When 52 percent of white women who voted helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016, pundit jaws hit the floor. Despite months of polls, few predicted that a majority of white women would shun Hillary Clinton in favor of a racist and misogynist who bragged about his non-consensual grabbing of women’s vaginas and faced multiple accusations of sexual assault and misconduct.
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers was only shocked that anyone was shocked.
“A small majority, but nevertheless an important majority of white women embraced Trump and what he stands for – embracing, ultimately, white supremacy,” Jones-Rogers, author of the compelling new book “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South,” told me when I interviewed her. For the past decade, she researched the role of many white women during the slavery era, and finds modern parallels with women who support Trump.
“What begins in the colonial period is the emergence of a racially divided social order where whiteness has a value that being a woman just does not have,” Jones-Rogers says. “I see time and time again in my research that when white women are given a choice, they overwhelmingly choose to be empowered by whiteness, and to embrace white supremacy.”
An assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, Jones-Rogers’s findings are “not an indictment of all white women,” she says. “This is about a very specific group of women,” as well as the recognition that “gender matters” in deepening our understanding of race, slavery, and how the propagation of white supremacy plays out at the ballot box.
It wasn’t just Trump’s election. In 2017, Roy Moore, a disgraced former judge and accused sexual predator, lost his senate race in Alabama, but received 63 percent support from white women. Last November, Brian Kemp who did everything short of resurrecting a poll tax to suppress the black vote, narrowly defeated rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams to become Georgia’s governor. He received 76 percent support from white women.
With each election post-mortem comes the same refrain: a majority of white women vote against their own best interest. Yet Jones-Rogers says it’s actually the opposite.
“It looks like they’re voting against their best interest because we think of them as female voters first. But when we see these kinds of majorities, what we need to think about is that they are voting in their best interest as white people,” she said. “They’re making a choice, and the choice is to invest in white supremacy. They’ve drawn a line, and the line is a racial one.”
It was no different during the slavery era. In her research, Jones-Rogers found some white male historians bent every which way to downplay white women’s explicit participation in the so-called “peculiar institution.” She quotes New York journalist James Redpath who, in 1859, wrote that white women rarely witnessed slavery’s “most obnoxious features” such as auctions or lashings.
Instead, Jones-Rogers found white women who owned enslaved people, and bought and sold them at auctions; concocted legal means similar to prenuptial agreements to protect their “property” from their husbands; and gained financial stability. White women exercised their agency by stripping other human beings of their agency and freedom.
In her 2018 book, “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” Rebecca Traister says white women “have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers,” an idea that gained traction after Trump’s election. Yet even a cursory glance at history proves their role has often been far more direct and insidious.
In the 1920s, 500,000 white women joined the Ku Klux Klan. In photos with desecrated black bodies hanged from trees, there are white women smiling for the camera. They led efforts against school desegregation and civil rights.
“Saying they’re the ‘foot soldiers’ suggests that white men design it, develop it, implement it, and white women carry it out,” Jones-Rogers said. “White women are the architects. They are sitting at the proverbial table when the system is developed, tweaked, and devised. They are both the architects and the foot soldiers, the thinkers and the doers.”
When embattled Virginia Governor and erstwhile blackface wearer Ralph Northam recently said he’s learning about race to better champion racial reconciliation (and, mostly, save his job), several historians offered suggestions for the governor’s reading list. Among the recommendations is “They Were Her Property.”
More of us would do well to also read it. Too often many behave as if this nation had it all figured out until Trump came along and ruined everything. He’s only slicing deeper into long untended wounds. With her book, Jones-Rogers captures the echoes of what happens when America’s greatest atrocity — and who participated in it — is deliberately misunderstood and unchallenged.
White women “were not passive bystanders,” Jones-Rogers writes of the slavery era. “They were co-conspirators.” That’s also what they were, centuries later, when they helped put Trump in the White House.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.