Thanks to decades of feminist groundwork, women across the country are poised not just to elect the country's first female president, but to reject misogynistic policies that have denied them benefits.
Women at a New York City rally in 1970 celebrating the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage. Photo via Getty
If Hillary Clinton wins the election on Tuesday and saves America from the perils of a Donald Trump presidency, thank the nearest woman, and the nearest feminist.
It's women who are supporting Clinton with the kind of force that could win her the election. It's women of color, college-educated white women, and single women who are particularly strong supporters. And it's feminists who have laid the decades-long groundwork to get us here.
While Clinton has a diverse coalition behind her, Trump's Anti-Establishment candidacy ironically relies on the most traditionally powerful Establishment group around: white men. White men without college degrees are voting for Trump (as are married white women), but so are white male college graduates. If only men voted, Trump would win 350 electoral votes to Clinton's 158, according to FiveThirtyEight's projection tool. If only white men cast ballots, Trump would win all but 45 electoral votes.
This is not a coincidence. Every American election since 1980 has seen a gender gap, with women generally supporting the Democratic candidate and men supporting the Republican one. But the gap this year is particularly pronounced, especially among the subgroups of women who are most likely to come out to the voting booth. Higher education, single status, and financial freedom all make women more likely to back Clinton. The more independent, formidable, and self-reliant a woman is, the more likely she is to support a feminist-minded woman for president.
That women are even in a position to split politically from their fathers and husbands is relatively new. When women gained the right to vote in 1920, only about one in ten married women worked outside the home. Even fewer graduated from college. In the first half of the 20th century, women tended to marry young, began having children in their early 20s, and were financially dependent on a male authority—a father, a husband—for most of their lives. Suffrage was an early feminist victory, and along with that newfound political power came expansions in women's social and economic power, too—women entered college and the workforce in greater numbers, and their average number of children went down while the average age they had those children went up.
But then came the anti-feminist backlash: In the 1950s, when Hillary Clinton was a child, women saw many of those social gains rolled back as nuclear families retreated to the suburbs and women started having more children, and having them younger. (Despite ongoing handwringing about babies having babies, teenage pregnancy actually peaked in 1957.)
The story of what happened next has been told many times before, for good reason: It was one of the most consequential social changes in US history. New movements for gender equality in the 1960s and 70s changed the landscape for women yet again. Feminists advocated for access to birth control and abortion, laws protecting domestic violence victims and rape survivors, and equality in education and the workplace. Women became freer than ever to pursue pleasure and ambition on their own terms, and they began choosing to have children later and later in life. More women attended college and graduate school than ever before; more of them earned leadership positions in government and industry.
Men, particularly the white ones, have long relied on the US government for help.
The daughters and granddaughters of the women who secured the right to vote exercised that electoral power, and the freedom and information they gained along with education, bodily autonomy, and expanded social roles led many of them to conclude that perhaps their interests were different from their fathers' and husbands'. As the Republican Party began shaping itself into the party of white Christian traditionalism and anti-feminism, women increasingly began backing candidates who explicitly supported their rights and freedoms, who advocated for them to take a bigger slice of the American pie.
In this, they took a cue from men. Men, particularly the white ones, have long relied on the US government for help. The GI Bill helped many white men purchase their first home in the wake of World War II, laying the foundations not just of white suburban sprawl across America, but of familial wealth that would endure for generations. Government-funded infrastructure projects have employed millions of men over the past century, many of them without college degrees. Unemployment and disability payments have allowed men to make ends meet when the going got tough. Benefits for workers were often conceived of with a male employee in mind: Domestic workers (who were mostly female) were one category of employees not originally covered by Social Security. And women's at-home labor hasn't been deemed deserving of compensation or government support—even though in those traditional nuclear families, wives working at home were what enabled men to go work outside of it.
Women have been demanding that politicians address their needs for decades, but this has been a slow process. The United States remains one of the only countries in the world without mandatory paid maternity leave, it has no nationalized childcare system, and requiring that insurance companies cover the full cost of birth control is a very recent innovation (insurers still aren't required to cover abortion services). But as women have expanded their public power, the issues that impact women's lives have gained political salience.
For the past several decades, Republicans have been the party of white male welfare, and now they're upset that women and people of color are asking for a piece.
Conservative commentators often describe this march toward equality as women demanding handouts from the government. The American man, in this view, is self-made. The American woman is chronically needy.
"Hillary Clinton needs the single ladies vote. I call them the 'Beyoncé Voters' — the single ladies," Fox News host Jesse Watters said in 2014. "Obama won single ladies by 76 percent last time, and made up about a quarter of the electorate. They depend on government because they're not depending on their husbands. They need contraception, healthcare, and they love to talk about equal pay."
This is in many ways the underpinning of the gender gap: For the past several decades, Republicans have been the party of white male welfare, and now they're upset that women and people of color are asking for a piece. That is more or less what driving force of Trump's candidacy, but he only magnifies and makes more obvious what many in the GOP have long whispered. Republicans claim to champion small government, but have been perfectly happy to support programs and corporate-friendly policies that disproportionately benefit men, and to keep government exactly large enough to intrude into women's doctors' offices. Many in the GOP seem to think women are basically defective men, creatures with weird body parts that lead us to demand special treatment—free birth control to have all the sex we want, paid vacation in order to have babies.
This strategy has worked because many Americans tacitly accept that to be a woman is to sacrifice. Women have long been expected to forgo their own interests in favor of someone else—to selflessly give all of their love and energy to their children, to cede their identities into their husbands', to deny themselves food to maintain an impossible physical ideal. To demand something for ourselves seems greedy, or worse: The woman who is sexually insatiable is a whore, the mother who puts herself first unforgivable.
The women supporting Clinton are same ones who are the least dependent on men and the traditional white American family structure.
Today, a broader feminist consciousness has more women rejecting this cult of female sacrifice while still holding fast to the idea that there is a collective social obligation to help others as well as ourselves. Millennial women, who support Clinton overwhelmingly, mostly grew up in households where mothers worked. We are more likely to attend college than our male peers. We share many concerns with young men—student loan debt, narrowed job prospects—but also have our own: preventing unintended pregnancies, ending those we don't want, and being paid the same as our male colleagues. But women are not a special interest group or a minority—we are half the population. We're finally starting to act like it.
Which is why the women supporting Clinton are same ones who are the least dependent on men and the traditional white American family structure—single women, women of color, women with college degrees. Meanwhile, Trump, a man who has bragged about being able to sexually assault women, has made feminist activism feel all the more urgent. Perhaps this will be the year many women realize collectively that there are limits to what they are willing to accept from the men they vote into office—and maybe even at home.
That Hillary Clinton has even made it to this point is evidence itself of just how far American women have come. If she wins, it won't be just because women vote; it will be because feminists have finally convinced a critical mass of women that our interests and priorities are just as important as men's. This is the first presidential election where a candidate's casual sexism has become a central issue—a rejection of Trump will mean that women have rejected those values en mass.
Trump's candidacy, of course, is itself a backlash to feminist gains, and a Clinton victory won't snuff out the forces underpinning Trump's rise—the men angry about not being wholly in charge anymore will remain. But they will have been outnumbered, and their ranks will grow ever smaller.
Hopefully, this incarnation of dying white male power will find himself soundly, conclusively defeated come Wednesday morning. For that, you can thank a feminist. Or at the very least, if Trump wins, you can't blame us.
Jill Filipovic is a journalist and author of the forthcoming The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.