How Donald Trump has made this election about women voters

Donald Trump's behavior makes the fall election partly a referendum on how America views the acceptable treatment of women.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Supporters wait to greet Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally, Friday in Omaha, Neb.

Vivien Goldman has a particular fascination with the rise of Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election – a fascination mixed with both a kind of respect and revulsion.

The New York City bohemian – a playwright, musician, and part-time “punk professor” residing in Queens, who co-wrote a new play called “Cherchez la Femme” (“Look for the Woman”) – admits that she’s intrigued by the Trump women, daughter Ivanka and wife Melania.

“They all seem such strong, competent women,” she says. “So you know, you just wonder: What is the deal at home? How do they handle it at dinner, because he’s so nakedly offensive.”

“It’s almost – well, you can’t say endearing, that would be going too far – but he’s so honest, so in your face with it, and he says what a lot of men veil. Yet, you can’t believe that he can carry on like that, and that anyone would take him seriously for getting into the White House.”

By now, it is abundantly clear that a great many people are taking Mr. Trump seriously. But it is also possible that one of the primary impediments on his path to the White House could be women voters.

Nearly 7 in 10, including nearly half of Republican women, view the real estate mogul unfavorably, according to a Gallup survey last month. That’s up from last July and a potential show-stopper come November.

That puts Trump and women voters uniquely in the political spotlight.

The paradox of the man – someone who has at once promoted women within his own company while also publicly demeaning women – opens the candidate to a broad array of interpretations for those inclined to support or denounce him.

But his crude behavior and the appearance of objectifying women in some ways makes this election a referendum on how American society views acceptable treatment of women.

“The general election will be a moment where women’s opinions and issues are front and center in a way they never have been before,” says Christine Kelleher Palus, professor of public administration and dean of graduate studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia, in an e-mail. “The nature of the exchanges between the candidates will reinvigorate conversations about feminism and how we perceive women leaders in today’s complex and ever-changing world.”

'A typical New York City guy' 

Part of this is simply because of the candidates' differences in both policy positions and personal style, which are stark to the point of being cliché.

There’s Trump, popular with working class men with his bravado and swagger, not to mention his real estate billions, private jets, and beautiful women at his side – part of his aura of success.

Then there’s Hillary Clinton, a feminist icon, policy wonk, and one of the most accomplished stateswomen of her or any generation, but who carries the weight of being the ultimate insider.

To Lara Wechsler, a court stenographer for the New York City court system, Trump just seems like “a typical New York City guy,” noting the brash, hyperbolic, off-the-cuff conversational style she often encounters with men. “All the stuff he says about women, he just seems to just get away with it.”

But though she rolls her eyes about Trump, she isn’t planning on voting for Mrs. Clinton, and she has only a modest interest in seeing the first woman president. An ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders, she says she’s likely to cast an antiestablishment vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party.

That old-school male bravado appeals to a significant number of voters, too.   

“Trump can just say, ‘Yeah, I’m a playboy. And?’ There’s no real follow-up to that,” says Christina Greer, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York.

“You take people who see him as a masculine icon, and a role model in some ways," Professor Greer continues. It's not a new phenomenon. “We’ve always loved the John Wayne image, this hyper-masculine narrative that we’ve always had in the United States…. Trump is facing a gender gap with a lot of women because of this – but not all women.”

One story, two reactions 

Last week, The New York Times published a story in which a number of women recounted humiliating encounters with Trump. Its opening anecdote featured Rowanne Brewer Lane, a model, then in her 20s, who met the billionaire for the first time during a 1990 pool party. At the party and without a swimsuit, she was offered a bikini by Trump, who then introduced her as “a stunning Trump girl.” The pair also went on to date for a time, during Trump’s first divorce.

The Times framed her story as “a debasing face-to-face encounter between Mr. Trump and a young woman he hardly knew.” But on Monday, Ms. Brewer Lane disputed that account, telling Fox & Friends that Trump “never made me feel like I was being demeaned in any way. He never offended me in any way. He was very gracious. I saw him around all types of people, all types of women. He was very kind, thoughtful, generous, you know. He was a gentleman."

Such starkly different perceptions over Trump’s relationships with women in some ways reflect a deep cultural divide in how many voters have understood his behavior.

Some scholars point out, too, that many women simply support Trump for the same reason men do – they feel like he has heard them, while the Republican elite has not. How he treats women in his own time is of secondary importance.

“The wives, sisters, daughters, friends of those men who may be feeling an economic pinch or worse, their jobs have also either gone away or stagnated,” says Susan Douglas, a professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan. “And they are also responding to a form of resentment that Trump has primarily focused on immigrants, and not specifically targeted toward women.”

What seems more peculiar is that a man whose three marriages and not-so-secret affairs have been tabloid fodder for decades has promised to portray Clinton as an “enabler” of her husband’s documented infidelities.

“Patriarchal overtones are common in many conservative circles, and the cultural objectification of women by those on both the right and the left help to explain why Trump's pervasive sexism has been a non-issue thus far,” says Jennifer Walsh, a political scientist at Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles. “[Trump’s] comments objectifying women are not likely to cause him to lose support from the men – or women – who voted for him in the primary election.”

But his attacks on Clinton’s past marital problems may not win him any new voters, either.  

“Trump and Hillary Clinton are well known, and opinions about them already well formed, through a partisan and gendered lens,” says Michael Pisapia, a political scientist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and an expert in gender and politics. “There are many voters, including many women voters, with sexist attitudes towards other powerful women.”

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