How can feminists reach conservative white women?

More than half of white women voted for Donald Trump. How can feminists reach out to them?

I want to talk about a worrying fact that is having global consequences. Despite the demonstrations of hope marked by the global women’s marches, we cannot assume solidarity between feminists and white women as a group. As The Guardian reported immediately after the US election, it was not just angry white men who rejected Hillary Clinton and pushed Donald Trump to victory: 53% of white women voted for Trump. Moreover, white women without a college degree supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by nearly a two-to-one margin. White women with a college degree were more evenly divided, with 45 per cent supporting Trump, compared with 51 per cent supporting Clinton.

We didn’t see it coming. When I say “we,” I mean the pro-feminist, liberal left. But it is not just the pro-feminist, liberal left paying the price for Trump's election in the form of imminent restrictions on human rights. The right to be treated with dignity and respect, the freedom to choose how we appear in public, the right to cross borders, the choice to have children or not, even the right to an inhabitable planet: these rights are now at risk for all women.

Black women knew what was at stake. Women of colour voted overwhelmingly for Clinton:“94 per cent of black women supported her, as did 68 per cent of Latino women. I think of the placard of an African-American woman in a photograph posted by a New York City friend the day after the Women’s March, which read: "Black Women Tried to SAVE Y’ALL!!! #94%".

Why did white women vote so differently to Latinas and black women? In Our Separate Ways:  Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity (2003), the authors Ella L. J Edmondson Bell and Stella M Nkomo find that because white women grow up in households where they are accustomed to having access to power through their white fathers and husbands, we expect that patriarchal power will also be accessible to us. We “can get caught up in assimilating white male models of behaviour,” becoming “competitive, instrumental, and individualistic”.

Black women, by contrast, grow up in communities of resistance and under the shadow of racism. White women don’t expect to have to struggle in the same way. Given these conditions, how can feminists reach very conservative white women?

***

I was born into a white, lower middle-class family in 1961. My dad was a teacher, my mom a housewife. We lived in a North American suburb. We mostly stayed home and watched TV but when we went out it was to school, church, or the mall. We visited family and close friends. We married young. We had children.

Early on, I followed the rules. I married at 22 and had two children before I was 30. But by then I also had a problem. I was deeply attracted to women. The only aspect of my identity that didn’t fit the social role I was born into was my sexuality. I wanted something that was unthinkable: a sexual and emotional relationship with another woman.

It was the late 1980s. There were books to read and women to talk to. Change was possible. But because of fear of the unknown, worry about being socially ostracised, and economic insecurity, it still took me close to 20 years before I came out. My partner and I live now in North London but my present life was decades in the making. In the matter of changing world view, even a little adjustment can take years to achieve.

Becoming a feminist is a massive shift in world view. For very conservative, white, heterosexual women it involves giving up what might otherwise seem to be your few remaining privileges: the social affirmation of motherhood, the security of family and tradition, the approval of the community.

 ***

The former Goldsmiths professor, now independent feminist scholar and writer, Sara Ahmed has just published a book called Living a Feminist Life. On the cover, bell hooks writes: “Everyone should read this book.” I wholeheartedly agree. But what would make very conservative white women want to pick it up? Under what conditions does living a feminist life become attractive?

Earlier this week I published “Writing What Exists” in honour of Nicole Brossard, a French-Canadian lesbian feminist poet who had a lifelong influence on me. “I wanted connection with other women,” I wrote in that piece, “and I didn’t want to change. I wanted a different life but I didn’t know how to get there.” 

My lesbian identity propelled me out of the seeming security of white, heterosexual privilege. It gave me a reason to want to reject the life I had been born into. It gave me the desire to change.

How can we reach very conservative women who can’t imagine wanting alternatives to the lives they are now living? For me, change happened over time because the feminists that I met were patient, loving, kind, and supportive. They answered my questions and showed me ways forward. They stood by me. I think of the post-Brexit Hope not Hate campaign and recall living a lesbian feminist version. 

What do highly conservative white women need to hear in order to think feminism has anything to do with them? The first thing they may want to hear is that they are important and we want to listen. The radical feminists of the 1960s and 1970s argued loudly and often about the importance of listening to women. And lesbians are particularly good at listening because our primary commitments are to other women.

Ahmed closes Living a Feminist Life (2017), with a chapter on lesbian feminism, arguing that “in order to survive what we come up against, in order to build worlds from the shattered pieces, we need a revival of lesbian feminism”.

***

I was thinking about ways to “build worlds from the shattered pieces” when I saw Letters to Windsor House, a play by Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit that opened this week at London’s Soho Theatre. The play is about gentrification and the London housing crisis but it is also about a long-term relationship between two young white women.

One of the women is lesbian, the other heterosexual, but what they have in common is their love for each other, their playfulness, and the sense that they are on the same team. With their face paint and cartoonish costumes, they are, as they say in conversation with Jen Harvie at Stage Left, “friendly idiots.”  But at the heart of the play is a serious question that is also my question: how can we continue to live together?

***

I’ve been rereading Barbara Crow’s introduction to a documentary reader of radical feminist writings. In 2000, when the book was published, Crow could still speak confidently of our “comfortable cushion of freedoms,” the result of more than 30 years of second-wave feminism. But this cushion, she warns, “mutes and distances the struggles that created those freedoms”.

Our freedoms are again under attack and struggle is again required. Ahmed reminds us that to “build feminist buildings,” we need to “dismantle what has already been assembled.” What has been assembled is, for those of us in the UK and the US since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, being dismantled before our eyes.

If we become feminists because we see injustice in the world, because, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “of what the world is not,” then perhaps the time is again ripe for the work of radical feminists. It is time to ask, with Ahmed, what “we are for, knowing full well this ‘we’ is not a foundation but what we are working toward”. There is just one earth. Finding ways to live together is our only hope.

Susan Rudy is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London and a Visiting Scholar at Said Business School, University of Oxford.