For decades, majorities of white women have voted with the GOP, but some are hoping to cross boundaries—and change politics.
This op-ed was written by Julie Kohler and originally appeared in The Nation.
Having fueled the marches, the #MeToo movement, and a surge of women candidates now prevailing at the polls, women’s activism shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s assaults on women—from pay equity to health care—are relentless, and Trump’s nomination of staunch conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court threatens women’s constitutional right to an abortion and access to birth control.
Women of color have long formed the progressive base, but as November nears, a question looms: How will white women vote? Will greater numbers of white women finally become part of a more enduring progressive majority? Or will old, structural pulls, including white women’s economic dependence on and personal relationships with, white men, maintain the status quo? The answers could lie in political journeys of women like Lynn Rankinen.
Rankinen has a short, graying blond bob and bright blue eyes. Her speech is peppered with long, flat, Upper-Midwestern vowels. Rankinen worked as a public-school speech-and-language pathologist for 34 years before retiring in 2015. The mother of two grown sons, she lives with her husband in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, and is a member of a local Lutheran congregation. Although consistent majorities of white women have for decades voted Republican, women like Rankinen might just change that pattern.
Rankinen has always identified as a Democrat, but said she only recently became “political”—the result of her desire to become more engaged, post-retirement, and her outrage over Trump’s victory. In the summer of 2016, she got involved through her church with a local organizing group, ISAIAH/Faith in Minnesota, attending meetings in support of a safe- and sick-time ordinance in St. Paul. Post-election, her involvement with ISAIAH deepened, and Rankinen joined her local Indivisible chapter, the League of Women Voters, and a progressive social group, Drinking Liberally. This June, she attended her first Democratic Party convention as a “faith delegate.”
“It was just fabulous,” she said. “Exciting and uplifting. What we can do together is very powerful.”
But at home, politics is a source of isolation and pain. Rankinen’s husband voted for Trump. Their political views have always differed—they used to joke that they canceled each other out at the polls—but his continued support for Trump has shaken her. She used to think they disagreed on policy, but now questions whether they share the same values. “Even if we can somehow redefine our relationship, it is never going to be the same,” said Rankinen. “I can’t ever have the emotional intimacy that I once had.”
The political awakening of women like Rankinen matters. White women are the largest voting bloc, representing 69 percent of the women’s vote and 39 percent of all voters. If trends from the recent Alabama and Virginia elections are sustained, and increased turnout in communities of color is coupled with a surge of progressive white women voters, it could portend a more permanent political realignment. Donald Trump could do to white women what Pete Wilson did to Latinxs in California: drive them out of the Republican Party for a generation to come.
But this outcome is far from certain. Throughout history, including the white suffragist and feminist movements, white women have all too often aligned their political interests with those of white men. Moreover, white women are not a monolithic voting bloc; they vote very differently based on the interplay of several factors: heterosexual marriage, education, and religion. Rankinen’s political journey highlights how subgroups of white women—namely, single white women and college-educated white women—are already beginning to shift the “panorama of political possibility.” But it also reveals the personal shake-ups that drive, and result from, changes in political beliefs.
Moreover, the most promising models aren’t limiting their engagement to those white women who have been activated by Trump. Rather, they are engaging a range of white women—including those without college degrees, and often alongside white men and people of color. The core insight driving this kind of “relational” organizing is that most people’s political beliefs are formed and evolve through community building and joint action on issues—like safe and sick time, the issue that originally activated Rankinen. Progressive inroads with white women, including the non-college-educated white women and married white women who vote Republican at higher rates, requires with the kind of engagement that doesn’t view a vote as the ultimate outcome.
Doran Schrantz, executive director of ISAIAH/Faith in Minnesota, and her staff refer to people going from feelings of powerless to agency as “moving over the bridge.” The organizing Schrantz leads is time-intensive. ISAIAH works in racially, ethnically, religiously, and geographically diverse congregations and mosques across the state, bringing a moral and faith voice to political and policy issues. Women, both white and of color, make up more than two-thirds of ISAIAH’s volunteers.
Schrantz and her team have gained a number of insights into people’s political trajectories. White women, she said, have two distinguishing traits: caregiving and competence. “We see a lot of white women who are emotionally and spiritually exhausted because they are taking care of their husbands, their children, their church—everyone but themselves.” Schrantz noted that although women of color shoulder similar responsibilities, white women experience more guilt and shame around a perceived failure to perform. “Especially for middle-class white women,” she said, “everything has to look perfect.”
White women also frequently occupy roles as the “competent administrators of white male power.” Because such roles—the associate pastor, the women leading the church’s social-justice ministry—tend to be commissioned by men, white women become defensively focused on “how good of a job they are doing, not making errors, and enforcing the rules.” Moving white women over the bridge—which involves teaching them how to act in political solidarity with people of color—requires white women to stop seeing their political engagement as a form of “helping” or “serving” others and trying to “do everything right.” ISAIAH staff facilitates that process by posing questions: What do you want? What about your leadership? What is your experience of suffering? “We don’t tell white women to step back because they’re privileged,” Schrantz said. “We help them unpack their own interests so they can develop equitable relationships with people who have different experiences.