For most of 2016, feminism seemed to be thriving. Powerful, complex women were beamed into our living rooms every evening on Scandal, Orange is the New Black, The Good Wife, House of Cards and a long list of other shows. Beyoncé, Adele, and Rihanna were mainstays on the pop charts (and are dominating at the Grammys), each offering a different vision of female talent and influence. The Supreme Court decided the biggest abortion rights case in years, in an opinion favorable to pro-choice advocates. A slate of traditional “women’s issues”—paid family leave, affordable childcare, equal pay for equal work—seemed, suddenly, like real political possibilities. And of course, as we crept toward November, feminist excitement grew to a fever pitch at the prospect of the first female president of the United States.
We all know what happened next: What felt like a still-cresting feminist wave crashed, hard, against a Donald Trump wall. And in the wake of his victory, a backlash narrative is already taking root, even on the left. According to this view, Americans were fed up with “political correctness” and “identity politics.” These critics claim progressive efforts to cater to the demands of feminists and racial justice advocates advocates alienated working-class whites. Donald Trump is the Democratic Party’s comeuppance. The logical, unspoken conclusion of such arguments? Pipe down, ladies.
Critics claim Donald Trump is the Democratic Party’s comeuppance. The logical conclusion of such arguments? Pipe down, ladies. But there could be no worse strategy to embrace as we begin 2017. Clinton didn’t lose because a huge number of Democrats were fed up with advocacy for social justice and defected; she lost because fewer members of the Obama coalition turned out on Election Day, while Republicans had about-average turnout. And she lost, simply, because we have a fundamentally undemocratic Electoral College system, wherein a voter in Ohio has more of a say than a voter in California.
Clinton, remember, won the popular vote by an enormous margin. At last count, nearly three million Americans voted for her and her vision for America. That these voters tend to live in urban areas and on the coasts, or that they tend to be younger and people of color doesn’t make them any less American, or their voices and views any less valuable, than the whiter, older Midwestern and Southern voters who threw their support behind Trump. But that is the message we send when progressives demand an end to identity politics: That the only valid, valuable American identity is the white male one, and that the way white men experience the world is the norm and the default, while the rest of us are marginal and unrepresentative others.
It’s no coincidence that the women and men who have most enjoyed feminist gains are also the ones who leaned toward Clinton. Feminism, for all of its successes, has not been an equal-opportunity movement. Because of a complex set of factors—of which conservative control of many state governments is a leading one—much of a woman’s future is still dictated by the zip code she’s born in (or has the ability to move to) and her racial, economic, and cultural background. Women in big cities in blue states are more likely to attend college, work outside the home, marry later, and delay childrearing than their peers in more rural or conservative places.
Some of this is cultural, but some of it is institutional. This kind of female freedom is very much born out of a number of policy factors: investment in public schools; adherence to Title IX protections that ensure equality in those schools; access to contraception and abortion so women can enjoy healthy sex lives without signing up for parenthood before they really desire it; fair pay, so women can support themselves and free themselves from bad relationships. Equally important is the ability to marry for love, instead of financial need or social obligation, and the related ability to make relationships at least marginally more resistant to the corrosive stressors of poverty and economic insecurity.
These are all privileges that come, at least in part, out of explicit policy decisions and government investments. They are political choices. And in many of the reddest states, politicians have made the choice to abandon women, leaving them less able to experience the bounty of opportunity that feminism can bring.
Only where white male experience is considered universal are fair pay, education, and reproductive rights facets of “identity politics.” Only in a country where white male experience is considered universal are issues like fair pay, paid leave, investment in education, and reproductive rights facets of “identity politics.” As women live them, all of these things are crucial economic issues, the very things that keep us afloat or sink our dreams. In the corners of the country where feminism has the strongest foothold, things are far from perfect. But many women are thriving, and men have done better, too. In the vast red middle, where feminism certainly exists but is only truly entrenched in urban islands, more women are struggling, and so are the men around them.
The answer, therefore, isn’t to abandon the feminist playing field, or offer contrition for putting up a female candidate in a deeply sexist society. That cannot be the message we take from Trump’s victory. You don’t end bigotry by catering to it. You challenge it, every day, not just by saying “that’s wrong” but by offering a competing vision of how life could be. The vision Trump offered was a backward-looking one, about restoring America to a time when those of us accused of peddling “identity politics” didn’t have our identities or experiences recognized, and when American institutions and political policies where often explicitly premised on buoying the priorities and privileges of white men. For feminists, the challenge now is answering the “what if.” What if feminism succeeded in our aims? How would that be better for women and for men—including for the Trump-voting white men (and women) who seem to be clinging to a traditional masculinity they rightly see as under threat?
That isn’t a vision of political correctness. It’s one of essential goodness—a way, truly, to make America great for all of us.