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I think, at least once a day, about the 2016 election. It’s not something I want to do; I wish I could stop. But it’s a near-impossible topic to avoid. It’s there when I scroll through Facebook, in a comment left on a post by someone I’d long since cut ties with. It’s there when I’m at the gym, staring as I jog on the treadmill at a wall-mounted TV blaring 24-hour analysis of Donald Trump’s every action. It’s there whenever I walk past my neighbor’s pickup truck, which still proudly sports several “Hillary for Prison” bumper stickers.

Whenever it happens, I relive the worst moments, both personal and observational, from that election cycle. Screaming fights, “lock her up” chants, Twitter mobs, pussy-grabbing confessions, riots at caucuses, death threats to female reporters, the time Trump physically menaced Clinton onstage to a point that Clinton later said made her “skin crawl.” All of those moments are still locked within me, ready to erupt and overwhelm me if I make one wrong move. It’s not memory. It’s trauma.

“I’m terrified because I feel like it is all about to start over again.”

I am not uniquely fragile. One 2017 study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that following the 2016 election, 25% of students developed PTSD-like symptoms and suffered “clinically significant” levels of stress comparable to people who had witnessed a mass shooting. Female students in particular were 45% more likely to report trauma symptoms — a risk that was heightened for black and Latina women. Women processed the misogyny of the 2016 election as if it were aimed at us, because, well, it was. But to truly understand women’s anxiety, we need more than data and research. We need to hear from them directly.

“I can very precisely trace a shift in myself to the spring of 2016,” says Sarah Wingo, 34. “For the last three years I have experienced levels of anxiety in ways I never have before. Right now I’m terrified because I feel like it is all about to start over again, and I am only just now starting to feel like myself.”

The 2016 election slashed through her support network, creating rifts among family and friends. “One of the things that really broke me in 2016 was the absolutely heinous things my mother started saying about Clinton,” Wingo says. “My dad has always been a lost cause when it comes to conservative bigotry, but my mom was the reasonable one. Suddenly not only could I not talk to her about politics, but there are normal topics I can’t even talk to her about anymore without getting a very Fox News response.”

It wasn’t just conservative friends and relatives that women had to contend with. Aisha, 32 (who asked that her last name be withheld), was a far-left organizer in New York for years before the 2016 election. She says that when she declared her support for Hillary Clinton, her career and social life fell apart.

“My ‘comrades’ were incredibly angry at me,” she says. “All of a sudden, none of the work I had done personally or by their sides mattered. I was a shill, a sellout, a neoliberal. Even a person I had personally mentored in political organizing sent me messages asking how I could possibly justify my support for her, but didn’t care to hear my reasoning. I lost a number of friends; while some people have reached out since, most have not.”

“I don’t think I’ll see a female president in the U.S. in my lifetime.”

Following the election, Aisha took a corporate job and disengaged from her political life. Her political engagement now is a shell of what it was: “I’m going to help put on some volunteer parties for Warren and do what I can,” she says, “but honestly, I don’t think I’ll see a female president in the U.S. in my lifetime.” These feelings of isolation should come as no shock. In the wake of Trump’s victory, many women poured their pain into constructive activism, like the Women’s March.

But others have responded in ways that are equally characteristic of trauma: by withdrawing, silencing themselves, and trying to avoid anything that brings back painful memories. We’ve never fully processed the psychological toll of 2016, but it’s shaping our current political reality, as women who were formerly passionate about politics are now feeling too burned to fully engage. Many women — including the same boomer women who were Hillary Clinton’s most passionate supporters — now believe it is irresponsible to support female candidates for president. We have more female candidates than ever before, but we also have fewer women willing to support them.

Support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden is fueled, according to Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, by “middle-aged women [who believe] 2016 showed that voters won’t elect a female president.” NBC News’s Lauren Egan recently spoke with some of these women, who confessed to speculating whether it was worth “putting their hope of electing the first woman president on hold” in order to throw their support behind a candidate they believe has the best chance of beating Trump in 2020.

For those who feel otherwise — that the 2020 election shouldn’t mean having to choose between male candidates — engaging with political life feels riskier than ever. Though Wingo likes both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, she fears voicing her support. “I’m constantly dodging political conversations, even with people I generally tend to agree with,” she says. “The closer we get to the primary, the more supporting a female candidate is going to make me want to hide under a rock.”


The idea that women are “unelectable” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When candidates are viewed as lost causes, they don’t get the same funds, media coverage, or popular support as front-runners, and they end up losing. It’s not that candidates can’t escape the “unelectable” label: “Many experts, pundits, and voters argued that Barack Obama and Donald Trump were unelectable up until, well, they got elected,” says Christina Reynolds, VP of communications for EMILY’S List, a political action committee that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. But it nevertheless chills support. It’s depressing to see women doing it to our own.

Yet these women’s fears aren’t sexist; they are a reflex to fears of sexism, a reflection of the belief that our culture’s overwhelming misogyny can’t be successfully challenged.

The idea that electoral sexism silences women is not new. Hillary Clinton’s supporters famously experienced so much harassment that they withdrew into private Facebook groups — which had the unintended effect of allowing her opponents to dominate public conversation. Female silence only amplifies the message that women are “weak” candidates or that there’s a “lack of enthusiasm” around them, and is, in fact, a sign that the misogyny of 2016 is working exactly as intended.

Philosopher Kate Manne calls misogyny the “shock collar” of patriarchy — a form of discipline that kicks in when women challenge their preassigned role as “human givers.” In a conversation with Manne, I suggested that the public misogyny unleashed during the 2016 election was intended to scare women away from ever supporting a female presidential candidate again — and that our current fears about women’s “electability” might mean we had been shocked back into place.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Manne said, pointing out that the “electability” chatter made women’s support for a female candidate look foolish, selfish, or even immoral. “[It’s] a great way of guilting the people most likely to internalize a pragmatic, ‘helper’ mindset, and most prone to feel guilty for supporting a candidate on principle, i.e., women.”


The flood of responses I received when I asked women to recount their 2016 trauma was unprecedented in my experience — and hardly confined to the “middle-aged women” Weigel, the Washington Post reporter, encountered. But for older women, the sense of loss is amplified by that fear of selfishness, and the fact that they have spent their lives fighting and losing the same battles.

“I was in my 20s and RIVETED to the Anita Hill hearings. I was in my 50s and RIVETED to the Kavanaugh/Ford testimony,” one woman responded on Twitter. “I feel despair. I’m 61, I’ve been a feminist all my life, and I always believed that when push came to shove, men would find it in themselves to do the right thing, and rally around the clearly-qualified woman, over the clearly-unqualified man,” another said.

“Women have turned their pain into something much greater.”

“My biggest fear is that no matter who it is, it’ll follow the same arc,” another woman, Liz Dunn Carroll, 51, writes in an email. “She’ll have unwinnable and contradicting expectations and no matter how perfectly she performs, she’ll lose in the end, and it will prove to all women AGAIN that we cannot win, we are locked in this male world where we are always, always going to come in second, for everything.”

In the face of so much loss, self-doubt is amplified by fear of hurting future generations: “I hate that I have doubts but I do,” one woman tweeted. “Staring down middle age after a lifetime of smacking into sexism, rapists and harassers rewarded with high office, and the real fear that it’s only going to be worse for my daughter if we fail again.”

The thing is: Women don’t always fail. Our current talk of “unelectability” comes directly after the triumph of the 2018 midterms, in which women’s activism sent an unprecedented number of women into Congress. Yes, a midterm election is different — women elected female senators, representatives, governors, but not the first female senator, representative, or governor — but the widespread hunger for female leadership is still a good sign.

“Women won in red districts, in rural districts, in urban districts, and more, including two women of color who won in overwhelmingly white, traditionally Republican districts,” says EMILY’S List’s Reynolds. “The country proved itself ready to vote for women, once they got to know them.” This is how those “unelectable” candidates win, she tells me: Media coverage and personal charisma kicks in, and supporters “decide their feelings trump whatever fears they have.” History is in this way actually a positive indicator: “It happened with Obama and Trump in their first presidential primaries — and if we can get over a lack of coverage, I think these women can do it as well.”

All this talk of trauma may seem strange in a discussion of politics. But voting comes down to emotion. Feeling and fear, doubt and hope, are the variables in every election. Advocates for female representation are placing their bets on the idea that, no matter how overpowering women’s anxiety or disillusionment may be in the present, their strength is just under the surface; that, if given enough support, women will stop worrying about which candidates look “electable” and work on electing a candidate they believe in.

“To me, the protest and candidates and energy we’ve seen since 2016 is 100% women expressing their rage, but also (and most importantly!) their hope for next time,” says Jess Morales Rocketto, a former Hillary Clinton campaign worker and founder of Supermajority, a political advocacy organization. “We haven’t turned away or said ‘burn it all down.’ Women have rolled up their sleeves to change the system. Women have turned their pain into something much greater.”