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These Republican women say their party abandoned them long before Trump

Republican Presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump attends the Republican Presidential debate sponsored by Fox Business and the Republican National Committee at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center in Charleston, South Carolina
Donald Trump in Charleston, South Carolina on January 14, 2016.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

“I want to ask the men leading the GOP some questions,” wrote Amanda Carpenter, a former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), in a Washington Post op-ed. “Why didn’t you defend women from this raging sexist especially after so many Republican women — for so many years — eagerly defended the party from charges of sexism? You must make us out for fools.”

Given Donald Trump’s history of blatant sexism, a lot of Republican women felt that their party abandoned them by nominating Donald Trump. That sense of betrayal intensified when some in the GOP continued to support Trump even after he was caught on tape bragging in 2005 about how "you can do anything" to women if you're famous like he is — and as more than a dozen women came forward with their own allegations that Trump groped, kissed, or otherwise violated them without their consent.

“The problem for the Republican Party is that every woman recognized that video ... every woman who’s had a boss that stood a little too close, who’s ever had to pry a guy’s hands off of her,” Sarah Rumpf, a former Breitbart writer who is now working for third-party candidate Evan McMullin’s campaign, told Vox’s Andrew Prokop in an interview. “We’ve been saying, ‘No, the Republican Party doesn’t hate women, we’re not sexist’ — but they’re all willing to endorse a sexual predator because they wanna be the party in power, they want a seat at the table.”

Some Republican women seem blindsided that men in their party are supporting Trump. It’s unexpected because it feels like a serious violation of principles that the party is supposed to hold dear.

But for some Republican and former Republican women who have been active in the party, Trump’s rise isn’t so shocking. They see it as the logical extension of a toxic pattern of anti-woman policies and sentiment that they’ve seen building for years, and which has already driven many of them away from a party they once felt proud of. And they don’t see a way for that party to recover after this election is over.

“It’s still that old boys’ network”

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Catherine Brinkman, a former chair of the California Young Republicans, told Vox she isn’t sure if she can still identify as a Republican after watching Trump during the last presidential debate. She supports Hillary Clinton, which she said she never could have imagined doing a few years ago. She added that she’s not alone among women she knows, even “card-carrying Republicans.”

“The women I know, pretty much 75 or 80 percent of them are voting for Hillary or [Gary] Johnson,” Brinkman said. “And then the guys, they’re kind of voting party line.”

Brinkman’s frustrations with the party on women’s issues go well beyond Trump. When it comes to how the GOP treats women, she said, “I think we’re back in the 1950s.”

Brinkman grew up a moderate, pro-choice Republican in California — “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” as she put it. Her parents made her watch both parties’ presidential conventions when she was 5 years old in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential candidate of a major party. Brinkman said it never occurred to her that Ferraro was unusual; she took for granted that it was normal for women to participate in politics.

But when Brinkman became involved in Republican Party politics in California — first as the youngest chair of the California Young Republicans in 2005, before moving to the national Young Republicans and becoming chair of the State Chairman’s Association — the reality was very different.

Brinkman said she became exasperated by the lack of representation for women in the Republican Party. When she ran another woman’s successful campaign to become an associate representative of the state party, she was shocked to learn that no woman had ever held that position before in 30 years. “That’s pathetic,” she recalls thinking.

There’s a “huge double standard,” Brinkman told Vox, in the way the GOP generally treats its “young guns” and up-and-comers — too many of whom are white men.

“There’s not enough women, and there’s definitely not enough — being a Republican, I don't want to say ‘diversity,’ because it's not about that,” Brinkman said. “It’s not about affirmative action. It's, can we have people who represent the counties, the cities, the parts of the country they're from? Can we do that ever? Or does it always have to be white guys?”

Of course, neither party has anything close to proportional representation of women in public office. Despite making up 51 percent of the population, women are only 20 percent of the US Senate, 19 percent of the House of Representatives, and 24 percent of both statewide offices and state legislative seats. But Republicans still lag far behind Democrats in closing any of those gender gaps.

It’s not that Republicans haven’t made efforts to reach out to women voters and recruit women candidates, especially amid charges from Democrats that the GOP is waging a “war on women.” But among voters, women still lean toward or identify as Democrats over Republicans by a 52 to 36 percent margin, and the percentage of women who identify as or lean Republican has fallen slightly since 1992.

And in the 15 years since she first got involved in party politics, Brinkman says, she hasn’t seen any changes that would create more space for people her age to come up in the party, especially women. “I think if the GOP wants to have a future with anyone under 35, they'd better pull it together,” Brinkman said. “It’s still that old boys’ network.”

Women who have been around the party longer, like former North Dakota state Rep. Kathy Hawken, have some similar frustrations. Hawken says it was tough to be a Republican woman in the North Dakota House, where she served for 20 years. In the previous session, she said, even though Republicans had a big majority in the chamber, there wasn’t a single Republican woman committee chair or legislative council member.

Hawken says she doesn’t feel she has personally experienced much gender discrimination or sexual harassment — but she does remember some troubling talk among her male colleagues after allegations of domestic violence came out against one of their fellow legislators. “There were several of the guys the next day saying, ‘We have to support Dave,’ and another one said, ‘Yeah, sometimes you just have to let 'em know who's boss.’”

Moments like that, she said, remind her that a lot of men (not to mention some women) genuinely see nothing wrong with Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, or what he called “locker room talk,” on the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape.

Hawken says she “used to be really proud to be a Republican,” but now the party is “imploding.” She can’t stand the party’s “overzealous” approach to women’s health issues, she said, or to legislative obstructionism — the kind where in a Republican-dominated chamber, “if it was a Democratic idea, even if it was a good idea, it didn't go anywhere, which was very stupid and shortsighted.”

“The party left me,” Hawken said. “There's nothing there that makes me excited to go vote.”

Did women lose the fight for the soul of the Republican Party?

Betty Ford, former Republican first lady, showing off her support for the Equal Rights Amendment. Times have changed.
White House Photographic Office

Carol Mayer Marshall grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in what she called a “true Republican family,” and got her start in politics licking envelopes for Sen. Robert Taft when she was 12 years old. She spent seven years working as a legislative assistant for various Republican members of Congress, and ended up working on anti-poverty issues as the third-highest-ranking woman in the Nixon administration.

In the 1970s, Marshall fought unsuccessfully to stop the party from opposing abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment (which would have amended the Constitution to prohibit gender discrimination) in its official platform. “I’ve always been fighting within the party to try to change it, and I’ve always been on the losing side,” she said. She sounds incredulous when recalling that birth control used to be a major point of contention among Republicans, and that it’s still an issue today.

But it wasn’t just issues like reproductive health, Marshall said — it was also “the general attitude toward women in the party” that troubled her. She remembers deciding to leave one job on the Hill when she overheard her boss saying that “of course women shouldn’t earn as much as men, because men have families to support.”

“I think some men in the party have learned to be a little more discreet in their language, although many others have not — but I don’t think attitudes have changed much,” she said.

Now Marshall is a registered Democrat who sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She and her husband often discuss whether they could vote for another Republican candidate for president. “I don’t think we will, unfortunately,” Marshall said. “I don’t see things changing.”

She worries about what hyperpolarization in our politics is doing to the conversation about women’s issues, and to women’s political representation.

Marshall was once vice president of Wish List — which, she explained, is basically the Republican version of EMILY’s List, a group that recruits and funds pro-choice Democratic women to run for office. But Wish List was nowhere near as well-funded or successful as EMILY’s List, and right-wing elements of the party kept mobilizing to defeat Wish List’s usually more moderate candidates in the primary.

Some Republican women think this attitude leads the party to take on some seriously skewed, out-of-touch priorities. For instance, 70 percent of Americans don’t want Roe v. Wade to be repealed, which means they want abortion to remain legal in at least some cases. But as it has many times before, the official 2016 GOP platform calls for something even more extreme than repealing Roe — a “human life amendment” that would probably make in vitro fertilization illegal.

“They bring up a lot of religious issues on birth control and the right to choose, which I don’t think resonates with the majority of the US anymore,” Brinkman said. In theory, she said, Republicans ought to be able to speak their mind if they hold more liberal views on these issues — especially if their seat isn't “hardcore Christian right.” But “people just don’t, because they're so afraid of getting targeted by the PACs [political action committees],” Brinkman said.

These days, it’s pretty much taken for granted that if you’re running as a Republican and want to win, you probably need to oppose abortion and take other socially conservative positions. But it wasn’t always that way; the official party platform has only opposed abortion since 1976, and it did so amid a heated debate over women’s rights.

Martha Haynie, who served as the Orange County comptroller in Florida as a Republican for 28 years, recalls that when she got involved with the Young Republicans in her 20s, she was “horrified” to discover that the group opposed the Equal Rights Amendment — another major flashpoint in that intraparty debate over women’s rights.

For Haynie, it became a sign of what was to come. Over the past decade in particular, Haynie said, “as the Republicans have gotten nastier and seemed to be more anti-woman ... it was not very comfortable for me to be identified as a Republican.” She kept thinking about changing her party registration, but kept holding off.

Haynie is pro-choice, she says, partly because she values “individual responsibility” and “smaller, less intrusive government” — classic Republican values. But she was still “terrified” that she’d be asked about abortion when she first ran for office in 1988.

When one older woman did ask her about it, though, something unexpected happened. “I started giving her my prepared speech,” Haynie said, “which was going to be that I have two children, and they're the center of my universe, and I believe that all children deserve to be born into families where they are wanted and can be cared for. And she said, ‘Oh, thank God. I thought you were one of those crazy people.’”

Similarly, Haynie said, when she spoke honestly about her views at a Republican women’s club several years ago, “nobody at the time spoke up to support me being pro-choice. But when the meeting was over, I had at least half a dozen women come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I'm so glad you said that.’ And I thought, ‘Why don't you say it?’”

Haynie says she thinks a lot of Republican women who are pro-choice “simply do not speak out” in support of abortion rights or women’s rights more broadly — perhaps because they don’t like to get into “uncomfortable situations.”

Marshall has another theory: that many Republican women value independence so highly, it makes them reluctant to actually consider changing their party affiliation over these issues. “Republican women who are pro-choice, and who feel just as strongly about that issue as Democratic women, pride themselves on the fact that they're not ‘single-issue voters,’” Marshall said.

How long can this go on?

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The women I spoke with agree the party doesn’t need to work this way. They think it’s horrible that in a two-party system, one party has become consistently aligned against some pretty basic ideas of equality and justice for women.

They worry that the Republican Party systematically underrepresents women, that it doubles down on opposing freedoms for women that most Americans support, and that too many of its members either actively hold regressive views on women or passively fail to do any real work for women’s rights and representation.

And then there’s Trump, who can make those serious issues seem trivial compared with his boorishness and hostility toward women. “The way Trump treats women is unconscionable,” Hawken said. “You don't have to put them on a pink pillow, but for gosh sakes — the rape culture, almost, that he promotes — it's another one of those things that I think keeps some women from trying things,” like running for office.

So where does Trump fit into all of this? Is he an anomaly, or an expected result? If he loses, as appears likely, what’s the future of the Republican Party and women, especially more moderate women?

“I absolutely think — I hope — that he is the culmination of the misogyny, and racism, frankly, in the Republican Party,” Haynie said of Trump. “But I think we may well have come to a time when the Grand Old Party needs to suffer so badly that something else comes up out of its ashes, whether it's called the Republican Party or not.”

Marshall sees Trump as a “voice” for “the older white men” in the Republican Party “who are disappointed that life has changed so much, and that our culture and the job situation have changed.”

But the party isn’t really bothering to engage with other groups, she said. “Every election year Republicans have a task force on how to talk to Hispanics,” she said. “And every year they just show their lack of understanding. It always comes as a great surprise to Republicans that so many Hispanic women are loyal to Planned Parenthood. They think, ‘Well, they're all Catholics, therefore they're going to be pro-life.’”

Marshall said there’s no real leadership from more moderate Republicans who could oppose someone like Trump — and that in truth, there’s hardly such a thing as a “moderate Republican” at all anymore. “In four years, the Republican Party will probably have a Trump-like candidate who is not quite as crazy and indiscreet as he is, but who is very conservative and appeals to that group of dying demographics and to the religious right,” she said.

Meanwhile, Brinkman, who still can’t quite believe that she has a Hillary sign in her front yard, has started asking herself what she actually likes about the woman she used to call “Chillary” — not just what she hates about Trump. She’s realized there’s plenty to like, she said. She appreciates that Clinton has “been around the block” and “gets things done.”

But while Brinkman has a “Republicans for Hillary” button, she doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to call herself a “Republican” in good faith.

“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “I don’t have an answer. But if this is what it's going to be next cycle in 2018, then no, I’ll become a Dem.”