Four years ago, I interviewed Miriam Ganze, a lifelong Democrat, about what she was hearing when she went door-knocking in her suburban Rochester, N.Y., neighbourhood. It was not good: For the first time ever, she was hearing crazy conspiracy theories, mainly about the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. Some of her neighbours were actually shutting the door in her face. Still, Ms. Ganze hoped Ms. Clinton would become the first female president of her country.
We all know what happened. And Ms. Ganze has had to live with the result of that election, and the ensuing political divisions that are tearing up her country. This year, with suburban women representing a crucial demographic in the presidential election, I thought I’d check in with Ms. Ganze again, to understand what she’s seeing on the ground.
“It’s a frightening time, to say the least,” she says, and then laughs. “I’m sorry I don’t have better news.” The retired schoolteacher follows the news closely, so she knows that all the polls say that women favour Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a huge margin, as much as 25 points, but she also knows that women favoured Ms. Clinton over Mr. Trump. In the 2016 election, 53 per cent of white women ended up voting for Mr. Trump. (It was even higher among non-college-educated white women.)
Ms. Ganze is understandably leery this time around. The Democrats have called off door-knocking because of COVID-19, so she hasn’t been able to go door-to-door to judge the level of crazy in this very weird year. But she has seen Trump banners, even in her heavily Democratic suburb of Irondequoit. On the other hand, she is hearing weariness with the President’s antics even among her less progressive friends: “There seem to be a lot more white women who see Trump for what he is. I see people who are changing, and that’s good.”
Those white suburban women and their shifting allegiances are one of the central narratives of this election. “In 2016, it was their surprising support for Trump that helped push him over the edge. But in the last four years, they’ve changed their minds in astonishing numbers,” said the New York Times' Lisa Lerer, reporting from Ohio on The Daily podcast. “The same group that helped give Trump his seat could take it away.”
Those women, alienated by Mr. Trump’s bullying, lies, corruption and disastrous handling of the COVID-19 crisis, have been organizing across the country. Some of them had no political experience, and in fact had been brought up to find such talk distasteful and divisive. They’re finding each other through social media, school groups, friend networks. Sometimes they’re in marriages where their husbands are staunch Trump supporters; now they’re pushing back. The members of one group, called Red Wine & Blue, have taken to posting ironic photos of themselves dressed as stereotypical moms from decades past, accompanied by the slogan: “The suburban housewives of Trump’s nightmares.”
They’re responding to the Trump campaign’s surprising strategy to win their votes by sending the President in a time machine back to 1955. “Suburban women, please like me,” he has said at rallies, in the wheedling tone of an overtired toddler. “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me,” he tweeted, in a message that managed to be both offensively racist and sexist. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”
Then, at a rally in Michigan, he pleaded with women to support him because “we’re getting your husbands back to work.” He may have skipped the section of the pandemic briefing book that shows women’s careers were disproportionately harmed by the crisis. Perhaps it was on page two.
What the President has not realized is that suburban women are not quaking behind their gingham curtains, holding a rolling pin in fear of the looters' arrival. Yes, they are worried. They are worried about how the country is going to defeat a virus that currently has the upper hand. They’re worried about their jobs – and their husbands'. They’re worried about when their kids will return to school. And, by all accounts, they do not like the model the President sets for those kids, when he insults and demeans and lies.
There are, of course, an astonishing number of women who still support the President, and will vote for him despite the sea of red flags that should warn them off: the sexual assault allegations against him, the cruel contempt for female politicians and journalists (especially women of colour), the appointment of a pro-life justice to the nation’s highest court.
I noticed the depth of this support at a Trump rally in suburban Tampa in October, 2016. In the final weeks of the campaign, Ms. Clinton was supposed to have a solid lock on women voters, but I kept talking to Trump supporters who despised Ms. Clinton (and, in one case, believed she was a literal demon). On the grassy hillside of the amphitheatre, a young girl turned cartwheels, wearing a prisoner’s uniform, a rubber Hillary Clinton mask and a badge that said “lock her up.” I often think about that girl and what she’ll grow up to believe. It would be like escaping a cult.
By this time next week, we’ll know which way our neighbours are going. Straight on into the darkness, or will they have managed to correct course? If they do, it will be because a good portion of American women helped set the ship on a journey to the future, not the past.
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