The only thing that can destroy feminism is feminism itself.—Portlandia, Season 6, Episode 8
Over the past few months, feminist commentators have variously declared Donald Trump’s election a failure of feminism (or at least of a kind of white, liberal feminism represented by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign) or a failure for feminism. Feminists are right to point to the shortcomings of the feminism expressed by the Clinton campaign, and they are right to highlight the very real threat the Trump presidency poses to feminist gains in policy areas such as reproductive rights and pay equity, and to the visibility of women in leadership positions in the executive branch.1 However, framing this election exclusively as a feminist failure obscures the many ways in which the election is symptomatic of the extraordinary success of one particular kind of feminism in the US: neoliberal feminism. We overlook the ascendancy of neoliberal feminism in the US at our own peril, because as an ideology it undermines feminist capacities for political judgment and collective action—capacities that we need to sustain political opposition.
Yet far from providing an alternative to neoliberal feminism, critiques that identify Trump’s election as a failure of or for feminism ironically amplify its power. Such critiques express familiar desires for an all-inclusive feminism that would leave no one out, or for an ideologically pure feminism that can be clearly distinguished from impostors. These two desires augment the depoliticizing force of neoliberal feminism by discouraging the practice of political judgment and ill-preparing feminists for the disagreement and conflict that attend collective action. If feminists are to effectively organize long-term political opposition to the Trump presidency, we must reckon with the tremendous power of neoliberal feminist ideology and the inadequacy of the current response to it. In particular, feminists today need to cultivate a self-consciously political feminism: an orientation to politics that does not require consensus or inclusion in advance of political action. [End Page 53]
A Failure of Feminism
The immediate feminist response to Trump’s election was to declare it a failure of feminism. Even days before the election, Jill Filipovic was already pronouncing a feminist failure to appeal to struggling, white working class men.2 A few days after the election, Liza Featherstone blamed “elite, white feminism” for Hillary Clinton’s loss,3 and Kathleen Geier blamed “mainstream feminism” for focusing on “the social and cultural issues that are most important to affluent women, while marginalizing the economic concerns of the female masses.”4 Many white women5 and women of color6 attributed the election result to the failure of white feminists to appeal to white working class women. Most poignantly, many women of color expressed a deep sense of betrayal that so many white women did not stand in solidarity with their sisters, citing the National Exit Poll, which indicated that 53% of white women had supported Trump.7
On one level, these claims that the exit polls reveal a failure of feminism to rally support for Clinton are demonstrably false and historically short-sighted. The 2016 election did not mark a failure of feminism to appeal to white working class women so much as it marked a continuation of long-established patterns of voting among American women. While some election observers expected women to support the first major party female candidate, and to be turned off by Trump’s widely reported sexist behavior, that a majority of white women nonetheless voted for the Republican candidate is consistent with white women’s voting behavior since 1972. The only year that white women broke decisively for the Democratic candidate for president was in 1996 (and they split evenly in 1992). Otherwise, white women have been voting for Republican presidential candidates for as long as exit polls have been tracking their voting behavior. Indeed, Trump was arguably less successful with white women voters than Mitt Romney was in 2012.8 Exit poll data confirmed that the 2016 election evinced the largest gender gap on record in US history, yet this was not due to any distinctive change in white women’s voting behavior. Rather, the larger...