Inventing the Myth of the White Suburban Woman Voter

Inventing the Myth of the White Suburban Woman Voter

In late October, the New York Times podcast The Daily gathered a group of women from the Ohio suburbs to explain in their own words why they’d soured on Donald Trump. The ambiance seemed cozy. Huddled around a fire pit in a presumably ample backyard—draped in blankets, sipping on red wine—the women told a story that might seem familiar.

These women hadn’t wanted Trump to be president, though one had reluctantly voted for him. But slowly, over his first term, they became alarmed. They watched Trump yell and pander; they watched him lie. They saw him tease Joe Biden, a good man who wore a mask. They began to fear for the future of the country: After all, they are mothers and their children were watching. They worried Trump was teaching their sons how to be men. When George Floyd was killed in May, they took his cry for his mama straight to the gut. “I don’t want to raise a cop that kills somebody,” one of the mothers explained. By then, their allegiances had flipped. They were already organizing to oust the president.

These women might be anecdotes from any number of headlines, conjured in flesh and blood. Apolitical or moderately conservative, they are part of a cohort of suburban women who have, according to both scholars and journalists, become activated by the misdeeds of the Trump administration, joining online groups with names like Nasty Women, or GrassRoots Resistance, which is pronounced with a guttural “grrr.” They are Biden’s “Facebook empathy moms,” “Wine Moms,” “Pandemic moms,” “Zoom moms,” “resistance moms,” “Panera moms,” names that are at once cheeky, condescending, and vague. They are the “suburban housewives” Trump has been desperately courting, promising just last week, “we’re getting your husbands back to work,” oblivious that it’s women who the pandemic has removed from their jobs in massive numbers. As closely observed as these women are, they rarely seem to be understood.

These women are the beginning of a righteous narrative that members of the infamous “52 percent” of white women who voted for Trump might be the key to his defeat. There are natural problems with this number, which has since been debunked (verified votes show white women voted in a slimmer 47 to 45 percent plurality). Namely, that white women, who have predominantly voted for Republicans in presidential elections, and who are regularly conditioned to overlook and participate in injustice—including misogyny—in exchange for access to comfort and power, shouldn’t have been surprising Trump supporters. Yet polls suggest a historic gender gap is growing in the suburbs, driven by white women, whose votes seem to matter most of all. That the white women blamed for Trump’s rise will now deliver us from his presidency is a convenient, cinematic story, appropriate to a year that has felt too dramatic for metaphor. Through the media’s framing, these women who have begun to tentatively advocate for their own liberation are key to unlocking not just the election, but some broader truth of the nation.

If it’s rarely clear who this “suburban woman” is and why her voting bloc has amassed such political power, perhaps it’s because she has always been a specter

I have been reading these stories for months now, searching for some insight into this archetypal woman and what she wants. I have learned that while her vote is apparently fickle and flippable, she is a beguiling figure that can often influence her husband and friends. I have read tales of the slow curdling of her support for the president, hastened by the sense that he and his party are bad men who cannot be trusted. I have tallied the reasons why she votes: Her children, almost always, but occasionally her community; her own interests rarely inform her choice. While I still know almost nothing about her personal politics, or the specific details that lead to her supposed departure from Trump, I do know quite a bit now about what she means to the media, for whom she serves as both a prize and a scapegoat. She is a woman-sized vessel into which dreams of an ideal voter can be placed and quickly morphed into a strawman if it all goes to hell. She is never particularly real.

Each political season journalists descend on the suburbs, investigating the suburban woman like biologists elaborating on a rare but charismatic wombat. For almost 25 years reporters have discovered, again and again, that the suburbs will serve a crucial role in electing the president, announcing the suburban woman as “a new political force” to be reckoned with.

If it’s rarely clear who this “suburban woman” is and why her voting bloc has amassed such political power, perhaps it’s because she has always been a specter—an idea invented by strategists who has, nonetheless, become the battleground for political victory. Until the late ’90s, the “suburban woman” was largely absent from the campaign trail discourse. “Angry white men” were the domain of Bill Clinton’s 1992 win, a category belatedly created after reporters noticed that a small subset of white men flipped their votes from Democratic to Republican in exit polls.

Four years later, Clinton was up for re-election and it was a conservative media consultant, Alex Castellanos, who had a scoop on the then-president’s campaign strategy. Clinton, Castellanos told the Washington Post in July, was targeting a very specific voter, a woman he called “the soccer mom.”

Soccer moms, according to Castellanos, who at the time was working as an advisor for Bob Dole, were in a rough spot. They were frenetic, torn between the demands of shuttling children from “soccer practice to scouts to school,” and outside life. In their torment, these women were supposedly looking to a benevolent government—and Clinton the paternal savior— to “establish some order in her family life.”

In Carroll’s dark interpretation, the soccer mom served as a foil to avoid acknowledging other kinds of women who might have more defined political needs, including “feminists, older women, women on welfare, women of color and professional women.”

“Soccer mom” was not a common proper noun in 1996. It had been applied to just a single political campaign, when a woman named Susan B. Casey ran for local office in Denver in 1995, using the slogan, “A Soccer Mom for City Council.” She won, but there’s no evidence that Casey meant the phrase to imply anything beyond a wholesome neighborly demeanor, certainly not a gendered role. “‘Soccer parent’ just didn’t sound like a good phrase,’’ she explained to a reporter. Still, if there was no sign that Castellanos’s assessment was based in reality, or attempted to describe a unified group, that didn’t stop him. By that September, he was back in the Wall Street Journal, harping on the soccer mom: “She’s a key consumer in the marketplace and the key swing voter who will decide the election.”

The press noticed. “Word is slowly reaching the women of small towns like Ojai that they are a new political force,” proclaimed the Independent in November, part of a flurry of “man on the street” stories aimed at assessing the soccer mom and her needs.

Reporters interviewed minivan manufacturers and referees. The Clinton campaign reportedly sent canvassers to soccer fields with fliers. “If you can’t find a soccer mom for your story, don’t worry,” Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate that October, “Part of the shtick is that she hasn’t got time to talk to reporters.” Not all of the alleged soccer moms hounded by the press seemed pleased with this newfound political capital: “It is just insulting,” said one woman, decrying the term to the journalist who asked her about it. Still, columnists in the Boston Globe and NPR declared 1996 “The Year of the Soccer Mom,” while the American Dialect Society voted “Soccer Mom” the word of the year.

As far as the media was concerned, the framing was correct. Years later, Susan Carroll, a political science professor at Rutgers, surveyed the use of “soccer mom” in newspapers and found it ballooned that year—from 12 mentions in August and September to 198 in October and November. Crucially, the sudden awareness of suburban moms didn’t mean politicians and journalists were thinking more broadly about women: roughly 80 percent of stories in Carroll’s research failed to discuss other types of women voters, “even superficially.” In Carroll’s dark interpretation, the soccer mom simply served as a foil to avoid acknowledging other kinds of women who might have more defined political needs, including “feminists, older women, women on welfare, women of color and professional women.” As columnists debated the nuances of the white upper-middle class “soccer mom” and “super mom,” the mythical “Welfare Queen” and working poor “Waitress Mom” were not even on the radar, wrote Laurel Parker West.

The phrase had accomplished something of a rhetorical sleight-of-hand. The soccer mom “allowed both the media and the campaigns to appear responsive to the concerns of women voters while actually ignoring the vast majority of women,” Carroll ultimately concluded.

But now that the trick had been unearthed, campaigns continued to roll it out—a new mom for each candidate. The soccer mom was “torn between a desire for lower taxes and a yearning for government—for anyone—to help in caring for their aging parents and protecting their children from guns and dirty air,” James Bennett proclaimed in the New York Times Magazine in 2000. In 2004, came “Security Moms,” women supposedly radicalized by 9/11 and the Iraq War into a fear of terrorists, desire for military and policing, and an increased affinity for the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush.

That these values perfectly mirrored the interests of the candidates running for president, rather than any discernible parenting group, didn’t seem to matter. The white moms of the suburbs are a malleable entity, ready to act as anecdotes for any necessary narrative. “It’s part of a larger way of looking for a particular category or group that is like the silver bullet,” Dorothy Sue Cobble, a professor of labor studies and history at Rutgers, told me. “Either they’re going to be the heroines or the villains.” Soccer moms, conveniently, could be both. By the time Sarah Palin quipped to the audience at the 2008 Republican National Convention “the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? Lipstick,” journalists were ready to carry the bit to Election Day.

It’s easy to see strategically why politicians trained their eyes so neatly on the affluent white women of the suburbs. White women make up a relatively large percentage of the country, they vote in large numbers and they’re rarely subject to the types of disenfranchisement that people of color from the polls. Yet they’re rarely the election-winning prize that campaigns portray them to be. While Clinton went on to win suburban white women by a healthy 11 points, in the end, these votes weren’t necessary for his victory in 1996. Put another way, Hillary Clinton gained these voters at higher rates than even Barack Obama but it still didn’t carve her a path to the White House.

Professor Lily Geismer, the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberalism and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, says that while there are numerous reasons that politicians fixate on college-educated suburban white voters—they provide a large percentage of campaign donations for one—it’s in part the product of what she calls a “feedback loop.” White women, in particular, “hold a lot of social capital. They’re the subject of news stories. Why are sitcoms set in the suburbs? They’re at the centerpiece of so many cultural touchstones in the United States,” she told Jezebel. Thus when politicians fixate on an ideal voter, their minds gravitate to a white mom, as a signal of the needs of the electorate as a whole, and the promise of earned publicity that comes with her support.

when politicians fixate on an ideal voter, their minds gravitate to a white mom, as a signal of the needs of the electorate as a whole, and the promise of earned publicity that comes with her support

“Mom,” like “suburbs,” is also, conveniently, an identifier without political affiliation. It’s a way of describing a woman who doesn’t situate herself in a political narrative because “they see themselves as a mom, her source identity isn’t Republican or Democrat,” said Geismer. An affluent parent requires fewer political promises. Unlike the majority of women, who might demand concrete things to vastly improve their lives, the soccer mom is already comfortable. That’s why Clinton’s appeal to the “soccer mom” looked like a slew of “family friendly” promises, like school uniforms, “v-chips” to block scandalous content on television, and curfews for teens, rather than parental leave, a living minimum wage, access to abortion, and stricter workplace harassment laws. Carroll told me she’s saddened that the increased intention on women voters never amounts to much in the way of specific policy changes. All the attention “should count for something. That should lead to something,” Carroll said. Perhaps because we’re chasing an illusion, it rarely does.

It’s only natural that, all those years ago, Clinton’s fictitious woman voter wanted precisely the kinds of things that his administration could happily and easily provide. The “suburban woman” has always been a story, one that’s less about the women who ostensibly serve as its protagonists than it is about whiteness, class, and the ease with which a select few women can be weaponized to dismiss women’s needs as a whole. A generation ago, the suburban woman, who supposedly wanted nothing beyond relative decency and safety, provided an easy misdirect away from the Black moms, poor moms, and working moms Clinton’s policies undermined. It wasn’t her wants, but her lack of wants, that proved such an intoxicating model.

And with two very different messages in 2020, both Trump and Biden are once again preaching to the same theoretical woman, promising her security from a vague and inscrutable mob and a reprieve from a president that’s spent four years speaking racism and sexism out loud. If the polls bear out and white women are the architects of Trump’s defeat, a debate will ensue over whether it’s simply the mirage of a new political revolution or the real thing. Whether a generation of the Republican Party’s most prized voters turned away from the GOP, or whether they voted out of urgency to oust a leader gone awry. Soon we’ll have an answer as to whether this woman is a figment of campaign journalism, a wholesome diner patron, just in slightly more upscale clothes.

Either way, Castellanos, the Dole media man, lists “discovering the soccer mom” as a notable accomplishment on his website. And why shouldn’t he? Whether she’s real or not, she’s proved a useful tool.

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