For months, the image of the Donald Trump’s supporter has been the face of an angry white man. But it was white women who pushed Trump to victory.
Rejecting the candidate who had aimed to be America’s first female president, 53% of white women voted for Trump, according to CNN exit polls.
White women without a college degree supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by nearly a two to one margin. White women with a college degree were more evenly divided, with 45% supporting Trump, compared with 51% supporting Clinton.
“There’s your shy Trump vote,” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson tweeted on Tuesday night, noting that Trump had only lost white women with college degrees by a narrow margin.
Women of color, in contrast, voted overwhelmingly for Clinton: 94% of black women supported her, and 68% of Latino women. While exit polling data has flaws, the early responses underline a stark racial divide among American women: the majority of white women embraced Trump and his platform, while women of color rejected him.
The strong support for Trump among white women suggests that many of them, if not “overtly racist”, simply “don’t think racism is a big deal”, said Mikki Kendall, a feminist cultural critic.
“For them, it’s not real. They don’t have to worry about it, so you must be exaggerating. It’s Ivanka Trump [saying], ‘I’ve never had to deal with sexual harassment,’ and she’s only worked for her dad and companies she’s owned.”
The Clinton campaign and many commentators suggested that Clinton’s attempt to break the nation’s “highest, hardest glass ceiling” would draw strong support from women across the country. But in interviews, white women who support Trump said his record as a businessman and his policy positions resonated with them more strongly than Clinton’s candidacy as a woman.
Aimee Riley, a 34-year-old orthopedic surgeon from Richmond, Virginia, said she did not want the government to raise taxes on top earners. “I have worked so hard to get out of poverty,” she said. “I was raised to earn my own success, and feel strongly that I deserve every dollar I will now earn as a surgeon.”
In her everyday hospital work, Riley said, she saw many people “who think they deserve a handout and aren’t willing to do the work they are capable of”. Trump is “business-minded and not handout-minded, and I think this will instill a sense of effort and hard work in our country”, she said.
Like other Trump supporters, white women emphasized the importance of having a president who would nominate the right kind of supreme court justice. “I was delighted to vote for Donald Trump, because he’s a pro-life advocate,” said Laurie Jones, 45, outside a polling station in New York City. Jones was accompanied by her seven-year-old daughter.
Jones, a nutritionist who lives in downtown Manhattan, hoped that Trump’s selection of supreme court justices would be able to overturn Roe v Wade and return the question of abortion rights to the state.
“I voted for Trump because America has struggled with simple economics and needs a change,” said Lizzie Whitmire, 35, a Catholic mother of two from Dallas. “I also want someone who is angry about terrorism and radical Islam.”
After the publication of a video that showed Trump boasting about how he could get away with kissing and groping women because he was famous, followed by accusations of sexual assault from 12 different women, the received wisdom was that Trump had lost the female vote.
But white women who voted for Trump downplayed his behavior to different degrees. Some said they believed he fundamentally respected women. Others said they did not, but thought his sexism would not undermine his ability to carry out the change they wanted.
Jones called Trump an “imperfect person, like all of us”. She said: “I do believe he does like women. He cares for his daughters and wife and female employees. He does respect women.”
Whitmire said: “I do not agree with Trump’s language and behaviour, and that is definitely not why I voted for him. But I am not worried that Trump’s misogynistic language and sexist behaviour will have any interference with the reasons I want him in office. These are no more than actual actions of past presidents who were exactly the same way, just never recorded under a hot mic.”
Like other Trump supporters, white women who supported him said Clinton’s political record and her failings were much more troubling that anything Trump
“To me, Hillary’s cover-up story on Benghazi and repeated lies to the American people are extremely corrupt,” Whitmire said. “Hillary took responsibility for the security at the compound that left four Americans killed, and we are talking about Trump’s language and behaviour. Trump has never killed people and lied about it.”
Yvonne Cipperly, 64, from East Norriton, Pennsylvania, called Trump “the lesser of two evils”.
“He may not know enough about the politics, but he’ll improve,” Clipperly, a longtime Democrat, said.
Clinton “can’t tell the truth”, she said. Her husband spent 22 years in the military and she was also worried about what Clinton would have done to her military benefits. Asked about Trump’s actions towards women, she shrugged. “He didn’t kill anyone,” she said.
While white women had the strongest support for Trump, 26% of Latino female voters also supported him. “I voted for Donald Trump because he’s a businessman and knows how to get things done,” Noemi Martinez, 58, said outside a polling station in Phoenix. Her mother, 76-year-old Noemi Garza, had voted for Clinton, but Martinez had not.
“Hillary has been there so many years and what has she done? She lies,” she said. Trump “has a few issues, but people change”, she said. “I figure it’s take a liar or take a chance, and I figure take a chance.”
Kendall said white women’s reactions to Black Lives Matter and to the fight over the Dakota Access pipeline had left her unsurprised that so many white women had come out for Trump.
“There’s an assumption that white women vote based on gender, and I did not quite buy that,” she said. “It’s not like the patriarchy stops because you have a vagina.”
Rebecca Carroll, an author who writes frequently about race, said: “White women are, of course, targets of heinous misogyny and hatred and sexism. We just saw Hillary Clinton deflect misogyny and hatred and sexism at every turn during her campaign from the guy who won, no less – but they are still in many ways so protected and favored and privileged.
“I am struck as I see these comments from white women on Twitter, especially along the lines of: ‘How could this happen?’ I immediately think, what world are you living in that you didn’t see that this could and would happen?”