The Trouble with White Women

Kyla SHC Oct 17 croppedToday’s guest blog post is written by Kyla Schuller, author of the new book The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century.

Broad swaths of the left and liberal-leaning U.S. public newly dedicated themselves to political activity in the wake of Trump’s ascension to the White House and the GOP’s control of the Senate and the House. Amidst the awakening of a liberal grassroots, a new enemy crystallized: the white woman voter. She emerged as the victim of a kind of false consciousness forged not in the factory, but in the college classroom and suburban mall. In dominant media narratives, her ubiquity came as a shock. The stats are repeated as incantation: 53% of white women voted for Trump a mere four weeks after video emerged of Trump bragging about sexual assault. 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore in December’s Alabama Senate special election, despite mounds of credible evidence of Moore’s molestation of young teen girls. Why, the narrative muses, would white women betray their own interests? And why are black women—98% of whom voted for Moore’s opponent Doug Jones—seemingly immune to electoral self-sabotage?

I wish to suggest a frame that has not emerged in the mountain of copy addressing the problem of white women. Feminists have generated many useful analyses – white women’s investment in patriarchy, the class structure, the racial status quo—underlining the material benefits conservative politics offer white women. There is a deeper, more structural reason why white women vote for misogynist, white supremacist candidates despite a century and a half of feminist organizing, however. Simply put: sex difference is itself a racial structure.

978-0-8223-6953-0Sexual difference, as a concept, emerged as a function of race. This is particularly salient in the nineteenth century, the era in which modern notions of race and sex difference solidified. My new book, The Biopolitics of Feeling, zeroes in on this generally overlooked phenomenon (outside of the history of evolutionary thought): that a wide variety of scientists, writers, and reformers articulated full sexual differentiation as the unique achievement of the civilized. The binary entities of man and woman were newly understood as thoroughly distinct in terms of mental, physiological, emotional, and psychological capacity. Sex difference was presented as the singular attainment of a teleological evolution moving toward ever greater specialization. The primitive races, by contrast, were cast as unsexed, as insufficiently evolved in both anatomy and character. The category of womanhood emerged in modern times as a unique quality of civilization. Its ramifications are still visible in electoral politics across the country.

The Biopolitics of Feeling uncovers the foundational role of sex difference to biopower. It unearths how sex difference functioned as a key technology of biopower’s racializing structures, which operate to choose some members of the population for life and cast others into disposability and death. Sex difference helped qualify individuals for life. I reveal how the position of the feminine was carved out not only to exemplify social evolutionary achievement, but also to protect it. Scientists identified the key quality of the civilized body to be its impressibility, or the capacity to be affected over time. Receptivity to sensory impressions determined a body’s capacity for growth, mental development, and even, in this Lamarckian and pre-genetic era, the transmission of acquired characteristics to descendants. Impressibility thus served as the ontological basis of progress. Impressibility also, however, entailed a frightening vulnerability to influence and environment, rendering the civilized body in need of careful protection.

I argue that two central technologies were developed in the nineteenth century to manage the constitutional vulnerability of civilization: sex difference and sentimentalism. The civilized body was cleaved in two, and the female half were assigned the liabilities of heightened impressibility as well as increased emotional faculty to mediate temptation to impulsive response to impressions. The male half were thus stabilized as masters of reason and moderate feeling. Sentimentalism, in turn, was a vast technology particularly, but far from exclusively, assigned to women to regulate the growth of the individual and the evolution of the population through managing the flow of impressions throughout a milieu. Both sex and sentiment were deployed as stabilizing forces regulating responses to sensory stimulations and thus their effect on the individual and racial body.

The legacy of womanhood as itself a stabilizing structure of whiteness reverberates loudly today and is particularly resonant in the trope of the white woman voter. The conservative ideology in which women’s role is to protect the private sphere is an element of the biopolitical logic that women’s role is to secure the stability of the civilized races. White Republican women who vote for sexual assaulters are not identifying with their whiteness over their gender, as has often been claimed. Rather, they are enacting their womanhood itself: both absorbing and smoothing over the flow of sensation and feeling that makes up the public sphere, ensuring that white men remain relatively free from the encumbrances of embodiment and are susceptible only to further progress. Our anger at white women conveniently spares the white male voter, who supported Trump and Moore in even larger numbers. The problem with white Republican women is the problem with woman as a category in the first place.

Feminism, too, is revealed in The Biopolitics of Feeling to function as an apparatus of biopower that translates allegedly inherent natural categories into political identities and platforms. But it doesn’t have to be so. Twentieth-and twenty-first century women of color feminists have been strikingly clear that the position of woman has largely been denied to non-white groups, and they have refashioned the meanings of the term woman in the process. Women, as a political group, need no longer be tied to biological discourses of race or anatomy, but this requires explicit excavation and refusal of the term’s lingering past.

Multiethnic feminisms lead the way to disentangling feminism from biopower, and woman as an entity from naturalizing logics. Intersectional and assemblage feminisms and multiethnic #MeToo campaigns are pointing to a new politics in which women no longer serve as civilization’s remainder, the sponge to absorb the impressions and stimulations of which power is itself constituted. Feminism may be born of the biopolitical logic of sex, but it thus also contains the seeds of biopower’s demise.

Pick up Kyla Schuller’s new book The Biopolitics of Feeling for 30% off by using coupon code E17SCHUL at


  1. The ugly sexual and racial essentialization in the title is not unreflective of the content. As in many of these screeds, “whiteness” is a racially-bigoted synonym for wrongness, to paraphrase Thomas Chatterton Williams, who recently warned against this growing, illiberal trend in the New York Times.

    The shameless promotion of the Democratic Party shows how many acdemics are glorified opinion journalists and political operatives these days. The fixation on power dynamics speaks to the authoritarian (Marxist) roots of this analysis.

    The notion that “sex difference is itself a racial structure” reads like a parody of Critical Gender Theory. Before even engaing the scientific evidence that refutes such a wildly tendentious claim, the privileging of race in expression of sex differences is so myopic in terms of human history that it serves as a warning of how contemporary political agendas corrupt basic intellectualism.


  2. If Kyla’s goals include anyone/anything beyond the realm of her closest companions and most deeply academic bio politicians, she has placed herself in an impossible position. Despite having a Ph.D. from one of the world’s top universities, I find Kyla’s writing to be overly academic and wrought with language currently available only to those with whom she already shares her mind set. Frankly, I find wading through her writing so onerous as to make the content of her thought secondary. That’s unfortunate I suspect, because she seems to have some thoughts worth a ponder or perhaps even a discussion. This reads like a dissertation book conversion run amok. Dear Duke Press, I won’t be purchasing this book. Please, honor your authors with better editors; if you find their thinking interesting enough to honor them with your imprimatur, honor them with your efforts. Dear Kyla, learn to be your own best editor – assuming that your cause is something beyond getting tenure.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If I were the editor supreme, I would toss “honor them with your imprimatur” in the same dumpster as “I wish to suggest a frame.” Reading ‘onerous’ was also onerous.


    2. I haven’t read the book – in fact I just found out that it existed – so pardon my ignorance. But I am intrigued. I’m no academic, but I did take a history class recently, Revolutionary America, and it opened up a lot of new questions for me.
      My comment – I wonder if Kyla’s target audience is those very academic people who might need to hear her research in their own language.


  3. To feminists, everything that’s not feminism is patriarchy… and thus, women voting for non-approved candidate means it has to be deeply analyzed as to why it happened, and men, well, men are part of patriarchy so it’s kinda expected, although still clearly problematic.

    I couldn’t imagine a worse way to analyze the world, gender, or race, than through feminist theory, critical race theory, etc. When your conclusion is predetermined, it will always fail.


  4. This essay seems to be trying to claim what has already been demonstrated fairly clearly: the relationship between gender attribution and race (and class). What is exceptionally problematic here is a seeming unwillingness to define terms: “biopower” sounds pretty impressive, until you actually try to figure out what the author means by it. And, in light of all the work in gender studies, it would be particularly helpful to understand what is meant by the term “sex.” Does the author mean “biological sex,” “assigned sex,” the “sexual act,” or…? It’s far too contested a word simply to throw about without definition. This lack of definition of terms (and apparently deliberate use of obfuscating terms) appears to be an attempt to say things without really saying anything meaningful.

    Also, please. The headline is mere clickbait, more worthy of the National Enquirer than of Duke University Press.


  5. I can understand the idea that a conservative woman’s vote for Trump would be upholding a racial hierarchy that privileges white femininity. The connection to sentimentalism, and impressibility as a kind of feminine sand dune to protect the inland of masculine reason from being flooded by feeling, though, doesn’t work. For one thing, Trump is exceptionally reactive, emotional, pouty, volatile. For another, conservative femininity can tend towards a certain “masculinism”, an impatience with weakness and indulgence, a willingness to compete with men on male terms – so Trump cried about his mistreatment by Megyn Kelly in the GOP primary debate, but Kelly never cried about being unfairly singled out by Trump as a rhetorical scapegoat. The temperament I see in conservative women in the twenty-first century seems to be more Barbara Bush than John Boehner. And one popular image of the liberal woman in the last election cycle has been a conflicted mixture of “Time’s Up” resistance with a kind of heightened sentimentalism – the mood conservative commentators have decried as “pearl-clutching” and “neo-Victorian”, the emphasis on being “triggered”, wounded, victimized, paralyzed, frightened, overwhelmed. So in one application of the terms of your history, it could actually be liberal white women who, despite voting against Trump, do their own work to preserve racial hierarchy by performing their delicacy, their sensitivity, their need for protection. Everyone rally around Rose McGowan – she has such soft pale skin! Which is just to say that the combinations of gender and race and social jostling are even more complex and difficult to track than the account here, which takes liberal feminist looking outward as the correct and valid standpoint for assessing American politics. The white conservative women who supported Trump, for example, in spite of his bragging about “sexual assault” (a gross attacking wet kiss, a violent rape, it’s all the same incursion on the dignity of woman), or who voted for Roy Moore, likely have internally consistent rationales for doing so which make them believe themselves to be voting in their own interests – different attitudes about sexual boundaries, consent, and the relevance of private or social to professional conduct, or, in supporting Moore, about the relevance of decades-past creepiness perpetrated in a different cultural moment, or the credibility or reliability of the accusations against him. In our anxiety not to “other” the other, and to protect the traditional other against othering, we sure seem to invent new categories of people to other awfully eagerly, and to be sure we know their interests better than they do.


  6. To me it would seem that this is a case of an academic argument being applied too rigidly to the real world.

    One thing is that most white women outside The South did go mostly for Hilary Clinton, and by running the statistics without Dixie the white male vote becomes more divided than pro-Trump.

    Personally, I don’t see how you can base a political decision solely one gender and/or race. Wouldn’t you want to know something about the policies being proposed?!?!? As for the behavior of Kavanaugh supporters, partisanship would seem like hte Occam’s razor answer.


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