We are living in the year 2018, and the GOP seems to have only just now discovered it has a woman problem. The blue wave of the midterms — substantially propelled by women’s organizing and woman candidates — has left the Republican party scrambling to shore up support among suburban, college-educated women, who seem to be fleeing the party en masse. Yet for a party that has thoroughly and obsessively defined itself based on white male needs and sensibilities for at least a decade, the call to change may be impossible to heed. Times are moving too fast for Republicans to catch up.
The change is so obvious you can actually see it happening in real time. The 119th session of Congress will contain more female representatives than at any point in history, many of them women of color. Several of those women are historic firsts for other reasons, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, or Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ, the first openly bisexual senator, or Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, Democrats from Michigan and Minnesota, respectively, who share the joint distinction of being the first Muslim women in Congress.
Yet even as the overall portion of women in Congress grows, the number of Republican women — nearly all of them white — is shrinking. The parties’ priorities are reflected in their leadership: The GOP increasingly looks white and male, even as its opposition becomes more visibly diverse.
Even as the overall portion of women in Congress grows, the number of Republican women — nearly all of them white — is shrinking.
There is one big, obvious reason why women are fleeing the Republican party, and it’s currently sitting in the Oval Office: Trump, the big, orange, ugly angry reminder of exactly how much men can get away with. The shamelessness of Trump’s misogyny — pussy-grabbing confessions, calling an ex "horseface" — has shocked formerly apolitical women into an awareness of just how powerful patriarchy is. The cruelty of his administration reads as an extension of his personal bullying, making the Trump years feel less like a political catastrophe and more like a personal attack. If the United States had not just witnessed the gruesome spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed despite multiple sexual misconduct allegations, that blue wave might have been much smaller.
Party members unfortunate enough to possess a grain of self-awareness know this bodes ill for the future: “The party must do more to appeal to suburban voters, especially college-educated women,” former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor writes in the New York Times. “Once a Republican mainstay, this group has been slowly moving away from us for the past few cycles.” Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., has taken to Fox News, lamenting that Republicans got to address the suburban women problem, because it’s real.”
Though race is elided in both men’s statements, Graham and Cantor are almost certainly mourning the loss of suburban, educated white women. Women of color, and particularly black women, almost invariably vote Democrat. Trump carried the white female vote in 2016, like many a GOP candidate before him, and many white women still voted Republican in 2018 — in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams ran to be the first black female governor in United States history, early numbers showed that 75 percent of white women voted for her white, male, Republican opponent.
Yet the GOP’s grip on those suburban white women is faltering. Hillary Clinton actually won the college-educated white female demographic in 2016, though her 51 percent majority was too slim to make a difference. Where 53 percent of white women voted Trump in 2016, only 49 percent supported Republicans this year, with another 49 percent voting Democratic. A Republican majority has given way to an even split. This is a slow erosion, not the definitive, revolutionary change many of us might hope for. But it is change, and that change is slowly eating away at the foundations of Republican power.
If the GOP intends to survive, then yes, it does have to get women back on board. Yet even in a moment of crisis, the party’s messaging to women remains incoherent at best. The blue wave was made up in part by angry, frightened women, mobilized by typically “female” concerns — the public humiliation of Christine Blasey Ford, the continuing trail of sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the likely fall of Roe v. Wade and even the need for common-sense gun control, which women are vastly more likely to support than men. Yet one of the Trump administration’s first moves post-midterms was to unleash a new set of draconian rules attacking contraceptive and abortion access. One of these rules, which would allow insurance companies to bill separately for abortion care, could potentially notify your employer whenever you had an abortion.
The outreach to women isn’t going to come by way of policy. But so far the party and its surrogates aren’t attempting to woo women back with softer, sweeter media coverage, either.
So the outreach to women isn’t going to come by way of policy. But so far the party and its surrogates aren’t attempting to woo women back with softer, sweeter media coverage, either. Even as Graham and Cantor wonder whether the Republican Party is pushing women away, Fox pundit Laura Ingraham is taking to the air to condemn the incoming Democratic Congresswomen as misandrist she-beasts: “A dark, pink cloud is gathering,” she warned her viewers on Nov. 13. The menace of which she spoke? None other than “the newly elected crop of women on Capitol Hill,” who are playing the “political gender card” and going “on the war-path against white men.”
To be clear: This is a party that is supposedly scrambling, desperately, to recoup female support and adapt to a moment in which there is a widespread demand for more women in power. Yet its strategy for winning those women back is to make them wear scarlet letters into the office and show them panicked news broadcasts about the apocalyptic, horizon-darkening evil of female politicians. (That Ingraham is herself female is relevant only insofar as it lets her get away with saying this stuff — misogyny is always more palatable when it comes from a female front, as Fox News realized long ago.) The GOP cannot survive if it continues to bleed female supporters, but it also cannot pivot to regain their support, because institutionalized misogyny — like racism — has become central to its mission.
The Republicans’ best hope, at this point, is that the women who have been shocked into new political awareness will become more complacent once Trump has left the picture.
Women are recoiling from the GOP because of Trump, but the problem is not just Trump, and it never was. Brett Kavanaugh, or someone very much like him, would likely have been confirmed under any Republican president. Women’s access to contraception and abortion has been catastrophically dismantled since 2012, and most of that has happened on a state level. Paranoia about female power is at least as old as Pat Buchanan fulminating, in 1992, that Hillary Clinton’s “radical feminism” would lead to a nation where children sued their parents, wives rebelled against their husbands and LGBT people (gasp!) received support from the White House.
Republicans’ ongoing refusal to authorize VAWA, or renounce the NRA, or back equal pay protections or paid family leave, or do basically anything to improve the lives and hopes of women in this country, is not a Trump problem. Rather, it’s endemic to the party, which has only secured its continued existence by exploiting white grievance and catering solely to the powerful. Given the demographics of American power, this ultimately means catering to white men at the expense of everyone else.
You cannot pivot from your core identity. You cannot reshape a Republican party that likes or helps women, because it would no longer be the Republican party as we know it. The GOP is right to worry about its woman problem, because no party can survive if it loses women. But the Republicans’ best hope, at this point, is that women who have been shocked into new political awareness will become more complacent once Trump has left the picture.
For the rest of us, we can only hope that those women realize their problems go deeper than one bad president — and that their collective anger continues to erode the foundations of the GOP until the whole rotten structure tumbles to the ground.