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The Alabama election shows exactly why feminism in 2018 can’t just be about white women

Black women voted overwhelmingly against Roy Moore. Feminism has to recognize their leadership.

Supporters of Doug Jones celebrate his victory over Roy Moore on December 12
Supporters of Doug Jones celebrate his victory over Roy Moore on December 12.
Bill Clark/Contributor/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

To some, the results of Tuesday night’s Alabama special election might look like a victory for #MeToo.

Roy Moore, a man accused of sexually pursuing, abusing, or assaulting multiple teenage girls, was defeated by Doug Jones in an unexpected upset, sending an Alabama Democrat to the Senate for the first time in 25 years.

But the lessons of Tuesday night are more complicated than that. According to exit polls, 63 percent of white women voted for Moore — a reminder of last year’s presidential election, when 53 percent of white female voters cast their ballots for a man caught on tape talking about grabbing women “by the pussy.”

The Alabama special election demonstrated, once again, that many white women are quite willing to vote for a man accused of sexual assault, and that the idea of women as a unified voting bloc is sorely misguided. It also showed that the future of feminist politics in 2018 lies in recognizing the work of women of color, who have been leaders across feminist issues for a long time, often with little recognition from white Americans.

Sexual misconduct allegations aren’t the only reason Moore lost

Despite the accusations against him, made public at a time when women all over the country are speaking out against sexual harassment and assault, Roy Moore managed to get 41 percent of women’s votes across races. But, according to preliminary exit polls, black voters turned out in large numbers and voted overwhelmingly against him. Ninety-eight percent of black women voted for Doug Jones; 93 percent of black men did the same. As Vann R. Newkirk II put it in the Atlantic, “black voters were informed and mobilized to go vote, and did so even in the face of significant barriers.” Voter ID laws and DMV closures in the state appeared to disproportionately affect black residents, and civil rights groups and voters raised concerns about voter suppression on Election Day.

Nor did Moore necessarily lose the election because of women’s reports of sexual misconduct. Only 7 percent of voters said those reports were the single most important factor in their decision, along with 34 percent who said they were one of several important factors.

Though women’s reports of Moore’s behavior certainly should have disqualified him from public office — the man was, after all, reportedly banned from a mall for bothering teenage girls — he had shown himself to be unfit for that office long before the sexual abuse allegations came to light. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he was relieved of his duties twice for failing to follow the law: once for refusing to remove a monument bearing the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building and once for telling Alabama judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in violation of the Supreme Court’s decision. He has described “homosexual conduct” as “an inherent evil against which children must be protected,” as Mark Joseph Stern notes at Slate. In a 2006 op-ed titled “Muslim Ellison should not sit in Congress,” he compared the Quran to Mein Kampf.

On the campaign trail, he continued to show voters exactly who he was. At a September campaign rally, he opined that America was great “when families were united — even though we had slavery.” Given that slave holders often separated families and sexually assaulted enslaved people, it seemed clear which families Moore was prioritizing.

Tuesday night’s vote was a victory for harassment and assault survivors, certainly. It was also a victory for anyone who cares about the civil rights of LGBTQ, Muslim, and black Americans. One of the lessons of this election is that these issues are inseparable from the fight for women’s rights and women’s safety. It’s not a new lesson, especially for LGBTQ women and women of color, but it will be important for all feminists to remember in the months ahead.

The second important lesson — also far from new — is that white women cannot necessarily be relied upon to reject candidates accused of sexual misconduct. That was clear after the election of President Donald Trump, and it’s even clearer now. That doesn’t mean it should fall on black women to “save” America from predatory men, as Vox’s P.R. Lockhart has noted.

“In a state where a disproportionate level of African Americans face rampant poverty, poor education systems, and unequal access to healthcare, the votes of black women weren’t about some altruistic mission to save America from itself,” Lockhart wrote. “Their votes were a very real attempt to make a change that would help themselves and their families.”

Tuesday night’s election was a reminder that feminism as a movement has to acknowledge the longstanding leadership of women of color on sexual assault prevention, as on a variety of issues. Tarana Burke was living in Alabama a decade ago when she decided to start the Me Too campaign to help survivors of sexual violence, she told me in October, and she is one of many women of color whose work has at times been forgotten or ignored by white feminists.

Feminism can win elections — but not if it only focuses on white women and their concerns

Today’s feminist movement cannot ignore women of color — not because women of color are needed to support causes championed by white women, but because women of color have often been the ones on the front lines, championing feminist causes when white women won’t. Black women are the ones who voted overwhelmingly to defeat Roy Moore. They also voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016, with just 3 percent casting a vote for Trump.

Women of color are already leading activism on issues ranging from reproductive justice to pay equality, but they haven’t always been recognized as leaders by white feminists or mainstream feminist groups. In a recent example, Zahara Hill noted at Ebony that initial coverage of the #MeToo hashtag failed to credit Burke, and that in the social media conversation around the hashtag, “Black women were quickly isolated from the dialogue before we could familiarize ourselves with it.” Exclusions like that can’t happen if feminism is to be relevant as a political force in 2018.

One hopeful sign was the Women’s Convention in October. The Women’s March on Washington in January, first called the Million Woman March, had been criticized for using the language of black civil rights activists for an event initially conceived largely by white women. “Once again, the labors of Black folks (in this case, the 1995 Million Man March and the 1997 Million Woman March organized by Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam) were being co-opted and erased by clueless White ones,” Jamilah Lemieux wrote at ColorLines in January. “And just what would this ‘million’ women be coming together to march about—their mothers, sisters, homegirls and friends who elected Trump in the first place?”

The organizers of the Women’s Convention — Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland, and more — worked hard to highlight the work of leaders of color at the October gathering, and called on white attendees repeatedly to support people of color, rather than only demanding their support. A panel called “Confronting White Womanhood,” designed to help white women recognize their own roles in perpetuating racism, was so popular it was ultimately held twice. In a closing panel, political commentator Angela Rye advised the crowd to support black-owned businesses, put their money in black-owned banks, and donate to black-run charities.

Not all feminists are women, and not every woman identifies as a feminist, even if she supports some of the goals that feminists fight for. Still, feminism has emerged as a powerful political force in the wake of the Women’s March, convention, and the elections this November, in which Danica Roem beat the author of a discriminatory “bathroom bill” to become the first transgender woman in the Virginia House of Delegates, and Ashley Bennett won a seat on the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, beating out a man who had made a sexist joke about Women’s Marchers cooking dinner.

The feminism that is winning elections, however, is one that encompasses more than the concerns of white women, and more than issues traditionally thought of as “women’s issues.” It’s one that includes criminal justice reform and resistance to mass incarceration, a living wage for domestic workers and protections for immigrants, LGBTQ equality and voting rights for all.

Candidates who can speak to those issues in 2018 and beyond are likely to energize a powerful base of voters of color, LGBTQ voters, and their allies. Candidates who try to preach feminism while appealing only to white voters, meanwhile, are likely to fail.