Zillah Eisentein

Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Ithaca College, political theorist and activist

Kimberle Crenshaw:

Zillah, I want to bring you in on this, since we are talking about the state of intersectional feminism. For the last several presidential election cycles white married women have gone with the Republican ticket. Those who have consistently counted  embraced a gender justice agenda have largely been women of color. Is there anything new, frustrating, or disturbing about what we’ve just seen, particularly given the campaign that was run and a woman being on the top of this ticket?


Zillah Eisenstein:
What is new is, that there was a female candidate, Hillary Clinton, running for the first time for President. And she ran against an unabashedly vocal racist misogynist: Donald Trump.  Both candidates were deeply unpopular and the public was continually reminded of this fact.  This underlined further an election steeped in a sense of limited choices.   

Women across racial lines were hesitant about Hillary’s politics being too elitist. It felt somewhat unexpected that although women finally had a female candidate there was not more enthusiasm for her. Nevertheless, given the immensely misogynist and racist campaign of Trump, Black and Latina women voted overwhelming for Hillary, no matter their discontent with her. They did not need to be in total harmony with her in order to vote against racism and misogyny. White women on the other hand, across class lines, voted in greater numbers for Trump. Actually, 53 percent of white women voted for him. (Whites as a whole preferred Trump by 21 percentage points, 59 percent to 39 percent). Maybe some of the white women voted against Hillary because they absorbed lots of the misogynist rhetoric against her. They hated her, some because they did not trust her, others because they identified with the white, like them, man. The whiteness of Trump is key here.

The incredibly complex question for me is: what were these many white women thinking?  What is the role of misogyny, racism, poverty, as well as class privilege, in this cross-class racist voting? And why did white women fail to do what Black and Latina women did: vote against the racist misogynist? There is nothing new about thinking that women do not/cannot vote as a bloc, that they lack a coherent shared agenda as women, per se. However, I thought that this election would prove this old belief wrong: that women, even white women would vote together, alongside each other, against (racist) misogyny.

When I refer to the white women’s vote, I do not mean to ignore the differences and specifics of how racism manifests itself. Or the fact that almost half of the eligible voters did not vote at all. Or that Hillary has now amassed 2 million more votes than Trump. But, rather that many of the women who voted were concerned with their class interest, issues of abortion and gay marriage, etc. These issues stand in for a direct confrontation with their own misogyny and racism, which lurks around and seeps into everything.

Sadly, especially for me—an anti-racist white feminist—white women betrayed this possibility of solidarity. Again, there is little new in the acknowledgement that (white) feminism has a racist history, that it is white-dominated and exclusionary. It was the incredible struggle by women of color such as Kim Crenshaw, Barbara Smith, and bell hooks, that confronted and changed— and I thought had changed—much of this centering of whiteness. This struggle is almost half a century old.  

I really appreciate Sumi’s discussion describing the complexity of the different voting patterns. I would just want to think really long and hard about what new coalitions can be built in this moment, and out of this moment.  Women of color used/adopted cross-class strategies to mobilize an anti-Trump vote and I am ready to learn from this.

I don’t want to give up the commitment to a multi-racial/multi class women’s movement just because of the wreckage that both Trump and Clinton's campaigns have left us with. Clinton’s neo-liberal feminist agenda was also insufficient and lacking for way too many women. And yet, women of color rallied in spite of this. The wreckage—distrust and elitism—is huge.  

As a white anti-racist feminist, I remain committed to building trust between women of color and white women in the continued struggle against economic, racial, and gender inequality. I do not want to live in a world without this. But the struggle will demand huge commitment on the part of anti-racist white women to build cross-class alliances against racist misogyny especially with other white women. This election is on “us” and no one else, not even Hillary.

Right now is a time when we need to find and ask questions that we may not be able to answer.  What are these newest questions I am thinking about?  For starters: how could white women vote for a man who hates women? Manhandles them? There have been responses that say (white) working class and poor women are used to Trump’s vile language and groping.  I guess I want to ask them myself. And, what about the “college educated” women who voted for him?  One difficult part of the equation here is that polling and other election data does not ask probing questions related to gender or race or their “intersections” that can assist with these answers.

How could white women vote for a man who demonizes people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and is so ignorant of Black communities?  How is this integral to seeing how misogyny was used to mobilize a vote that was deeply racist, and how is racism and Islamophobia used to mask misogyny?  In other words, were white women willing to vote for the guy promising to make “us” great again wishing that their white privilege would remain intact, even if it meant leaving patriarchal misogyny in place? I am wondering if the fact that whites will be a minority very soon in the US frightens white women in particular ways, and if so, why? And how can this fear be understood and challenged?

I am still trying to absorb the fact that Donald Trump has won and did so by capitalizing on white women’s fear, rather than our willingness to embrace a challenge to both misogyny—by voting for Hillary, and anti-racist solidarity by voting against Trump.