Here’s a bit of political trivia that’s been going around: In how many presidential elections from 1952 to 2016 did a majority of white women support the Democrat rather than the Republican?
“The answer,” says the USC political scientist Jane Junn, “is two.”
Junn posed the question to complicate the conventional wisdom that Democrats benefit from a “gender gap,” with women favoring them over Republicans. In fact, she wrote, women of color overwhelmingly support Democrats, but white women are not reliable Democratic partisans. White women often support Republican candidates. “While the white female vote is often closely split between the two major parties, white women have only voted more Democratic than Republican twice in the 17 U.S. Presidential elections since 1952,” she wrote in November 2016. “It is the introduction and steady growth of minority voters in the U.S. electorate over the last six decades that drives higher overall proportions of female support for Democratic Party candidates.”
That “intersectional analysis” is clarifying. Looking at gender and race gets us closer to understanding partisan affiliations in presidential elections than looking at gender alone (as does incorporating still more variables). But something went awry when Junn’s statistic about white female voting in the past 17 elections spread from academia to popular discourse: Left-leaning commentators began to cite it as if it constituted evidence that the driving force in how white women vote is protecting their racial privilege by upholding white supremacy and patriarchy. That simply doesn’t follow.
Of course, one can indeed find all sorts of white women in postwar America who held racist and sexist views that informed their political behavior. Still, commentators who assume their votes are determined by their efforts to protect their racial privilege err in a way that is clear and instructive, serving as a reminder to all of us to be especially careful about fitting facts to a preexisting story about politics that we believe to be true.
Before getting to the facts of the matter, look at some examples of the claims being made: On Medium, Eric Foster cited the statistic, opining, “This is a voting bloc that, for more than half a century, has shored up its identity in ethnicity, not gender.” He proceeded to ask readers, “Is there an opportunity for getting White Women to vote away from this majority alliance with misogynistic, sexually abusive, demeaning and outdated behavior?”
Alexis Grenell cited the stat in her widely read New York Times op-ed, “White Women, Come Get Your People,” before speculating about why white women broke for Democratic presidential candidates just twice in those years:
Women of color, and specifically black women, make the margin of difference for Democrats. The voting patterns of white women and white men mirror each other much more closely, and they tend to cast their ballots for Republicans. The gender gap in politics is really a color line. That’s because white women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness in order to monopolize resources for mutual gain.
Katie McDonough cited it in her article “The Quiet Racism Behind the White Female Trump Voter,” where she asserted that “a majority of white women voters have been playing one card,” their race, “for 60 years.”
Rebecca Traister, author of the recently released Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, put it this way on Real Time With Bill Maher:
The history of white women in politics in this country is, since 1952, when they’ve been measuring it, there are only two elections when white women haven’t voted for Republicans … There have always been incentives on the table for white women who benefit in a white patriarchy via white supremacy and their proximal power via white men in upholding a fundamentally conservative, white patriarchal power structure.
Similar comments from Traister on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah earned her one of her biggest applause lines. White women “very often voted on behalf of white patriarchal power structures and conservative politics,” she said, invoking the stat: “White women, a majority of white women, have voted for Republicans in every presidential election except two since 1952.”
We are a country that is built around a white patriarchy, in which white men from the founding have been afforded economic, political, public, social, and sexual power and other people have been barred from it.
White women, via their associations with white men, have enjoyed that proximal power and are thus incentivized to defend it, to uphold it. They benefit from white supremacy, and many are dependent on patriarchy, which they are then moved to support, politically and socially.
That’s when the audience applauded.
As all these commentators portray it, the years from 1952 to 2016 were an era when a majority of white women cast presidential ballots for Republicans in order to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, while Democratic voters in those contests cast ballots to dismantle racial and gender oppression.
Here is a map of the 1952 presidential election:
Does that look like a contest in which white supremacists basically voted for the Republican candidate, while Democrats basically voted against white supremacy and patriarchy? Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero whom prominent Democrats had previously tried to recruit as their candidate, won an overwhelming victory against Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat who won only in the South and Appalachia. His running mate, John J. Sparkman, was an Alabama politician who later signed The Southern Manifesto, a document opposing the racial integration of public places.
By today’s standards, neither candidate in 1952 was great on civil rights. That many black voters aligned with the Democratic ticket was largely due to their support for New Deal economics and in spite of the Dixiecrat wing of the party. For all of its own shortcomings, the Republican platform of 1952 called for “federal action toward the elimination of lynching” and “federal action toward the elimination of poll taxes.”
After being elected, Eisenhower would appoint Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, desegregate the military and Washington, D.C., and send the U.S. Army to Arkansas to defend desegregation following Brown v. Board of Education. That isn’t to say that Ike shouldn’t have been better on anti-racism—my colleague Adam Serwer captures his mixed legacy well. But Eisenhower made a major push to win over black voters in the 1956 election.
There were certainly voters who regarded Republicans as the better party on civil rights in those elections, and they were very likely correct.
In 1960, the Democrat John F. Kennedy ran against the Republican Richard Nixon in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. As the historian James Meriwether recounts, Nixon probably entered the campaign with a stronger claim than his opponent on the subject of advancing civil rights:
Nixon stood as something of a racial liberal in the Eisenhower administration … becoming the administration’s leading spokesman on civil rights. Nixon, who while still a congressman had been granted honorary membership by a local chapter of the NAACP, was one of the few administration officials to endorse the Brown v. Board of Education decision, had energetically supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and had chaired the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, which investigated charges of racial discrimination in federally related employment and sponsored educational campaigns in the business community to promote equal opportunity.
Then, with prodding from his rival, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, at the GOP convention in July 1960 Nixon used his influence as the nominee to strengthen the Republican civil rights plank so it largely matched the one adopted earlier by the Democratic convention.
On the other side, Kennedy offered no strong civil rights record, as most biographers have noted. In the wake of his failed bid for the vice presidential nomination at the 1956 Democratic National Convention, Kennedy in fact strove to bolster his standing among powerful southern Democrats by steering a ruthlessly political course, seeking, in the words of Robert Dallek, “a strategy for accommodating all factions of the Democrat party on civil rights.” Doing so left Kennedy at best equivocating on the 1957 civil rights bill, at worst pandering to his party’s most extreme segregationist elements.
His meetings and alliances with segregationist southerners, including a breakfast meeting with Gov. John Patterson of Alabama and the president of the Alabama White Citizens Council Sam Englehardt, made most black voters wary of his civil rights commitment. His naming the southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson as his running mate raised more suspicions.
Of course, even as Jackie Robinson campaigned for Nixon, Kennedy would court Martin Luther King Jr., bolster his commitment to civil rights during the campaign, and go on to win a majority of the black vote. Nixon nevertheless won roughly a third of black voters that year. It wasn’t obvious whether he would be better or worse for the cause of equality. And where whites stood on civil rights did not predict their vote in that election, even in the South, where many white voters held positions on race that nearly everyone would now regard as deeply unjust if not unforgivably odious.
In one political-science study that surveyed white and black voters in an unnamed southern city, “the civil rights issue proved to be of central importance in the decisions of the Negro voters,” the authors wrote. “The white voters, on the other hand, tended to make their decisions on other grounds, and the civil rights issue played a much lesser role. This was due not to indifference toward the issue but rather to the belief that the stands of Nixon and Kennedy were equally unacceptable. Thus Kennedy was able to attract a majority of Negro voters by adopting a somewhat more militant stance than his opponent on civil rights without alienating a large number of southern whites, who tended to regard any differences between the candidates on civil rights as insignificant.”
There were obviously white racists intent on upholding white supremacy who cast ballots in 1960. But they cast ballots for both candidates.
The 1964 election was broadly different. The Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson touted his passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—a bill supported by a higher percentage of congressional Republicans than Democrats, but where region predicted support better than party. The Republican Barry Goldwater, an Arizona senator, opposed the legislation.
Many whites still parceled out their support in that election for all sorts of reasons. The Goldwater voter Joan Didion felt that the GOP candidate was unusually principled and liked the Western individualism she felt he represented. Some voted for the Democratic candidate because they worried that his opponent was more likely to start a nuclear war.
Still, a voter seeking to advance civil rights and to dismantle white supremacy in the South ought to have voted for the Democrat in that election. And many a segregationist decided that year to change allegiances.
“A former Goldwater Democrat, Senator Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, made his first appearance as a Goldwater Republican at the candidate’s side in Greenville,” The New Yorker reported, “and the man who introduced him to the airport picnickers there said that Thurmond’s decision of the day before had been as notable an event in Southern history as Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the United States Army for a command in the Army of Northern Virginia.”
In short, civil rights was a stark, substantive divide between the candidates in 1964, arguably looming larger that year than in any other postwar election. Yet 1964 constitutes one of those two times since 1952 that a majority of white women voted for the Democrat rather than the Republican—the opposite of what one would expect if their record of supporting Republicans rather than Democrats in 15 of the past 17 elections actually stemmed from a desire to uphold white supremacy. (The other election when the Democrat won white women was in 1996.)
What about patriarchy? Let’s go back to the elections of 1952 and 1956, when Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee. Where did he stand?
His most extensive comments on women’s issues were arguably set forth during the 1955 commencement speech he gave at Smith College. “Countless commencement speakers are rising these days on countless platforms all over the world to tell thousands of helpless young captives how important they are—as citizens in a free society, as educated, rational, privileged participants in a great historic crisis,” he began. “But for my part, I want merely to tell you young ladies that I think there is much you can do about that crisis in the humble role of housewife—which, statistically, is what most of you are going to be whether you like the idea or not just now—and you’ll like it!”
Counseling the women to improve the world by way of influencing their husbands, he extolled the “great advantages” of their “assignment” as wives and mothers: “It is home work—you can do it in the living room with a baby in your lap, or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hands,” he said. “If you’re really clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television.”
He granted that some would object to his counsel:
I am told that nowadays the young wife or mother is short of time for the subtle arts, that things are not what they used to be; that once immersed in the very pressing and particular problems of domesticity many women feel frustrated and far apart from the great issues and stirring debates for which their education has given them understanding and relish. Once they read Baudelaire. Now it is the Consumers’ Guide. Once they wrote poetry. Now it’s the laundry list. Once they discussed art and philosophy until late in the night.
Now they are so tired they fall asleep as soon as the dishes are finished. There is, often, a sense of contraction, of closing horizons and lost opportunities. They had hoped to play their part in the crisis of the age.
But what they do is wash the diapers.
His answer to what Betty Friedan would call “the problem that has no name”?
I have just returned from Africa where the illiteracy of the mothers is an obstacle to child education and advancement and where polygamy and female labor is still the dominant system. The common sight on the road is an African striding along swinging his stick or his spear, while a few feet behind comes the wife with a load of firewood on her head, a baby on her back, and dragging a couple more children by the hand.
The point is that whether we talk of Africa, Islam, or Asia, women “never had it so good” as you do. And in spite of the difficulties of domesticity, you have a way to participate actively in the crisis in addition to keeping yourself and those about you straight on the difference between means and ends, mind and spirit, reason and emotion—not to mention keeping your man straight on the differences between Botticelli and Chianti.
One needn’t imagine that Ike was an intersectional feminist to dismiss the ahistorical assumption that white women who voted for the Democratic nominees in 1952 and 1956 were taking a stand against the endurance of patriarchy or that white women who voted GOP that year did so to uphold it.
In the book The Politics of Women’s Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change, the political scientist Christina Wolbrecht offers an overview of the era spanning from 1950s through the 1970s, focusing in part on support for an Equal Rights Amendment:
In 1952 … the Democratic Party stood on the side of the protectionist status quo, preferring public policy that provided special protections for women and opposing, for the most part, legal sex equality. Republicans, on the other hand, generally favored proposals for greater legal equality for women.
In 1940, the GOP became the first party to endorse the ERA and since that time had been relatively more supportive of the amendment. The Democrats added the ERA to their platform in 1944, but generally emphasized their commitment to protecting the health and welfare of working women by siding with the protectionists. Despite these differences, neither party actively championed women's rights. Presidents from both parties made occasional weak statements in support of women’s rights, but their appeals to women as an electoral constituency largely took the form of symbolic actions, such as speeches and appointments. Support for women’s rights legislation was lukewarm on both sides of the Congressional aisle.
The ERA did pass the Senate in 1953, with greater support from Republicans than from Democrats, but it was blocked from floor consideration in the House by Democratic Judiciary Committee chair and ERA foe Emanuel Celler. Women’s rights issues attracted little public note or press coverage.
In the decade that followed, there was no reason to believe that someone committed to women’s rights would necessarily favor Democrats:
As women’s rights became increasingly salient in the 1960s and early 1970s, a gradual convergence of the Democratic and Republican positions occurred.
Democratic President john F. Kennedy initiated the President's Commission on the Status of Women (in part, to counter growing support for the ERA), which provided evidence of and suggested policy solutions to counter discrimination against women. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, issued a number of executive orders in response to emergent feminist demands.
Republican Richard Nixon publicly supported the ERA, but otherwise largely ignored feminist requests, even those coming from within his own party. In Congress, the parties’ delegations became less differentiated by their positions on women's rights through the 1960s, and in the early 1970s, a historic number of women’s rights-related bills and provisions were passed into law. By 1972, feminist concerns occupied the attention of both parties’ conventions as never before, with Republican and Democratic platforms pledging similar action on women’s rights.
From the beginning to the end of the 1970s, there was often little difference between Democratic and Republican candidates on women’s rights:
When efforts for Congressional enactment of the ERA began in earnest in 1970, both parties were active in the alliance organized to seek its passage. That goal was achieved by a similarly bipartisan voting coalition in March 1972. Yet what was originally a bipartisan effort became an increasingly partisan debate as the battle for ratification by the states dragged on through the decade. The ERA dominated the national discourse over women's rights at the same time that the mood of bipartisan consensus on ERA in the 1970s began to show stress cracks. Bipartisanship still seemed possible at mid-decade.
Republican President Gerald Ford favored the amendment, and his wife Betty campaigned extensively for its passage. Republican feminists fought successfully to retain the pro-ERA plank in the party’s platform at its 1976 convention. Democratic President Jimmy Carter was likewise an ERA supporter, campaigning for the ERA and supporting other feminist positions. As the 1970s came to a close, however, the parties became increasingly polarized on the ERA and other women’s rights issues.
Ronald Reagan’s takeover of the Republican Party coincided with the partisan divide on women’s issues that shape the politics of today’s feminists. Even then, why white women voted how they voted is not a simple story, but the complications of our own era are best left to another article.
The narrow takeaway: Even if we adopt left-leaning assumptions about what constitutes progress against racism and sexism, and pretend that those issues were deciding factors in every ballot cast during the postwar era, it still makes no sense to treat the partisan affiliation of white women voters as a proxy for their bygone attitudes toward group bigotry. Pointing out that they voted GOP in those years as if it supports the proposition that they tend to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy is nonsense.
The larger takeaway: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Racism and sexism are ugly. Confronting their role in politics is unpleasant. Many fail to do so, whether with regard to U.S. history until World War II, the postwar decades, or our own era. And that leads to a distorted view of the world. So does analysis that blindly assumes that the left-economic coalition always aligned with civil rights, that Democrats are always and everywhere on the side of the angels, or that the way we vote—or in this case, the way white women vote—is neatly explained by attitudes toward white supremacy and patriarchy.
Intersectional analysis has both promise and perils. This article focuses on a single example of how it can go wrong. I hope it serves as a cautionary lesson, too. If you were nodding along as you read about a majority of white women voting Republican in all but two elections since 1952, thinking, It’s just like them to use their votes to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy, what other woke lines that you applaud don’t stand up to scrutiny?