2016 Election Reflection Series: Centering Race and Gender, Intersectionally

Prior to the election, APSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Programs Office issued a call for scholarly reflections, original research notes, and classroom exercises that shed light upon diversity, political behavior, public opinion and the 2016 Campaign and Election. What resulted is a series entitled 2016 Election Reflections, covering a range of election related topics and research methods.


Centering Race and Gender, Intersectionally

By Dara Strolovitch, Princeton University and Janelle Wong, University of Maryland

  • Tell us about how you have incorporated themes relevant to diversity, inclusion, equity, or representation and the 2016 campaign and election into your political science teaching, research and/or service? 
  • What role can/does political science research play in helping to make sense of the 2016 Campaign and Election?

From its outset, the 2016 election – one in which a KKK-endorsed white male candidate who had bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women faced off against the first female candidate to win a major party’s Presidential nomination – provided proof-positive of something that political scientists who study the politics of marginalized groups have long known: That issues having to do with race, gender, and sexuality are not peripheral to or epiphenomenal of politics, and that the political implications of the identities associated with these issues cannot be addressed by holding them constant through statistical controls.  Instead, they argue, race, gender, sexuality and other axes of identity and marginalization are constitutive of politics and at their very core, and biases that are mobilized based on these axes must be understood as broad systems of oppression that affect and are affected by electoral outcomes and other political processes.

The importance of centering race and gender and of doing so intersectionally began to come into view in the 2016 election as pundits, reporters, and everyday political observers turned to exit poll data as they struggled to understand Donald Trump’s surprising victory.  The first cut at these data revealed that Clinton had received a strong majority of women’s votes (54%) but only 41% of men’s, suggesting that the outcome was in part a function of the longstanding “gender gap” in voting behavior, in which women are more likely than men to support Democratic candidates for office.  But as analysts parsed these results in more fine-grained ways that took not only gender but also race into account, it became clear that among white women, 53% had cast ballots for Donald Trump.  White women were more likely than their white male counterparts to have supported Clinton, but as had been the case in almost every election since 1980 (and as Jane Junn has recently reminded us), white women were more likely to have voted for the Republican candidate than they were to have voted for the Democrat.

That this was true seemed to fly in the face of the standard story about the gender gap and to flout expectations that women would rally to support Hilary Clinton if only to reject Trump’s long history of flagrant misogyny.  How could so many of them support someone who many consider a racist and xenophobic candidate who had also, among other things, threatened to incarcerate women who exercised their constitutionally-protected right to abortion, who bragged about assaulting them, who called his opponent a “nasty woman” — particularly when the alternative was to help make history by helping to send the first woman to the West Wing?

Among the first and dominant narratives to emerge from these analyses was that what George Lipsitz has called “the possessive investment in whiteness” undercut whatever gender-related concerns or identities these white women might hold.  In this account, a majority of white women betrayed their sex by both refusing to elect a female president and by holding their noses at Trump’s misogyny, and they did so in allegiance to the white ethnonational alliance rallying behind him.  This interpretation contains much truth, but scholarship on gender and politics suggests that Trump’s appeal to these women is not simply a matter of race outweighing gender and that neither that nor their unwillingness to elect a women are evidence that gender did not matter in this election.  Rather, all of these things are also evidence of the ongoing and deepening divisions over the political meanings and consequences of gender and sexuality and of how important it is to denaturalize gendered inequalities if we are to understand their role in politics.

For example, recent scholarship suggests that many (mostly, but not only, white) women who voted for Trump might have done so not in spite of his gender attitudes but rather because of them.  That is, feminist views are not uniformly adopted by all women or simply because one is a woman.  Socialized in a patriarchal society, women may adopt patriarchal attitudes to different degrees. In a study of delegates to the 2008 National party Conventions, for example, Libby Sharrow and her coauthors (2016) (including Dara Strolovitch, one of the authors of this piece) show that Republican and Democratic party activists hold diametrically opposite views about whether sex-based workplace discrimination continues to be a problem, with about 85% of Democrats believing that that is does and approximately the same proportion of Republicans insisting that it does not.[1]  Moreover, these views had diametrically opposite effects on delegates’ support for female candidates: Democrats who believed that sex-based discrimination was an ongoing problem were more likely to support Hillary Clinton.  Among Republicans, the opposite was true. Those who dismissed sex discrimination as a problem were more likely to support Sarah Palin.  These differences suggest that many Republican women accept the kind of gender inequalities that are embodied by Trump and opposed by Clinton, and that this “possessive investment in heteropatriarchy” is an important part of the story about why so many of them were both unmoved by the possibility of a female President and undeterred by the possibility of an openly misogynist one.  We use the term “heteropatriarchy” here to refer to systems and structures that presume and perpetuate a gender binary system, male dominance, and normative heterosexuality – systems structures that are often grounded in what many consider to be misogynist ideas about women.  For example many Republican women donned T-shirts that encouraged voters to “Trump that Bitch,” with a photo indicating that the “Bitch” in question was Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.  Others wore t-shirts stating that “Trump can grab my pussy anytime,” a rebuttal to critics who condemned Trump for claiming on a recorded video that his celebrity allowed him to grab women’s “pussies” with impunity. These T-shirts are one indicator that many women who supported Trump not only do not reject misogynist views but also that their investment in heteropatriarchy leads them to condone it and its attendant licensing of violently misogynist behavior in their support for the Republican candidate.

A related but somewhat different lesson emerges by examining voting patterns among evangelical Christians.  White Evangelicals attract attention in every election cycle.  This year’s contest was no different, as political observers wondered whether Trump’s lack of religious attachment and his failure to adhere to traditional “Christian values” in his personal behavior would alienate Christian conservatives from the Republican ticket.  The exit poll results show that among white evangelicals, 80% voted for Trump – one point up from the 79% who supported Romney in 2012.  Though the exit polls do not include results for non-white  evangelicals, Janelle Wong (an author of this piece) (2015) has shown that to focus on the default category of white Evangelicals is to miss the fact that the fastest growing groups of evangelicals are mostly Latino and Asian American, that the largest ethnic organizations in the United States are evangelical churches, and that Latino and Asian American evangelicals break with their white evangelical counterparts in terms of their  much stronger support for “a bigger government, with more services,” “government-sponsored health care,” and taxing the wealthy to give the middle-class a tax cut.”[2]  Similar, Wong shows that black, Latino/a, and Asian American evangelicals are much less likely to identify as Republican or to vote for Republican candidates than are white evangelicals. These racial differences within the evangelical community are best explained through the distinct investments exhibited by white and non-white evangelicals in particular social systems. White evangelicals are more deeply invested in the idea of a “Christian nation” and more committed to a return to past social orders than any other group in the United States

These are just a few examples of what scholarship about race and gender reveal about the dynamics of the 2016 election.  More generally, they make clear that to understand how these forces work in politics, we must move beyond simple cross-tabulations of exit poll data that treat them as discrete descriptive categories and toward research designs and data collection practices that take into account broad systems of power and resistance to challenges to that power.


Dara Strolovitch is Associate Professor at Princeton University, where she holds appointments in Gender and Sexuality Studies, African American Studies, and the Department of Politics.  She is the author of Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class and Gender in Interest Group Politics (2007).

Janelle Wong (@ProfJanelleWong), Professor, American Studies, Director Asian American Studies Program, University of Maryland. She is the author of Democracy’s Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions (2006, University of Michigan Press) and co-author of two books on Asian American politics.

[1] Sharrow, E. A., Strolovitch, D. Z., Heaney, M. T., Masket, S. E., & Miller, J. M. (2016). Gender Attitudes, Gendered Partisanship: Feminism and Support for Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton among Party Activists. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 37(4), 394–416. https://doi.org/10.1080/1554477X.2016.1223444

[2] Wong, J. S. (2015). The Role of Born-Again Identity on the Political Attitudes of Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Politics and Religion, 8(4), 641–678.

The views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of the APSA. To learn more, visit 2016 Election Reflections.