Framing the 2018 Elections: #TrustBlackWomen

By Kristin J. Anderson and Bonnie N. Field

Posted Mar 12, 2018

The 2018 primary season has begun in the U.S. with a record number of women running for office, particularly Democratic women. More women are running for the U.S. House of Representatives than at any point in U.S. history. An unprecedented number of women of color are setting their sights on national and state office. Eyes are on African American women in particular. Given the underrepresentation of people of color and women in elected office, the presence of African American women in state and national races could have a particularly transformative impact.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), women hold a paltry 20% of seats in Congress and 25% of seats in state legislatures. Based on 2018 data of women’s representation in parliaments worldwide, the Inter-Parliamentary Union placed the U.S. in the 100th position, far behind countries like Mexico (43% women), Spain (39%), France (39%), and Germany (31%). Moreover, CAWP data show that only 12% of governors in the U.S. are women (and no Black woman has ever been elected governor), and the U.S. has yet to elect a woman president. Of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, there are just 38 women of color.

Explaining Trump’s 2016 Win

In order to appreciate the significance of this primary season, we have to go back to November 2016 when the U.S. elected Republican Donald Trump as President. By most accounts, Trump’s upset victory shocked the country and the world. Post-election estimates revealed that 52% of white women voted for Trump. This statistic became a regular talking point in U.S. media, particularly on the left. How could a majority of white women vote for a candidate who openly disparages women? Articles quickly appeared with headlines such as, “White Women Sold out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump,” and “White Women, own up to it: You’re the Reason Hillary Clinton Lost.” Apparently, because Donald Trump’s misogyny was so explicit, many thought that white women—who had predominantly voted Republican in past presidential elections, would abandon the party in favor of the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. That did not happen.

The 2016 Election Frame: Blame White Women and Center White Men

Both of our disciplines, social psychology and political science, consider the influence of framing on political attitudes. Framing influences the understanding of an issue by highlighting certain information and downplaying or obscuring other information. If the same frame about an event is used in the media repeatedly, it can influence the opinions of those exposed to it. Post-election, the frame the left presented was white women are to be blamed for Trump’s election.

So how were white men framed? White men—who voted overwhelmingly for Trump—were framed as the overlooked and abandoned constituency. Then they were coddled—especially if they were middle- or working class. Both the left and the right portrayed white men as the new, neglected demographic group. Within this frame, Democrats lost because they neglected the struggles of the working class, which was code for the white male working class. Donald Trump won by appealing to this ostensibly abandoned group. “The Working Class Revolt is Still Boiling” said one headline. The press, pundits, and analysts continue to claim that we must listen to the [white male] working class, and stories continue to center [white male] factory workers and [white male] miners, who voted for Trump.

What is revealed and what is concealed when the media frame the election in these ways? Regarding white women, we have the incriminating 52% who voted for Trump. But even more white men voted for him, 62%. So, if the left is looking to blame a demographic group, it should be blaming white people, not just white women. Indulging the angry-working-class-white-man vote while blaming white women is a way to legitimate white male grievances and center their needs.

What is revealed by framing the working class in the U.S. as neglected? The working class is neglected, as rising inequality indicates. However, framing the working class as the white male working class again centers white men as the demographic to be concerned with, the demographic that politicians on the left need to court more effectively. And this frame renders invisible the millions of working-class women and people of color in the U.S. who are also struggling.

In Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era, one of us (Kristin) writes about subtle and not-so-subtle forms of sexism. One way that misogyny gets enacted is by framing anything a woman does as deficient, ignorant, and questionable; and anything a man does as rational, normal, typical, and therefore ideal. A second way misogyny gets enacted is by holding women and men to grossly different standards of behavior—whether the standard is beauty, achievement, productivity, or, in this case, voting patterns. Framing white women as uniquely responsible for Trump’s win is not accurate. The group most responsible for Trump’s win is less a gender group and more a racial group: white people.

Changing the Frame in 2018? #TrustBlackWomen

Rachel Quinn used with permission
Fran Watson, candidate for Texas Senate
Source: Rachel Quinn used with permission

Women, as a group, voted for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, 54% compared to 41% of men, consistent with the longstanding gender gap in U.S. voting patterns. Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory sparked unprecedented opposition. The Women’s March held on January 21, 2017—the day after Trump’s inauguration—was likely the largest demonstration in U.S history. Sister marches were held all over the United States and across the globe. In the original and follow-up Women’s March in January 2018, participants urged women to run for office. A year after Trump’s inauguration, support for Trump among women, including white women, had declined further.

Alongside demonstrations against Trump, the hashtag #TrustBlackWomen took off on social media. A resolute 94% of African American women voted for Clinton in the election. And with that, African American women became viewed as the most reliable Democrats. This primary season, #ElectBlackWomen, #BlackWomenLead and #PowerRising are promoting Black women candidates and political activism in social media.

By the autumn of 2017, the #MeToo movement that called out men’s sexual harassment and sexual assault of women exploded. An African American woman, Tarana Burke, is credited with coining the term. Wealthy white women celebrities got the early attention with their terrible stories of harassment by movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Yet, women of color activists reminded us that women from all circumstances can be harassed and assaulted, including farm workers, fast food employees, and hotel maids.

That so many women of color are running for office in 2018 indicates that these women, who have been ignored by one party and taken-for-granted by the other, have rightly taken democratic politics into their own hands.

Adapted from the Spanish version published in Agenda Pública.

Kristin J. Anderson, Professor of Psychology at the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. She is the author of Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era (Oxford, 2015). Twitter: @MouthyFeminist

Bonnie N. FieldProfessor of Global Studies at Bentley University (Massachusetts). She is the author of Why Minority Governments Work: Multilevel Territorial Politics in Spain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Twitter: @BonnieNField