The large bloc of female Representatives—many of them freshman Democrats—dressed in white at February’s State of the Union address served as a potent reminder of the record number of women who ran for office in 2018. Most were galvanized by the #MeToo movement and a desire to pass legislation protecting women from sexual harassment and assault.
Still, women, including white women, are far from a homogeneous group. More than 30 percent more non-evangelical women voted for Hillary Clinton than evangelical women across all educational levels. During last year’s midterm elections, white—non-evangelical—politically moderate-to-conservative women helped turn several elections blue, including in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where then-candidate Donald Trump had proven popular only two years earlier. In contrast, white evangelical women by and large remained faithful to the GOP and its candidates.
When asked about the 2018 midterms, one in five Americans (21 percent) who voted for Democratic candidates cited opposition to Trump as the principal reason for their vote. However, people who voted for Republican candidates were less likely to be motivated by Trump, citing support for GOP policies as the principal driver for their choice of candidates. Only 10 percent of these voters said that Trump’s job performance or character influenced their decision.
Which raises the question: in the era of #MeToo, why do so many conservative, white evangelical women ignore accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump? This fact does not seem to square well with survey data indicating that over half (55 percent) of white evangelicals (men and women combined) are concerned about sexual harassment.
One answer is that, though these women are concerned, sexual harassment is low on their overall list of concerns. The table below, based on results from a Fox News survey in mid-December 2018, shows the issues that white evangelicals care about most. (Note: this poll was not limited to Fox News viewers, but was a standard, random-sample, live-caller political poll. Fox News did not clarify whether its poll included self-identified evangelical Mormons and Catholics in the category “white evangelicals.” Also, Fox News’ data on white evangelicals did not differentiate by gender or political leanings even though a significant number of white evangelicals are progressives. For the sake of comparison, the excerpted table includes results for the broader population of white women and white men.)
The survey asked: “How concerned are you about…”
Though white women are more concerned about sexual harassment than white men, the issue—as is the case for white evangelicals—is low on their priority list, ranking 9th out of 11.
Marriage plays an important role in the voting patterns of white evangelical women, including with respect to sexual harassment and assault. In general, married women are more likely to support the traditional cultural and economic values endorsed by Republicans. During the 2016 Presidential election, the rate of support by married women for Hillary Clinton lagged more than 10 percentage points behind the support she received from unmarried women.
Marriage rates are highest among white women, especially among white evangelical women. Julie Ingersoll, author of Evangelical Christian Women, studied the gender-segregated home church meetings that often serve as the backbone of evangelical Protestant churches. She found that for white evangelical women, being single is “something of a defective state:” either these women are married and raising children, or they are focused on achieving this state.
Married white evangelical women are likely to have spouses who are lower- or middle-class earners. Eighty-five percent of evangelicals live in households with combined incomes of less than $100,000 per year. Often encouraged to marry young and stay at home with their children, white evangelical women who choose this path are economically dependent on their husbands. Moreover, those who work are likely to earn less than their husbands due to pay disparities. They may favor Republican candidates they perceive as pro-business and, for this reason, more likely to protect their husbands' jobs and earning power.
Indeed, a study (by Christopher Stout et al.) measured the effect of race and marriage on women’s perception of how their own opportunities in life are tied to the success of other women. Their findings: for various reasons, married white women have “significantly” lower gender solidarity than their single and divorced white counterparts. One consequence of lower gender solidarity among married white women is that, while they may have a strong sense that sexual harassment and assault are wrong, when their financial well-being is tied to that of their husbands, they tend to be more interested, when voting, in protecting men’s job opportunities than protecting fellow women from harm.
Marriage shapes the ballot choices of white evangelical women in other significant ways. Conservative husbands can pressure their less conservative wives to vote the same way they do, but husbands also influence their wives in subtle ways. A study (this one by Man Yee Kan and Anthony Heath) showed that people are likely to choose partners of similar race and ethnicity and with similar religious and political views. Also, over time, matching voting patterns tend to develop; the longer couples remain together, the more similar their voting preferences. In addition, the opinion of a spouse usually matters more than the opinions of other people.
To return to the Fox News survey, the data reveals that white women are worried about every issue at higher levels than white men but—with an 11-point difference—the issue of sexual harassment (along with race relations) has the largest disparity. The two studies mentioned above show that women in a heterosexual marriage are highly influenced by their husbands’ politics. As a result, white men, who tend to be much less concerned about sexual harassment than their wives, may well induce these women, including white evangelical women, to give this issue less weight at the ballot box.
What may seem to be unconscionable voting decisions in light of #MeToo are, for many white evangelical women, decisions that reflect a number of—sometimes competing—priorities and trade-offs. No doubt some of these women held their noses as they voted for Trump and other Republican men accused of sexual harassment or assault.
But large numbers of white evangelical women do not support a progressive policy agenda. Yes, the loathsome guy on the ballot may have hurt a few women, but, they reason, his Democratic opponent could hurt thousands or even millions of Americans by failing to enact a conservative economic agenda (or conservative health care reform or immigration legislation).
The upshot: instead of focusing on Trump’s character during the 2020 election cycle, those with an eye to replacing the current president—Democrats, yes, but many others as well—would do well to focus on issues of central concern to people across the nation, including those of white evangelical women. To do so is unlikely to win many votes from this demographic, but as long as issues of overriding importance to them remain unaddressed to their satisfaction, the sexual misconduct of current and future leaders will take a back seat.
|Author, Myriam Renaud (PhD’18), is Principal Investigator and Program Director of the Global Ethic Project at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. This week’s column is the fourth in a series of Sightings articles that she’s written about white evangelicals in America.|