How Gender Became The Defining Issue Of The US Election
The Debrief: How has this US election shifted the conversation about gender, sexism and women's rights in America?
If there is one angry, red flashpoint that’s emerged during the 2016 US presidential election campaign it’s how America talks about women. This election cycle has been dubbed a 'referendum on gender', for surfacing a schism in attitudes towards women held by the two American political parties, as well as the country as a whole.
The narrative of the campaign—which ends on 8 November when the US votes for its 45th president—has revealed some of the more heinous opinions held about women. This in turn has had impacted the broader conversation about women's rights that's currently underway in the States because, at the same time, women have, in many ways, defined this election. It started with the first female nominee of a major political party in America’s 240-year history which has meant that, for the first time, conversations about gender inequality and sexism are being played out between a man and a woman on an international stage not just in spite of, but because of Donald Trump's involvement.
The issues facing American women in 2016 are wide-reaching. Top of the agenda is arguably abortion rights. Although abortion is legal in the States thanks to the 1973 landmark case of Roe vs. Wade, individual states continue to restrict access to abortion, making it almost impossible in some states to have one. The US also still remains one of the few western countries that does not offer paid parental leave. Whereas in the UK, statutory maternity pay is 39 weeks, in the US there is no legal requirement to pay women who take time off to have a baby. Issues of pay for women also extend to the gender pay gap; in 2015 women in the US were paid on average 80% of what men made, according to the American Association of University Women.
The Debrief spoke to American female voters to hear from them how these issues have been tackled by the candidates, and how this election has influenced the national conversation about women’s rights.
Leah Mullins is a 38-year-old mother of three from Indiana. 'I'm a Hillary supporter and I have been for several years,' she said. 'She's had paid maternity leave, equal pay for women, and childcare as part of her platform since she started.'
Policies tackling the issues faced by working mothers are a high priority for Mullins, a social media manager, who took unpaid maternity leave during all three of her pregnancies and struggled to find affordable childcare. 'It’s really hard when you have to take time off from work for maternity leave because you basically have to exhaust all your paid time off. Even after that you know there will be time when you aren’t getting paid,' she said.
Mullins feels Hillary has spoken extensively about what she plans to offer working mothers. Her policy promises include a pledge to guarantee 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave to care for a new child or seriously ill family member. Trump’s policy for paid family leave, which he only rolled out in September, includes six weeks of paid family leave.
While Trump does have some provision for maternity leave, Mullins remains unimpressed with Trump’s campaign because of the way he speaks about women in general. 'I don’t feel that Trump has any regard for women at all. I’ve seen nothing that demonstrates that he cares about anything that we deal with.'
She doesn’t, however, believe that Trump can be held accountable for all the negative sentiments towards women that have emerged during the campaign. 'He’s the mouthpiece for a huge section of our country that already had these beliefs,' she said. 'It’s distressing to realise how many people actually have these views and don’t care about women’s issues.'
But Mullins remains hopeful: 'It’s been encouraging to see in just the last few weeks that it appears that the majority of Americans are not like that. They’re a dying breed and this is their last battlecry.'
Sarah Best, 21, is a student at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and for her, college debt is one of the biggest issues in this election.
'Student debt is a huge issue that college students have a lot of anxiety over,' she said. 'The problem with women and student debt is that we know that we’re going into the workplace already being paid less, so paying back our student loan is much harder than a man.'
For students like Best, the cost of university can leave them in huge debt. According to student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz, the average class of 2016 graduate has over $37,000 (approximately £30,000) in student debt, a 6% increase on last year. Earlier this year, the Sutton Trust found that English graduates face higher debts than their US counterparts, with average debt being £44,000. However, as the report notes that, American graduates can face higher interest rates because loans are not income contingent.
For women this problem is worsen by the fact for every dollar a man earns, women on average earn 21 cents less. Bloomberg looked at how this affects paying back student loans, and found that it will take women with MBAs a year longer to pay back their debt than men.
Best said that for her and her friends, these financial considerations affect the choices they make in university. 'There’s definitely a lot of economic anxiety coming from students,' she said. Best said many students will take into account what the job prospects are for particular degrees, as they feel the pressure of needing a high-paid job upon graduation.
'You worry about how you’ll find the type of job that you’ll be fulfilled in your work, but also fulfilled in your bank account,' she said.
Best, who is a first-time voter, said that she feels there’s been a shift in how much attention the issue of college debt has received in this election cycle compared to previous years.
'The conversation seems unprecedented and that this hasn't been something that has been talked about on such a national level,' she said. 'It’s cool to know that politicians are caring about us paying off their debt.'
Best also said that sexual assault is a big issue for her. Last year, the Association of American Universities found that one in four women have experienced unwanted sexual contact on a university campus. Figures for how many UK student experience sexual violence are harder to come by, but the National Union of Students earlier this year found that one in five experience some form of sexual assault in their first week of university.
'I wish that the conversation about sexual assault wasn’t so reactionary,' Best said, explaining that she didn’t feel the issue of sexual assault had been discussed enough during the campaign before the tape emerged last month of Trump bragging about sexual assault. 'I wish that it was a campaign point prior to Trump’s comments being released, because now that we’ve realised the extent of the misogyny, we're only just starting to speak about it.'
'My hope for the long term is pushing policy that is going to benefit victims and survivors,' she said. 'I think that right now the conversation around sexual assault, but more broadly women's rights, has been awareness building but I think that now is a prime moment to push for these policy changes that can turn awareness into action.'
Amelia Keane, 25, agreed that the leaked tape of Trump has impacted the wider conversation taking place about sexual assault.
'Trump is taking a step backwards by saying what he said on the tape was locker room banter and that everyone does it,' she said. 'That isn’t true and he just perpetuates that same rhetoric that we’re trying to break away from.'
Keane, who is Democratic candidate for State Representative in New Hampshire (an elected local government official), said the way Trump has spoken about women throughout the campaign has been incendiary, and that is particularly worrisome in relation to his rhetoric about abortion.
'Trump used some words during the third debate that were violent and aggressive,' she said, referring to final presidential debate in Las Vegas on 19 October when Trump said: 'If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth.'
Keane said that using language like that in relation to abortion rights has a damaging impact. 'If people are supporters of Trump, they hear that and that's it. There's no conversation,' she said. 'Having a platform like that makes it makes it easier for people to be against it, and it closes the conversation that could have taken place had it not been said using such aggressive terminology.'
When you consider all of this in the context of what can only be described as a clamp down on reproductive rights in some states such as Texas, Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia it’s frustrating. There are important conversations to be had about women’s rights in America right now and Trump is reinforcing pro-life arguments in the most thoughtless way. His running mate, the Republican nominee for Vice President, Mike Pence, is no less of a threat to women’s rights. In Indiana, where he is Governor, Pence signed a bill earlier this year which requires that women who have abortions must make a decision as to how the remains, regardless of the stage of gestation, are disposed of. This has, widely, been considered to be restrictive legislation that serves only to make the process of getting an abortion as humiliating and difficult as possible, favouring the rights of the ‘unborn’ over those of women.
However, Keane said that overall, there have been a big strides forward in the national conversation regarding women rights, especially when it comes to reproductive rights as well as sexual assault. She said that while Trump’s comments have been disgusting and an attempt to undo that progressive work, they do have a silver lining: 'It's done a good job of pushing away people, including many of the undecided voters.'
'I don't think he fundamentally understands what and where the conversations are in this country,” she said. "It reinforces the fact he's unable to be president.'
All the women The Debrief spoke with are holding their breath for 8 November, hoping that Clinton will be elected president. They all realistic, however, about the fact that even if she does get into office, there’s still a mountain to climb for women’s rights.
'You’re never really sure what will happen, because politicians make a lot of promises,' Mullins, the mother of three, said. 'But it’s nice to know we’re on the radar, and that maybe some things could change and be made better for women.'
Anna lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the news editor of Vice's Thump.
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