Will Conservative Women Flourish in the Trump Era?

Donald Trump owes his presidency to women. Many political observers had assumed that Trump’s boorish behavior would alienate women at the polls and, while exit polls showed that Trump won just 42% of them to Clinton’s 54%, Trump secured a majority of the votes of white women in the 2016 election. One of the strongest contingents in this bloc comprised outspoken, conservative women leaders who honed their political skills in the Tea Party—a group that I profile in my book Tea Party Women.

U.S. right-wing movements are nothing new. What made the Tea Party distinctive was the extent to which its initial leadership came from women.

For both men and women, my research finds that conservative ideology, being an Evangelical Christian, and opposition to Barack Obama are all statistically linked to identifying as part of the Tea Party—factors that, undoubtedly, are common among many Republicans. Yet, I argue that women emerged as leaders in the Tea Party, rather than in the GOP, in part because opportunities to get involved in mainstream Republican Party politics were limited or unappealing.  Some Tea Party women I spoke with encountered “good ‘ol boy” networks in local party politics, while others confronted a political establishment that they believed was ineffectual and too willing to compromise on authentic conservative values.

In this last way, many Tea Party women were natural allies with Donald Trump, whose disruptive candidacy in the GOP primaries was based partially on uprooting the Republican Party status quo.  Moreover, Trump’s nationalistic themes, which included harsh stands against undocumented immigrants, also appealed to many conservative women, who were willing to overlook his misogynistic rhetoric. Although support for Trump among Tea Party activists was mixed during the primaries—many initially endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz—once the campaign moved into the general election, the goal of defeating Hillary Clinton ensured that Tea Party support was firmly behind Trump’s candidacy.

With Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress under control of the Republican Party, are conservative women now poised to become leaders within the GOP?  Can right-wing women convert their electoral influence into recognizable policy gains?

In answering these questions, it is important to delineate between descriptive representation—meaning simply that more women have a seat at the political table—and substantive representation, through which, regardless of the gender of political elites, women’s policy interests are addressed.

The Trump administration is failing in the first: descriptive representation. Unlike either the Clinton or Obama administrations, both of which prioritized diversity in their cabinets, Trump’s selection of four women to his cabinet is closer to the number of women George W. Bush nominated in his first term. None of them are in Trump’s “inner cabinet”—the most prestigious positions heading up the Judiciary, State, Treasury, and Defense departments.  Whether Trump is primed to nominate more women is an open question, but as of mid-March, just 27 percent of the openings in his new administration were filled by women.

Two women—Kellyanne Conway and “First Daughter” Ivanka Trump—serve in high-profile advisory positions within the White House. Conway has studiously avoided the promotion of policies specifically geared to women’s interests, famously quipping that “all issues are women’s issues,” whereas Ivanka Trump has made working women a major theme of her time in the White House, announcing a joint task force with the Canadian government to promote women entrepreneurs and advocating for federally mandated paid parental leave (to this point: Ivanka Trump has had difficulty in securing congressional sponsors for such a bill, and her father’s silence on the measure appears to doom its prospects).

If paid leave for parents is typically a Democratic policy, limiting access to abortion is a “women’s issue” policy long-championed by social conservatives.

In this respect, Trump’s selection of Charmaine Yoest, who previously led the anti-abortion organization Americans United for Life, as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs at Housing and Human Services (HHS) and Teresa Manning, a former lobbyist with the National Right to Life Committee, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population Affairs at HHS, will likely find favor with most Republican women. My analysis in Tea Party Women shows that a robust two-thirds of Republican and Tea Party women believe abortion should not be legal in nearly any situation.

Trump’s Education Department is also signaling a desire to change how Title IX rules—the federal civil rights laws that prohibit sex discrimination in public education—are interpreted, including how they are applied to sexual violence on campus. Previously, the Obama administration urged college campuses to lower the threshold of evidence under which alleged perpetrators of campus rape could be held responsible.  More recently, the department’s acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, faced backlash for her remarks that most college sexual assault accusations are the result of drunken encounters and bad break-ups.  She later apologized for her choice of words, but not for the sentiment: she is among a group of conservative activists who believe that the Obama administration’s Title IX guidelines deny due process to (mostly) men accused of assault and over-hype the presence of rape culture on college campuses.

In Congress, Republicans are committed to defunding Planned Parenthood and repealing the Affordable Care Act—moves championed by conservative women’s organizations such as Concerned Women for America and the Independent Women’s Forum.

My research in Tea Party Women finds that many Tea Party women activists strongly oppose the Affordable Care Act because they believe it represents an overreach of federal power that could potentially usurp their families’ medical choices.

In terms of women’s substantive representation, then, the Trump Administration is doing well in the eyes of conservative women. In terms of descriptive representation, however, it is unlikely that any changes holding gender dimensions will be led by a new cadre of women appointees in the bureaucracy or by an influx of women into Congress. In fact, Republican women’s representation in Congress—and in state legislatures—has actually declined over the past decade, while the share of Democratic women has increased.

Moreover, Tea Party Women finds that just one in four American women identify themselves as Republicans; far fewer—about 5 percent as of 2016—consider themselves part of the Tea Party.  So, the pool of women on the right from which to draw new leaders is not nearly as big as it is on the left.  Nor is a commitment to gender diversity a priority of the Republican Party.  Indeed, PRRI found last October in a national poll that only 37 percent of Republicans—including just 42 percent of Republican women—believe “the country would be better off” with more women holding public office.  (By contrast, 77 percent of Democrats agreed with this sentiment.)

So, while conservative women played an instrumental role as movers and shakers in the Tea Party, they appear less likely to translate this leadership into roles within the Trump administration or among Republicans in Congress.

The policies that Republicans are hoping to pass will no doubt please many of these conservative women, but are unlikely to be met with widespread support among the majority of American women. Given this confluence and the diversity of women as a political force in the United States, substantive political representation may be well out of reach for many American women under the Trump Administration.

–- Melissa Deckman, Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs and Chair of the Political Science Department, Washington College

— Photo by Susan Adams