I’m not sure exactly when I started feeling bad for Republican women.
Maybe it was last year, the first time I heard their now-presumptive nominee make a joke about wanting to bang his own daughter. Maybe it was a little bit later, listening to Donald Trump’s vile comments about Carly Fiorina and Megyn Kelly. Maybe it was watching Mary Pat Christie register a brief flicker of annoyance upon hearing Trump’s accusations that Hillary is playing the “gender card” — and listening to her husband deny it was an eye roll. Perhaps it was watching Ted Cruz’s mother undeniably roll her eyes when her son said she spends hours a day praying for him.
By the time I watched a GIF of Fiorina falling off the stage at a campaign event this week, I was certain of my feelings. And the dominant one was pity.
“It is hard to be a Republican woman right now,” says Karol Markowicz, a columnist at the New York Post who was a conservative activist for many years. It’s been widely reported that the GOP Establishment is struggling to come to terms with the fact that primary voters have selected Donald Trump as the party’s nominee. But conservative women, who have long dealt with the charge that their party is a racist, sexist old boys’ club, face what is perhaps a more difficult task: To accept that the 2016 Republican nominee confirms this stereotype.
Of course, not all GOP women are sad about Trump’s rise. A CNN poll from mid-March found that 44 percent of Republican women were supportive of Trump. But among Republicans who didn’t support him, Trump’s female dissenters were more upset about the possibility of the Donald as the nominee: Republican women are nearly three times as likely as the men in their party to say they would be upset if he secured the nomination. Those are the women I set out to talk to.
“He is everything that liberal feminists have said Republicans are,” says Sarah Elizabeth Rumpf, a conservative who lives in Austin, Texas, and a registered Republican since age 18. “You’ve grown up your whole life knowing Republicans don’t hate women, minorities, the poor … but we have a candidate who’s embodying all that. It’s almost like he’s a cartoon character. How do you say that the Republican Party doesn’t hate women when Donald Trump is so disrespectful on a nearly daily basis?” He confirms all the stereotypes Rumpf and other women dislike, while still managing to run counter to their conservative values. They also hate him because they don’t think he’s sufficiently anti-abortion.
Fiorina’s long-shot role as a possible vice-presidential nominee offered a last shred of hope, even though she was only Cruz’s presumptive running mate for a week. The Republican women I talked to all voiced their particular admiration for Fiorina as an antidote to the problem. “I love seeing people like me in the political process. I see myself in Fiorina,” says Bethany Mandel, a senior contributor to the Federalist and a stay-at-home mom. Elisha Krauss, a conservative-radio producer, liked that Fiorina didn’t fit the stereotype “that Republican women are told how to vote by their overbearing husbands while we’re barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Carly debunks that.”
Perhaps the adage is true — you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. During her run as a presidential candidate, Fiorina had lukewarm support from women. Markowicz, who also thinks Fiorina is “very smart and sharp,” wasn’t an early backer. “At the start of this campaign, I saw a stage with 17 people on it, so many accomplished Republicans, and I wished for Trump, Carson, and Carly to go away because I thought they were needlessly taking up space,” she says. “I was only wrong about Carly.”
Unlike the conversation among liberal women — who generally agree that we’d like to see more women elected, even as we continue to debate how important a candidate’s gender ultimately is — most Republican women are quicker to note that they aren’t predisposed to like Fiorina because she is a woman. And Fiorina herself didn’t make direct appeals to the women of her party. “I don’t play identity politics,” she told NPR.
As an outsider, the strangest thing to hear from Republican women isn’t their frustration with their own party. It’s that their disappointment in the relative success of candidates like Trump and Cruz doesn’t seem to be translating to a desire to elect more women. Right now there are only 28 Republican women in Congress — compared to 76 Democratic women. While there are a few PACs devoted to electing more GOP women, many Republican women say they don’t care about whether they’re represented by someone who shares their gender. “I think having conservative women like, say, Nikki Haley, in the public eye shows other women they don’t have to be in lockstep with liberalism just because they’re women,” Markowicz says. She and other Republican women appreciate the women politicians in their party, but aren’t particularly concerned about recruiting more.
This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. “I’ve always felt alienated by the decision-makers in the GOP since I was a kid,” says Krauss. “My mom ran for office against a ten-year incumbent and the state GOP gave her zero support.” Of course, a party apparatus that fails to get behind upstart women is not uniquely Republican — just look at Donna Edwards’s loss in the Democratic Senate primary in Maryland. But at least for conservatives, it’s hard to make the case for why that should change if you’re simultaneously decrying any talk of gender as “playing the woman card.”
Which seems to be a huge missed opportunity. If the polls and interviews are to be believed, conservative women might just be the last #NeverTrump partisans left standing. Those I spoke to were all vehemently against falling in line with Trump for the sake of party unity. Yet they were also surprisingly defeatist about the future — despite their political savvy and years of activism. “I think Mitt Romney is going to be one of the last good men to run for office,” Mandel says. Instead of Trump’s nomination being a wake-up call for more unity among GOP women and more power for them within their party, it seems to be inspiring resignation.
I admit that my pity is probably misplaced, because I’ll probably never understand the core values these Republican women hold. The divide is just that deep. Their political coalition includes some conservatives who don’t actually believe women have much of a place in politics at all. “I just wonder if Republican women maybe have a different view of what being a woman is,” says Emily Borkholder, a Christian stay-at-home mom in northern Virginia. “You don’t have to go out into the world and make a name for yourself in the political or business field to make yourself feel important.” Maybe truly conservative women, Borkholder speculates, “have no desire to run for political office. They know their husbands work hard, and would like someone like their husband to be running for office.” This would explain both the disdain for Trump — at least among conservative women who aren’t ex-models married to tycoons — and their shrugging acceptance of the dearth of female candidates.
Most women voters don’t feel this way. The last presidential election had a gender gap of 20 percentage points in favor of the Democratic party. Faced with the choice between Trump and Clinton, the Republican women I talked to say they’ll probably abstain from casting a presidential vote. Many are turning their eyes to a potential third-party candidate. “I would support that effort,” Rumpf says. “What’s Condoleezza Rice doing? Has anybody called her recently?”