By: Suzanne Field
When the term “gender gap” was coined several decades ago it sounded like something from a playful satirical movie set in the Old West. “Gender gap” gained prominence in the language of politics when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, with 55 percent of male voters and just 47 percent of women voters.
The media was obsessed with the gender gap, Republicans were concerned about it, and it was a factor in President Reagan’s decision to appoint the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1981, the Gipper got his chance to prove he had listened to the lament of the ladies. When William French Smith, his attorney general, called Sandra Day O’Connor to tell her that she was being considered for a federal position, she joked, “I guess you must mean in a secretarial position!” When she was interviewed at lunch in her home, she impressed the men with smarts, savvy and a salmon mousse salad. The rest is “herstory,” with three women on the Supreme Court now.
The meaning and mechanics of the gender gap has fluctuated wildly since those innocent days when women first began to seek power in the boardroom as well as in the bedroom. As more and more of them entered the job market, it quickly became clear they were creating another gap, one between college-educated women and less-educated women. An income disparity developed and affected diverging political and cultural attitudes. How women saw the glass ceiling depended on whether there was a crystal chandelier hanging or a naked lightbulb.
Women have never been a monolithic mass of attitudes about anything. After the suffragettes won the vote, married women mostly voted just as their husbands did, ending the great male chauvinist fear in the 1920s.
Several decades of debate among women in second-stage feminism focused on a multiplicity of divisive issues posed by feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, discussing whether women and men are more alike or different, or more nurturing or more aggressive, and how families are affected by changing sexual roles. There were identifiable winners and losers in this revolutionary war between the sexes (though widespread fraternization with the enemy continued unchecked), and class became a greater determinant than biology on how women voted.
Hillary Clinton’s trajectory from Yale Law School to wife of a governor to wife of a president to senator to secretary of state and, finally, to presidential nominee reflects the personal and public changes in the expectations of educated women. Donald Trump’s route was more of a zigzag. He is both a throwback to a 1950s man, given his coarse attitudes toward women out of the television series “Mad Men,” and a post-modern man, employer of strong women in top administrative jobs. He’s also a veteran of three marriages and now a family man with a wife and adult daughters and sons, all participants in his businesses.
The Donald won and Clinton lost, and the debate on gender gap runs white-hot again, this time from a unique perspective. Susan Chira in The New York Times observes: “While Democrats have won some blue-collar white women in the past, in this election, class emerged as a powerful and divisive force that swung decisively Republican. All the talk about angry white men glossed over the fact that they were married to angry white women.”
That’s why Trump won 62 percent of white women without a college education. These women rightly believe they were not on Clinton’s radar because glass ceilings were not what they were looking for. Clinton earned only 34 percent of their vote. These are the women who populate J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a decaying steel town in the heart of the Rust Belt, which went decisively for Donald Trump. The Republican candidate specifically addressed the suffering of men and women in the battleground states, whose votes cut into Clinton’s margins with educated women. They heard an authentic sympathy in the Donald’s voice when he talked of working-class struggles of families with addictions, broken homes, unemployment and fractured lives.
They understood that they were the men and women Clinton meant when she dismissed them as irredeemable “deplorables.” They heard the Donald talk about bringing jobs back to “make America great again,” and he sounded like maybe he really could transform hopelessness into hope. With his rough talk, pugilistic and subversive style, and combative scorn for the politically correct, he sounded authentic and familiar.
To the comfortable, educated middle class, elitism sounds good, not bad. To the working-class poor — who experience the condescension and glibness of Hollywood, Washington and the media — “elitism” is writ large and painful. So what if Donald Trump was a billionaire? He got it, and Hillary Clinton didn’t.