During the 2004 election, class and race deeply cut into easy generalizations about “the women’s vote.” White women were the largest electoral bloc, with 41 percent of the vote, and swung towards Bush in the largest percentage difference of any configuration. Bush increased his voter share among white women by a whopping 10 percent over 2000. While women of color only gave Bush 24 percent of their votes, 55 percent of white women voted for Bush in 2004. As the Women of Color Resource Center states bluntly, “Had it been up to women-of-color voters, the current resident of the White House would be packing his bags and heading back to Texas.”
Working women gave Bush 48 percent of their vote. Working class people making under $50,000 voted against Bush, with only 44 percent voting in his favor. But Bush gained votes in both of these categories since 2000. Bush made his most significant gains among white, working-class women.
Married white working-class women moved from 15 to 31 percent more likely to vote for Bush — a 16-point increase. For these women, Bush won on two primary issues: terrorism and national security. These are usually understood as a measure of women’s fear about their safety and the safety of their families. But “security” includes economic security to provide for oneself and one’s family, and the freedom to live without physical, social, institutional, and sexual violence.
Women in the U.S. are under fire from an administration openly hostile to legal support for women’s equality and rights. Under Bush, equal opportunity legislation was rolled back. Popular initiatives like Equal Pay Matters have been eliminated. The Department of Education has “archived” its guidelines to fight sexual harassment in schools. The Department of Labor wants to stop collecting information about the male-female pay gap or workplace discrimination. The fight to criminalize abortion has picked up steam, with more punitive laws, and less access to safe abortions, or even information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases. Systematic defunding of emergency shelters, crisis hotlines and domestic violence services makes women more vulnerable to violence. Bush has renominated the judicial nominees earlier rejected by the House or the Senate, one of whom wrote that wives must “subordinate” themselves to their husbands. Women’s families are less likely to see better futures under Bush’s attack on public education and scholarship programs. After years of shrinking the wage gap, women’s wages have stagnated at an average of 77 cents to every dollar a man makes.
Given the evidence, white women’s support for Bush is confounding. Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the one venue Bush has chosen to talk about women’s rights: war. Bush used women’s rights as one excuse to bomb Afghanistan in 2001. Ignoring the rich history of women’s rights before the U.S.-backed Afghan civil war in the ’70s and ’80s, Bush made Islam the enemy of women’s equality. He proposed we drop tons of bombs on a virtually unprotected country to create rights for women. But as food supplies became ever scarcer, women became more likely to starve. As Afghanistan’s weak infrastructure crumbled, women had to carry the additional burdens of finding clean water and fuel to heat homes and cook. Bush wanted us to believe women had greater rights under these murderous conditions.
Bush lied again on Iraq. Particularly before the first Gulf War, and the U.S.-led embargo in the ’90s, Iraqi women had the greatest freedom of movement, employment and education among all Arab countries. Bush sold war to women in the U.S. as a fight for equality, but also through paternalism, arrogance, and racism — we must fight for them, we must tell them what they want and need, they will be grateful.
The polls suggest that working-class people as a whole didn’t buy these stories. A higher percentage of white women may have bought the line, but it was a last-minute sale. Many white working- class women in 2004 were “undecided voters” until the last days of the campaign. Their shift in favor of an ongoing war on terrorism is recent. As progressive and left movements pay attention to how race divides working class people along gendered lines, the shift does not have to be permanent. Movements to organize workers into unions could change lines of solidarity. A women’s movement led by women of color and working-class women could reframe security to take up economic security and physical security from violence, perhaps as quickly as Bush cobbled together his own national “coalition of the willing.”
Lisa Armstrong teaches women’s studies at Smith College.