Alabama’s special election delivered a victory for women’s rights on Tuesday night — once again, no thanks to white women.
Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, the former Alabama judge multiple women have accused of child molestation, in a hotly contested race to fill the United States Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Up to the moment the Associated Press named Jones the special election’s winner, the candidates remained within a hair’s breadth of one another, the final tally weighing in at 48.4% for Moore and 49.9% for Jones.
It’s not a meaningful margin, but it is a meaningful win, not least because women delivered it. According to CNN’s exit polls, 57% of women — who also comprised the majority of Tuesday’s Alabamian voters — backed Jones, versus 41% who went with Moore. And while the majority of men voted for Moore, it’s still heartening to see women get the final say in a special election that eerily resembled the 2016 presidential race, wherein voters had to choose between a candidate with a long history of wildly inappropriate sexual conduct and a candidate who stood for gender and racial equality.
While the majority of women nationwide voted for Hillary Clinton last fall, the majority of white women — many apparently unbothered by the assortment of sexual harassment, assault, and rape allegations tendered against him — cast their ballots for Donald Trump, clinching his bid for the presidency. Democrats especially may want to vaunt Tuesday’s victory as the victory (or vengeance) of progressive politics and the #MeToo moment. Yet it’s worth noting that, at least among Alabama’s white women, perspective doesn’t seem to have shifted much: White women made up 31% of Tuesday’s voters, and 63% of them selected Moore. Meanwhile, 98% of black women who voted went with Jones.
On their face, white women’s numbers may be surprising: Republicans seem to care most about sexual misconduct when they view it through the lens of their female family members. (See Mitt Romney’s condemnation of Donald Trump in October 2016: “Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.”) Yet the stories about Moore that surfaced in early November, when the Washington Post reported that Moore sexually pursued four women when they were 14, 16, 17, and 18 years old and he was in his 30s, did not bother all of Alabama’s Republican voters — not even when corroborating reports popped up. Moore, of course, unequivocally denied them, with the contradictory caveat that whatever dating may have occurred between him and these “young ladies” was sanctioned by their mothers.
Going into the election, the Washington Post and Schar School polled likely voters. Of the women surveyed 57% planned to vote for Jones, and 41% believed Moore’s accusers against the 25% who thought he was innocent. But if women writ large were more ready to hold Moore accountable for his alleged crimes, white women bucked the trend: Going into the election, 57% of likely white women voters planned to vote for Roy Moore, versus the 38% who planned to vote for Jones. White women were also split on the matter of child molestation: 33% did not believe Moore did it; 35% believed he did; and 31% had no opinion, which sounds something like saying they didn’t care.
If the #MeToo movement shows us anything, it’s that every woman has a story of sexual harassment, abuse, degradation, or general mistreatment at the hands of a man. With that unifying experience in mind, it’s tended to surprise us when white women vote against what seem quite clearly to be their own interests, as they did with Trump, and as they did with Moore.
The things that appall feminists, however — aggressive opposition to abortion and contraception; documented histories of racism; hostility to LGBTQ rights — don’t ruffle conservative white women too much, because the same social hierarchy that keeps white men in power serves white women, too.
This is probably the point at which I should say that not every white woman, not even every conservative white woman, is willing to abide blatant sexism, racism, nationalism, et al. But too many are. Writing for NBC, Marcie Bianco explained the cognitive dissonance of this internalized misogyny in compelling and articulate terms, which — as a white woman from conservative, Southern-minded Missouri — seem pretty accurate to me.
Conservative culture, whether religiously or politically and most often both, remains unflinchingly patriarchal. “When taken to the extreme,” Bianco writes, “this belief holds that women are less than, and should be considered possessions of men to be used and abused as men please.” The end result of a well-executed patriarchy is that women, as much as men, believe a penis is inherently worth more than a uterus, and the fact of being male bestows power women don’t have the place to question.
White women have always undergirded white supremacy, to their own benefit: While their husbands and brothers and fathers may have been the ones perpetrating actual violence under hoods and sheets in the decades following the Civil War (and even now), white women were responsible for cementing the ideology of racial privilege, at home, in schools, and in public landscapes.
In the late 19th and well into the 20th century, the work of white supremacy allowed women a degree of autonomy, the possibility of a profession, and the promise of at least a modicum of control over the society they inhabited. That their advancement came at the expense of other minority groups and ultimately their own gender becomes less difficult to reconcile when you recall that the rules of patriarchy dictate an ingrained belief that women couldn’t possibly be on par with men, anyway.
In that light, it’s easier to see how some female Moore supporters so easily branded other women liars, casting doubt on the timing of the allegations and deflecting criticism to Jones’ purported baby murdering instead.
And it echoes the response Women-for-Trump offered up in defense of their own candidate in 2016.
Trump, who offered Moore his vocal support and endorsement in the Senate race, stands accused of many of the same behaviors as Moore (including sexually abusing a child). Like Moore, he has unilaterally disavowed the dozens of reports; indeed, the official White House stance remains that the women who shared stories about Trump’s misconduct all lied. And yet we have evidence to the contrary.
Last October, in the eleventh hour of the presidential campaign, the Washington Post leaked a hot mic recording of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without consent. In an attempt to redirect criticism, Trump trotted out a number of women who’d previously accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and rape, who stood beside him in press conferences and helped him regain the (predominantly white) women’s vote. One of those women, Juanita Broaddrick, still isn’t ready to publicly entertain the idea that the dozens of women who have accused Trump of the very behaviors he described on the tapes might be telling the truth.
“The force of history — of patriarchy — has informed not only how men see and treat women, but how women treat themselves,” as NBC’s Bianco puts it.
The Alabama election represents a bright spot for women’s rights, even without the participation of so many conservative white women. And it invigorates the hope that Trump could soon be made to answer for his actions, as so many powerful men fall for comparable offenses. A storm does seem to be gathering: One of Trump’s accusers is suing him in the New York Supreme Court. On Monday, three of them spoke out on Megyn Kelly Today. Now, a bipartisan group of 56 women in the U.S. House of Representatives is calling for an investigation into the allegations. The sexual harassment reckoning may just make it all the way to the White House because, as Alabama demonstrated Tuesday night, actions have consequences, and women are beginning to be believed.
But in order for the reckoning to really change the way men have structured society, it needs to change minds. Looking at Alabama’s exit polls shows us that the push against the patriarchy has gained heartening force and followers over the past 12 months; it also reminds us that the work isn’t even close to over, because the hardest minds to change haven’t moved an inch.