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.
Sexual 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 dukeupress.edu.