Bad News: We’re Sexist

New data show how sexism played a role in Donald Trump’s election.

Staff and supporters listen as Hillary Clinton speaks at the New Yorker Hotel in New York on Nov. 9, after her defeat in the presidential election.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, as Hillary Clinton was gathering the endorsements of a coterie of retired generals and admirals, Angie Maxwell thought one of the long-standing sexist barriers to a female becoming president had finally been breached. Clinton had definitively answered the question “Could she be the commander in chief?” But as we all know, passing this test of competency didn’t win her the presidency. Maxwell, a political scientist who works at the Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas, helps administer the Blair Center Poll, which sampled a representative group of 3,668 individuals immediately after the election. Maxwell turned to the data from this year’s poll to help answer a pressing question: What role did sexism play in the loss? (This poll was co-sponsored by the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service in 2012, but the Clinton School withdrew its sponsorship in 2016 and, the Blair Center website states, “did not participate in any development or discussions regarding the poll” last year, in order to avoid a conflict of interest.)

Maxwell’s gender-based analysis of the Blair Center Poll’s results for this year has just been released, and it shows that sexism absolutely did matter. Trump’s voters were more sexist than Clinton’s (and Ted Cruz voters were even more sexist than Trump voters). Republicans were far more sexist than Democrats. White respondents were more sexist than black Americans and Latinos. Female respondents, not to be outdone, were also quite sexist! And Bernie primary voters who didn’t vote for Clinton in the general were more sexist than those who did.

Over the years, Maxwell noticed a majority of Gallup and Pew respondents consistently answering yes to the question “Do you think you’ll see a female president in your lifetime?” So she wondered, as she told me, “If sexism is just gone, or we’ve just kind of gotten over it, and we’re just so OK with a female president, how come there hasn’t been one?” Starting in 2012, Maxwell asked the Blair Center Poll respondents to answer five questions culled from a tool called the Modern Sexism Scale.

First published in 1995, the MSS was developed by four psychologists trying to find a new way to measure sexism. In an era when the feminist and civil rights movements had made significant gains, many people would no longer give negative answers to direct questions about minorities’ capabilities, even if they harbored prejudices. Researchers trying to understand public opinion about race found that most racist respondents wouldn’t say “Black people are lazy,” but they would complain about affirmative action and welfare, or deny the existence of structural impediments to black success—something called “racial resentment.” As you might expect, racial resentment has political significance. “When you put stuff in a model and say ‘I want to predict who will vote for Obama,’ ” Maxwell said, “and you control for all these other variables, racial resentment is still highly significant and explains a big chunk of variation in answers.”

The MSS attempts to test for resentment toward women through questions about feminism and women in the workplace. Here are the five statements from the MSS that the Blair Center Poll asked its sample to assess:

  • Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for “equality.”
  • Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.
  • Feminists are seeking for women to have more power than men.
  • When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated against.
  • Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States.

The respondents to the poll ranked their responses to these statements on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The researchers classified respondents as “sexist,” “neutral,” or “nonsexist,” based on their overall scores.

I have some bad news: We’re pretty sexist. A total of 36.2 percent of the entire sample—male, female, Democrat, Republican, black, white, Latino—answered in such a way as to be classified as “sexist.” Meanwhile, 16.7 percent were “neutral.” (And if you look at those statements, it becomes clear that anybody who gives a “neutral” response to them is actually probably fairly sexist.)

It’s important to note that the numbers don’t break down cleanly along gender lines. Only 41.2 percent of the male sample responded in a nonsexist way while 52.5 percent of women did. That means almost half of the female respondents in the sample appear to hold negative views of feminism and working women. (Don’t forget: 53 percent of white female voters went for Trump in 2016. Anti-feminism—which, as historian Marjorie Spruill points out, grew in tandem with feminism in the 1970s—is strong.)

Interestingly, fewer Sanders primary voters than Clinton primary voters were “sexist,” according to the scale. But when the general election came around, a model that used the Modern Sexism score was “highly significant” in predicting the 25 percent of Sanders voters who did not swing to Clinton. Sanders voters who voted for Trump in the general election had higher mean Modern Sexism scores, followed by those who swung to Gary Johnson.

In the general election, a high Modern Sexism score was very predictive of a decision not to vote for Clinton (or for the other female candidate, Jill Stein, who got only 1 percent of the vote in the sample). Among almost all the subgroups of voters in the sample, being “sexist,” according to the scale, moved you away from a Hillary vote. (Latinas and black Americans of both sexes didn’t seem influenced by their sexism scores in casting their votes.) So even controlling for all other variables, the researchers found that a Republican man who is strongly sexist had only a 10 percent chance of voting for a woman.

The party rift over sexism is pronounced. A total of 21.5 percent of Democrats respondents were “sexist”; 53.3 percent of Republicans were. “The GOP became this anti-feminist party under Reagan to chase votes in the South,” says Maxwell, who is working on a book on the way race, gender, and religion worked together to form the Republicans’ Southern Strategy. While appealing to white male voters via race-baiting, the GOP also “decided to drop the Equal Rights Amendment from their platform. They cultivated this patriarchal culture, they demonized feminists. And now in 2016, these numbers are like—we don’t see partisan gaps like that on a lot of things.”

I confessed to Maxwell that these results have me depressed. “Modern Sexism is really about animosity and distrust toward successful women,” she said. “Because if you’re answering ‘yes’ to these statements, that you think they’re trying to get favors and they’re pretending about inequality … it’s distrust, it’s animosity, it’s resentment and frustration.” That’s why Donald Trump calls Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas”—it’s a way of signaling that if she’s a powerful woman, she must also be a pandering liar. Working women have gone from “incapable” to “sly and corrupt.” I’m not sure it’s an upgrade.