The role of sex and gender in this election extends beyond Donald Trump’s personal history and the media’s excessive scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s voice. Trump’s ethno-nationalist populism reflects anxieties over the changing role of women and men in society against a backdrop of harrowing economic crisis and demographic change that will soon make the United States a majority-minority country.
As Stephanie Coontz argues, the upheavals are all interrelated. Economic precarity promotes the scapegoating of women and people of color while the divergent fortunes of poor and affluent families foster distrust and anger over the rising stature of women. Coontz, a longtime observer of changing gender relations through a political economic lens, teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College. She is the author of multiple books, including A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Marriage, a History, and The Way We Never Were.
I spoke to Coontz about economic precarity and gender and why many think Trump is the person, or, more specifically, the man, for the job. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
There’s a big debate over whether economic misery or racism is fueling support for Trump. But many, myself very much included, have failed to take stock of the gender components at play beyond the fact that women seem more likely than men to be put off by Trump’s slurs. What’s the bigger gender context here?
Well, you know, all of these things are tremendously intertwined. Certainly, when you look at the extent to which the white male votes for Trump are concentrated in the South, you have to understand that he has tapped into a long preexisting current of racism. But that kind of racism gets exacerbated when people feel that they’re falling behind and it looks like they’re losing things that have been promised to them as entitlements.
This is not just white entitlement, which was taken for granted for 200 years, but male breadwinner family entitlement, which was a very recent acquisition for the white working class. And you’re getting a lot of people here that certainly are not the family values people who supported Cruz and Rubio but for whom the ability to maintain a male breadwinner family was a hard-won gain established in the postwar era that has been slipping away for the past 40 years.
That explains why working-class men are drawn to Trump. But he also has support from plenty of women. Why?
So what attracts women to this? Most women do not like to be sexually harassed. Most women now say that they ought to get equal pay for equal work. But the fact remains that women who have the fewest opportunities to compete successfully in the labor market are the ones who are much more likely to support the policies and values that reward a traditional division of labor in the household.
Women with more social, economic, or educational capital are much more likely to support the activities of women making their own way in the world, to be proud when they see powerful women who stand up or who are getting ahead of men in any way, and they’re also much more open to supporting social policies that reward individual initiative even if they know that it’s not always rewarded equally.
Women with less economic or personal autonomy are often drawn to a culture of family values that emphasizes men’s responsibility to look after women. Women who have a shot at achieving or competing on their own emphasize equality, supporting the kind of policies that make it possible for them to move up in their jobs and combine work and family.
Women who want to be protected in the private sphere or need to be protected in the private sphere tend to emphasize the need to protect and privilege women’s special capacities for nurturing. I think it’s a big factor in the debates over contraception and sexuality and abortion. The flip side of women having all these freedoms from male control, they believe, is that it actually threatens women’s entitlement to male protection.
You mention this at a very interesting time because Phyllis Schlafly just died and that was very much her message: that the Equal Rights Amendment was going to strip women of their right to male protection and male economic support. Is this a longstanding strain that Trump’s tapping into?
Oh, yes, I think so. People have interviewed anti-abortion activists. And many times, they have expressed the idea that this just gives men all the more power over women. That it makes it easier for a man to refuse to marry a woman that he may have slept with and gotten knocked up.
When my son was in a Louisiana public hospital — amid all the cutbacks in public services that Bobby Jindal prevailed over — I had several opportunities to get into long conversations with Trump supporters. The few women that I talked with, they certainly were not the pious people who expected to be or had been virgins until marriage. But they still held very strongly to the idea that they needed marriage, and that men should take responsibility and step up to the plate.
And so they saw a lot of these high-achieving women as giving men permission to be total individualists and not to step up if they need to get married, and also that these women are taking jobs that should go to men with families to support. I don’t think the profane attacks that some women make and proudly allow their sons to make on Hillary Clinton are driven by exactly the same contempt for women that that you see in some men’s remarks, but by this hatred of elite women who seem to be taking jobs from their men and saying to men: Women don’t need your help, women can do it on their own.
Is that anger at elite women reflective of a situation where economic and gender anxieties are intermingling?
This has been a longstanding tradition. Queens have been vilified as women for eating the wrong thing or wearing the wrong clothes or being too standoffish rather than as partners in class oppression. Through history there is this extraordinary anger against elites that is often channeled through sexism. Even left-wingers often equate the worst excesses of the elite that they attack with the behavior of elite females. So that's certainly part of it.
But for whole sectors of the population, these traditional racial and sexual prejudices, which can lie dormant at other times, have become intertwined with the collapse of a small-town way of life in which everyone was supposed to know their place but there was also enough intermixing of classes that white working people had more leverage with business owners and local officials. Government was corrupt but more accessible to you if you knew somebody, and in small towns you didn’t have to be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to know somebody.
And so I do think that you’re seeing a tremendous fury at this sense that a whole set of political and economic arrangements that were never totally in your favor but could sometimes be manipulated — by your race, your gendered behavior or just your neighbors — has now been lost and it’s very disorienting to people.
Paul Krugman wrote that that Trump "Represents little more than the rage of white men over a changing nation," which seems both partly true and somewhat unfair. It seems like the correct analysis would land somewhere along being able to say that white men’s privileged position needs to end but that the state of affairs for working people in general, white men included, is a problem.
I think it’s absolutely true that as whites and as males a lot of the most vociferous and vicious supporters of Trump have an unjustified sense of entitlement that they should get first pick on jobs, wages, and promotions. But their sense that they've been screwed over is not unjustified, as those jobs have gotten more insecure, real wages for less-educated men have fallen by 30 percent since 1979, and benefits have been systematically taken back.
And they understand, even when they blame Mexicans and immigrants, they actually understand that corporations have screwed them over, that politicians have screwed them over, that businessmen have not been fair to them. And so I think what happens here is just the general sense of “I am absolutely powerless against these bigger forces and I have to look to someone who is more powerful than they are — and in the meanwhile vent my anger on people over whom I am more powerful.”
I was very struck by the female supporter who said Trump is like the bully you want to beat up on the other bully. There is longstanding social science evidence that people with fewer resources, educational or economic, tend to look heroes — or villains even— to stand up for them. Somebody they think has some kind of power that they don’t have.
The exception is when you have a union. The one time that you don’t see that in action, at least so much, is when an area is unionized. Then, because workers have some kind of collective power, they’re not so likely to turn toward some authoritarian demagogue. They can actually imagine going up against the boss in their own collective power rather than finding somebody else to go up against the boss or someone else to throw under the wheels of the bus.
It seems to me that what’s at work in a lot of senses is: What sort of institutional frameworks are in place that help people make sense of and interpret their reality?
Yes. What institutional and organization tools can we develop or mobilize so people feel that they have some place they can take their grievances other than to a strongman, or some place to vent their frustrations other than taking them out on some scapegoat? And I do think that liberal elites, by failing to link class injustices to racial and gender ones, often fail to offer an alternative to the demagogues.
Sometimes I’ll go into a place where liberals are talking about these issues in terms of diversity or inclusion or compassion. All of which can come across as privileged people telling unprivileged people that they shouldn’t complain because other people have it worse. I actually had some of the white low-income people I talked to in Louisiana ask me “where’s the inclusion for us?”; “I don’t see any compassion for us.”
I don’t think that’s the primary cause of their rage. And I have no illusions about how hard it will be to combat America’s deeply engrained racism. But I think that failing to develop better ways of finding common ground gives a little more fuel to the people who would like to stoke that rage and use it for their personal or political agendas.
To what degree is there a sort of zero-sum game at play between women’s economic gains coming at the expense of men, and people of color’s economic gains coming at the expense of whites, and to what degree is that really just a way that things have been politically framed?
Well the fact is, it wasn’t women who have been gutting the unions and cutting wages, and in light of the job and wage losses men have experienced in their traditional jobs, if it weren't for the gains that women have made, there would be many more poor families than there are. Men in families have really benefited from women’s access to work. There’s new research out that shows that when a woman earns more than her husband, that no longer raises the risk of divorce. And the risk has fallen the most among families where the men are low-to-moderate income earners. It’s the highest-earning men most invested in their identity as high earners (the Trumps, in other words) who are most threatened by a wife who earns more.
But when you get to the really poor areas, you get a couple of other things happening. First of all, many men can’t find stable relationships because they don’t earn enough to be a good bet as husband material and/or because women can earn just enough not to have to put up with bad behavior. But when low-income couples do marry and have kids, they really need two incomes but they often can’t afford child care.
The highest proportion of stay at home mothers in this country of any group — the only group where a majority of them are stay at home — is among women married to men in the bottom 25 percent of the earnings distribution. This is very typical of the South in the low-income areas that Trump is talking to. These women don’t have enough education or opportunity to earn wages that can pay for child care and transportation and work clothes. So this is the one place where you get a lot of stay at home wives — or wives who do take jobs but they are crappy jobs that pay low wages and don’t have family-friendly policies, so they’d prefer not to be working.
Even though objectively we can say they’d be so much better off if we could get child care centers up and increase the degree of unionization, for some of those people, two-earner families seem like a tremendous threat. The two-earner families seem to be outbidding them for everything from goods in the supermarket to houses that are near decent schools. And so you can see how you get this ambivalence about working women.
Is there also a sense in which the rise of two-earner households has papered over, at least on the surface, the real economic crisis that people are in?
Well, I think that it has raised gender tensions that can in fact distract from the real economic sources of the problems. First of all, you have so many married-couple houses where really the wife can hardly afford to work and so they are looking for tax policies that allow her to stay home. They look resentfully at the influx of educated career women who are increasing the earning power of these middle-class families and increasing the social distance between them.
Or you have two-earner families that are just scraping by and they see some women — for the first time — moving way up the earnings ladder. So when they hear feminists talk about the glass ceiling, they don’t see that as the main issue. Then at the same time you also have at an even poorer level a situation where women’s earning power is just enough to make them very cautious about marrying a man who might not have earning power or might lose his job.
So, you’re getting the kind of gender hostility that tends to mount in any impoverished community where there are these kinds of tensions. Where the man is thinking, "what does this woman want from me? She’s only after me for my money." And the woman is thinking, “huh, you know, boy, if I let him into my house, he’ll probably start stealing my money or using it for something else."
So you’ve got this interpersonal mistrust that is in so many ways a product of increasing economic inequality, the collapse of anything like a social safety net, and the lack of any kind of fairness in access to schools and public facilities and even safe water.
So you can see how some people can become so demoralized that instead of demanding change from these seemingly untouchable powers, like the corporations that move somewhere else or the government that is now no longer your neighbor of a neighbor, you start blaming it on these dual-earner families and these middle-income families and these uppity women and these men who don’t know how to do a hard day's labor. You think to yourself, “when I do a hard day's labor, I still don’t get rewarded for it.”
My husband and I live on a very small farm here and I am continually reminded of the tremendous disparity between what people who work with their hands are paid and what people who manipulate technology or push paper are paid. When the guy comes out to slaughter our cow, he gets $70. For driving all the way out there, with all that special equipment and all the training that allows him to kill it, skin it, and hang it up and prepare it to go to the butcher who will do the final cut, he gets, like, nothing. People who put their feet up on a Wall Street desk for 10 minutes to take a little break from schmoozing with clients make that much money in that 10 minutes.
There’s an interesting dynamic between the gendering of service sector jobs as feminine and factory work as masculine. The rise of the service sector and the decline of manufacturing seem to have collided in unsettling way when it comes to gender norms.
Oh yes. It would be one thing that if you were paid as many union guys used to be —my husband used to work in the airlines, and when Northwest was the airline these were union jobs, people who unloaded baggage made as much as people who pushed paper across desks — not the CEOs, of course. But they had good, solid jobs. You made double time on overtime days. You had work protections. Why, you might have a certain amount of pride that you lifted things that were heavier than these desk jockeys did. But you didn't have to have resentment. And in fact, you were sort of like, yeah, my muscles are hurting, maybe I’d like a job like that eventually.
But today, you get to a point where you’re getting paid just a minuscule amount while this guy who does no useful work that you can see, is getting much, much more. Then it’s easy for that to get folded in with old-fashioned notions of masculinity, thinking that I’m the real man here, these people aren’t real men. Trump plays to that a lot — "loser, weakling," that sort of thing. Although God knows if he’s ever lifted a hammer the past 25 years.
There’s a lot of nostalgia at work, for things both real and imagined, when it comes to economics, gender, and race right now. When historically does this pining for a Golden Age emerge?
I have spent my whole professional life battling nostalgia and showing how it deforms our understanding of our own history, our politics, and prospects for building a better future. But this particular nostalgia I’m a little sympathetic to. For hundreds of years, blue-collar workers, white, black, or whatever, had no social respect, no protections. They lived hand to mouth. They had the highest accident rates in the industrial world. There were no protections for them.
Blacks had higher unemployment rates and lower wages than whites, and they faced terrible discrimination. Unskilled white workers had it better than minorities, but they were a long way from being “privileged’ in the sense that most middle-class people understand that word. I can remember jokes of the ’60s, that people laughed at, about guys who put something in front on their face and hit themselves in the face when they were told to prove how strong they were. The butt of these jokes was always some white “Polack” or Irish construction worker. There was so little respect for industrial and manual workers, so little security for them.
After World War II, we got into a situation where the combination of new protections for workers, new regulations on banks, rising taxes for the rich and corporations, much more government investment in jobs and infrastructure, and our favored economic position in the world created for the first time a security and a sense of pride that you could be a male breadwinner.
You could make things better for your wife and your children than your father had been able to make for you and his father for him. Every cohort of men from 1947 right up to the early ’70s could count on earning more at age 25 to 35 than his father had earned at that age in real wages. By our standards, the houses they lived in were smaller, but we’re social animals. We compare ourselves to where we came from.
I've interviewed women about this, women who lived through this and who often had very unhappy marriages, and I would ask, "why didn’t you leave?" And they’d say, "well, how could I do that? I had it so much better than my mom did, so much better than my grandma did. I should be grateful." So there was a feeling of gratitude, of pride. And when young antiwar activists started marching in the street and turning flags upside down there was this sense of resentment — now that I’ve got a piece of the flag, why are you suddenly spitting on it? — that I can understand.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, a white or a male with a high school education earned more than a black or a woman with a college education. When that white working-class security started to go away in the 1980s particularly, it was easy to just be enraged and not know what had done it or who had taken it away.
Unfortunately, what a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign managed to do was to convince people that the source of that prosperity had been their patriotic values and their own hard work, which demagogues contrasted to new immigrants speaking different languages and women, blacks, or other minorities pushing them aside. And to the extent that liberals didn’t ever want to talk about the class dynamics of working-class loss, they made it be very easy for demagogues to raise that argument.
Very often my students will come into my class and they'll talk about unpacking white male privilege. Now, I believe there are tremendous amounts of white male privilege and of minority and female disadvantage. But it’s hard for a white college student to tell a guy whose wages have been cut three times in the last 10 years, who has fewer benefits than you do, who can’t imagine his kids doing better than he did the way he was able to do better than his grandfather that he is privileged. Privilege is not what he sees when he looks in the mirror in the morning.
Sometimes you can get him to see that he had advantages that he no longer has, and then you have to be able to explain that those racial and gender advantages were not the real source of his better life then. Because what really helped him then was government investment in jobs, a more progressive tax system, better regulation of corporations and banks, and union jobs.
If we restored those protections to working people and gave all working people access to them we’d be better off. Convincing a lot of these people of the need for this kind of solidarity isn’t easy, but you’re certainly not gonna get it if what they think they hear is “they wanna take away the last little leverage I have, calling it a privilege, and give it to someone else.” You have to be much more class conscious than our political and cultural leaders have been to make the case for solidarity to them.
What did you make of the gender dynamics of the Democratic primary? Young women went for Bernie Sanders in overwhelming numbers, which really bothered a lot of older women who supported Hillary Clinton. And there was a lot of suggestion or just assertion that support for Sanders was driven by sexism.
I certainly could see that there was a stupid subset of Sanders’s supporters who, you know, were stupid little boys. But the vast majority of Sanders supporters were very conscious that Sanders supported and supports women’s rights. And so I think that sexism did not account for his support even though some of his supporters were sexist.
In terms of the gender divide between older and younger women, I’m sympathetic to both sides, having myself grown up in a time period when a woman could be laughed out of classroom if she expressed ambition to be a president, a secretary of state, a governor, an athlete — as opposed to, you know, a film star or a nurse. Back in those days the legal definition of rape was forcible intercourse with someone other than your wife. There were quotas on women in schools, all male clubs, and women who worked had to turn to the “help wanted, female” pages, where the jobs were almost all for “perky” receptionists and “pretty” secretaries. Most states had Head and Master laws that gave men the final say over many family matters.
So, for women who had any experience with that and then went through the tremendous hostility they initially received in the early days of the women’s liberation movement, you can see why they would be tremendously excited at the idea that a woman would take on this new job.
But for the younger ones of course, they’ve seen women in the extremely powerful positions, they have made tremendous legal, economic, and social gains. They know that sexism still exists. But I think many of them are also conscious of the other inequities like race and class and don’t feel that being a woman is sufficient for a job description.
That’s the place we’d all eventually like to get to, I think. But what you had in the primaries was a divide between those women who were thinking about the excitement of having a woman in the White House and those who were attracted to Bernie Sanders’s critique of people, male or female, too cozy with the establishment. I suspect most of the latter will now allow themselves to embrace the kind of novel sense that, “wow, there is something important about there being a female first president.”
But I think Clinton has enough political baggage, and is just tone-deaf enough about class, that she’s lucky to be running against the one guy who is managing to offend minorities, women, economic elites, and increasingly, I think, a lot of the “little guys” he claims to defend but has in fact been screwing over for years.
Daniel Denvir is a Providence, Rhode Island-based journalist who writes about criminal justice, the war on drugs, politics, and immigration.