Four years into his presidency, Donald Trump has remembered the ladies. He tweets about them, brings them to debates, addresses them at his rallies. But his appeal has little in common with freedom, or equality, or anything else the women’s movement has strived to achieve. Instead, Trump promises pure subdivisions, even jobs, and not just for women. “Because women, suburban or otherwise, they want security. They want safety. They want law and order,” he said at a Michigan rally on Tuesday. “And you know what else? I’m also getting your husbands — they want to get back to work, right? They want to get back to work. We’re getting your husbands back to work, and everybody wants it.”
Trump’s vision of suburban life is more than a little outdated. The president’s fantasies are both more patriarchal and less racially diverse than the suburbs are in truth. Women make up half of the U.S. workforce and over half of all students in college. Before the pandemic hit, the so-called traditional family, with a breadwinner husband and a stay-at-home wife, was on track to become a historical artifact. Most households headed by a married couple are also dual-income. The 1950s are long gone, and good riddance.
But Trump’s comments arrive amidst new threats to women’s economic and political security. The recession cultivated by his administration has been brutally hard on women in particular. In the month of September alone, women were four times as likely as men to drop out of the workforce. The “second shift” no longer begins when working mothers come home in the evenings and begin their domestic labors. Thanks to the pandemic, it lasts all day and demands more of women each week. There’s virtual school to oversee and child care that can no longer be outsourced to other workers. Analysis from the Center for American Progress reports that “Millennial mothers are nearly three times more likely than Millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a school or child care closure.” Women had hardly achieved utopia. The gains we’d won are fragile, and they are collapsing under the weight of the almighty free market.
The president is creating a nation of housewives, and it is to them he now appeals. But American women might not appreciate this involuntary exodus from the workforce. Suburban women are becoming a key weakness for Trump, and Joe Biden increasingly cuts into Trump’s share of the white female vote. Trump won just over half of all white women in 2016. A major recession may be an obstacle too great for Trump’s racist appeals to overcome.
This all creates a problem for the conservative movement. Social conservatives and neo-liberals have historically agreed on one point: Public spending on welfare and other social services will undermine the traditional family, and that outcome would be calamitous. Some, such as the late Phyllis Schlafly, believe God ordains women for lives at home. Give a woman welfare and strong labor protections, and you put her on a dangerously long leash to wander far from her ordained sphere. Neoliberals, by contrast, backed themselves into a corner. The sort of labor laws that make women equal partners in the workforce also run counter to free-market ideology. A strong welfare state is also unnecessary, or would be, if family units functioned as they ought. Coerced housewifery is the unavoidable byproduct of neoliberal policy, no matter what the architects of such policy believe about God or the Bible. As Melinda Cooper of the University of Sydney observed in a 2017 essay for the Boston Review, various American neoliberal thinkers “can be found invoking the idea that the ‘natural obligations’ of family should serve as a substitute for the welfare state, that the ‘altruism’ of the family represents a kind of primitive mutual insurance contract and serves as a necessary counterweight to market freedoms.”
Trump probably doesn’t think about his policies in such depth. The Bible is a prop in his hands. He doesn’t read books at all, whether they’re written by neoliberal academics or the author of The Berenstain Bears. But his shallow pro-business policies make him useful to social conservatives and neoliberal economists alike, especially right now. The Republican Party’s economic dogmas prevent it from passing additional pandemic economic relief that American women — and their families — need. Conservatives got what they wanted, a nation of housewives, but they might not be able to keep what they’ve built.
Trump’s presidency has provoked a revelatory backlash. It’s not hard to understand why he thought white, suburban women would appreciate much of his presidency. In the not-so-distant past, these same women reliably voted Republican. But Trump brought trouble to their doorsteps and self-interest is a powerful motivation. The final weeks of the election thus suggest a new fissure in the female vote. Ideology now distinguishes housewives, who may or not be at home out of choice, from traditional wives, a.k.a. “tradwives,” the Republican Party’s new female base. Tradwives are far-right, white, middle-income but not necessarily college-educated and remain loyal to Trump and profess increasingly conspiratorial ideas. They believe in QAnon; they’ve probably participated in a multi-level marketing scheme or three; they’re very upset that trial coronavirus vaccines are made from fetal cells; they see something of themselves in Amy Coney Barrett, who eased up through the ranks of the conservative legal movement despite or maybe because of her belief in women’s submission to men.
The tradwife is going to stick with Trump and the Republican Party. The housewife is restless and is probably voting for Biden. Trump isn’t going to win her back with the same old talking points, and neither, for that matter, will the GOP. Conservatives have accidentally performed a great service for liberals, and for liberalism’s leftist critics, too. Because of the pandemic, and the ongoing recession, feminist claims are much harder to dismiss as a superficial exercise in identity politics. The second shift is real, and it now threatens the nation’s economic recovery. While some women may always choose to stay home with their families, and not always for reasons that resemble those of the tradwife, there’s no evidence that women categorically long for the 1950s restoration Trump is selling. Many know that mass housewifery is proof of coercion and that Republicans want to save the traditional family by forcing women to go home, and cutting off all routes that lead out of the kitchen.