When Hillary Clinton’s second attempt to become America’s first female president failed in 2016, a lot of women were angry—at other women.
Much of the disappointment and finger-pointing that went on after the election that put Donald Trump in the White House was specifically aimed at white women: While Trump got only about 41 percent of the women’s vote overall, a majority of white women—52 percent—sided with him over Clinton at the polls.
In the weeks leading up the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans were fighting to maintain control of both the House and the Senate in a cycle that let voters make a judgment call not just about their lawmakers but about Trump’s presidency. He literally told Americans they should “pretend I’m on the ballot.”
Fast-forward to last week: Women go to the polls again—and run for office—in droves. As a whole, 59 percent say they supported their local Democratic candidate for the House, up from 51 percent in the 2014 midterms and 48 percent in 2010. Republicans manage to hang on to the Senate but lose the House, making it harder for Trump to deliver what he’s promised. The head of the Democratic Party gives special thanks to women for their part in changing the game.
The headlines practically write themselves, right? Blue Wave! Pink Wave! Rainbow Wave! Shove over, 1992: This is the New Year of the Woman.
But dig deeper and you get a sharper, more complicated picture. There’s no question this election was A Big Deal for women. The House will see a new record of at least 125 women in office in 2019, and women voters in specific demographics helped them get there.
Some figures aren't surprising. Number crunching by the Center for American Women and Politics, for example, finds an overwhelming 92 percent of black women supported a Democrat for the House in Tuesday's election, as did 73 percent of Latinas. The nonprofit Voter Participation Center broadly credited a coalition of unmarried women, people of color, and millennials as key to flipping the House—something VPC’s Page Gardner forecasted in a preelection interviewwith Glamour.
Among white women, however, midterm exit polling shows a full-on split: As the Pew Research Center reports, 49 percent voted Democratic; 49 percent went Republican.
And for those white female voters, education level is a bright, dividing line.
This year about 59 percent of college-educated white women supported a Democrat for the House. As Susan Carroll, senior scholar at CAWP, pointed out in a phone interview, that's a big jump from 2016, when not even half did the same. It was almost the reverse among white women with no college degree: Around 56 percent voted for Republican House candidates this year, according to Pew; just over 60 percent of that same group supported Trump in 2016.
Given that outcome in America's first return to the polls since Trump took office (and stirred women's rage by separating migrant mothers and children at the border and putting Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court), a fresh surge of postelection finger-pointing was no surprise.
“What is wrong with white women?” demanded columnist Moira Donegan of The Guardian. “Why do half of them so consistently vote for Republicans, even as the Republican party morphs into a monstrously ugly organization that is increasingly indistinguishable from a hate group?”
Gender Watch, a nonpartisan research project tracking women in elections, quoted Melanye Price, an Africana Studies professor at Rutgers, as saying, "In the last two years, progressive white women’s sense of urgency has increased, but in many parts of this country, they have not been able to convince their sisters," and also that "having to continually remind white women that fighting their own racial bigotry is as important as fucking the patriarchy is tiresome."
Women’s March cofounder Breanne Butler put out a call for progressives to use the upcoming holidays to start helping white female relatives see the light ahead of the 2020 presidential race: “Here's where you can talk to your aunt that gave money to her church's mission trip but fails to recognize the [Central American migrant] caravan,” she tells Glamour via email. “Here's where you can talk to your cousin who loves hip-hop music, but fails to see that black lives aren't valued.”
And Princeton University scholar Dara Strolovitch says while it’s inspiring to see midterm wins by women, LGBT, and minority candidates, she has lingering concerns: “Although the last two years have been a crash course [on] the implications of persistent and institutionalized misogyny,” she writes in a postmidterms takeaway, “many straight white Christian women” may not only accept what could be seen as antifeminist attitudes but embrace them.
In this or any election, naturally, there’s a big, big difference between spotting trends in how women voted and establishing why they made their choices. The decision may come down to party loyalty, feelings about a specific candidate, a national issue, or a local problem. And of course, Carroll notes, “the culture of the [voter’s] state really does matter.”
Meanwhile, even as liberal analysts and activists lament some of Tuesday’s outcomes, not only the President, but groups like Susan B. Anthony List, which promotes antiabortion women candidates for public office, are claiming victory.
“In 2010, there was not a single pro-life woman in the U.S. Senate. Next year there will be at least four pro-life women senators, and five if pro-life Martha McSally wins in Arizona,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a postelection statement that also applauded the success of antiabortion ballot measures in Alabama and West Virginia. Additionally, Dannenfelser cheered the reelection of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, a woman she praised as having “signed the most aggressive pro-life state legislation to date.”
Elsewhere, the conservative Independent Women’s Forum posted a rundown on its website of liberal candidates who lost despite their celebrity endorsements, and Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted that the one-two punch of Trump’s persuasive campaigning and a good GOP ground game “turned the forecasted Democrat tsunami into a ripple.”
The political divisions laid bare in the 2018 midterms, where some close contests still remain undecided, are definitely not limited to women: While 59 percent of female voters supported Democratic House candidates, just over half of men voted Republican. That went up to 60 percent for white men, Pew calculated—and even higher, to 66 percent, for white guys with no college degree.
The divide between men and women voters extended to other other races, CAWP finds, including 20 of 21 Senate battles and nine of 11 governor races as of last week.
In contests that made national news, CAWP’s tally shows, women were likelier to go with the Democrat—win or lose: More than half of women voters supported Democrat Andrew Gillum's unsuccessful bid to become Florida’s first African American governor and Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke's failed challenge to incumbent Senator Ted Cruz. Higher percentages of women than men also sided with incumbent Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who both lost to male Republican challengers.
The Democratic nominee in one of the country’s hottest Senate contests, Nevada’s Jacky Rosen, beat Republican incumbent Dean Heller with the support of 60 percent of women voters—versus just 42 percent of men. In Tennessee just over half of female voters helped make Marsha Blackburn the first woman to represent the state in the Senate.
On the plus side for better female representation in Congress, Carroll says, “This is going to be the largest-ever freshman class of women in the House,” but there's a lesson to keep in mind from 1992’s Year of the Woman, she cautions: Some of those female candidates won in politically mixed or Republican-leaning districts and went right on to lose their seats in 1994.
The Class of 2018 may face a similar challenge: “They have to run for reelection in two years, [and] who knows what the electoral context will be? It may not be as favorable for Democrats as it was this year,” Carroll says. “You don’t know.”
Also unknown: whether more female voters will veer to the left in the run-up to the 2020 presidential cycle—or if white women will stay on the fence, a divided part of the electorate served by a divided government in a divided America.