Pence, the Trump-world woman most closely associated with traditional evangelical Christian values, got a makeover to conform to this new image, going from “a modest church mouse to a suburban gym rat just in time to target the fickle and coveted suburban mom vote,” as Ashley Reese wrote at Jezebel.
The reboot of conservative womanhood benefits from the ideology-free version of feminism that has become dominant in the mainstream. Emptied of its radical politics, this brand of feminism relies on celebrating women’s success uncritically—no matter who the woman in question is or what she’s done—such that, in the way of Schlafly, it can be easily appropriated by the right. Conservative women can disavow feminism, like Kellyanne Conway, or claim to embrace it, like Ivanka Trump—it doesn’t matter. Either way, they are free to exploit its gains and wield the rhetoric of empowerment to appear au courant with shifts in culture, which helps them appeal to parts of Trump’s base interested in doing the same.
The reboot of conservative womanhood benefits from the ideology-free version of feminism that has become dominant in the mainstream.
Trump’s final pitch to suburban women, however, wasn’t as finely tuned as his gaggle of spokeswomen’s. While Biden leaned on his consistent pandemic-related messaging to reach this constituency, in the last weeks of the campaign, Trump fell back on racist fear-mongering about keeping people of color out of suburban neighborhoods. At a Michigan rally in October, he seemed to address a 1950s housewife-like figure who relies on her husband to be the family’s sole breadwinner while she cares for their children and keeps house. “We’re getting your husbands back to work,” he reassured women in the crowd. I find this to be a sexist remark—you probably do, too. For some women, it may have been exactly what they wanted to hear.
It would behoove Democrats to retire the mirage of the white suburban woman voter, let go of fantasies of feminist solidarity, and resist narratives from pundits and pollsters that appear too neat. Doing so would allow candidates to focus more on constituencies that the Democratic Party routinely ignores, like the Black women who reliably turn out in high numbers to vote Democrat—and who actually have the potential to cost candidates their seats, or a president an entire election. Fully appreciating the extent to which women are varied in their views and interests, and not a coherent bloc, would free up Democrats to campaign on policies with broad appeal that cut across all demographics, and get to the heart of what’s really at stake and for whom.
It is a more difficult task, to be sure. But wouldn’t it be nice to stop being so surprised?