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

  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.


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