Updated: November 3, 2016 2:41 PM ET | Originally published: November 3, 2016 6:59 AM EDT

It looked like a smile, but Leslie McPherson was baring her teeth. She stayed silent as the four other women talked across the corner table at Panera Bread near Marietta, Ga., making excuses for Donald Trump. The sexual allegations against him, said one, were just a political ploy to distract from revelations about Hillary Clinton published by WikiLeaks. If someone followed me around with a tape recorder, who knows what you’d hear? said another. Why did his accusers wait so long to come forward? asked a third. He was such a big celebrity, how do we know they didn’t want it?

This, McPherson could not take. The smile dropped, the teeth parted. “There has to be a very clear distinction,” she said forcefully, her voice an octave lower than the others, “between somebody playing around with somebody that wants to, and something that is totally unwarranted.” Adultery is one thing; assault is another. The table went quiet for a second, the air prickled. And the women switched to a topic they all could agree on: Hillary Clinton, the baby killer.

McPherson wears a leather jacket and an air of practical skepticism. An antiabortion evangelical Christian who sits on the city council in Villa Rica, Ga., she has always voted Republican. Until now. “I cannot step over that line,” she said. “I am not that desperate.” She’ll be voting for a third-party candidate this year.

This hesitation could provide an ironic final twist to a campaign that has been fought largely outside the bounds of normal rhetorical restraint. The same Donald Trump who has encouraged violence at rallies, cast immigrants as “rapists” and mused, “I love war” has been forced in the final weeks to drop his longtime habit of crossing boundaries of sexual propriety, including his past boasts about grabbing women’s genitals and kissing them against their will. And yet for all the plot twists in this endless drama, all the explosive episodes regarding race, religion and ethnicity, Trump’s behavior toward women could decide it all. Election 2016 is, among other things, a national referendum on the treatment of women. And it’s Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, who has made it that way.

If the outcome is close–and the polls have been tightening–this election could come down to people like Leslie McPherson: people who opposed Clinton but couldn’t bring themselves to support Trump; people who insist on a very clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable, and don’t find an easy choice in either candidate.

These difficult choices recur in interviews around the country, in discussions among political kin, in debates with loved ones. It’s why one mother at a Georgia Walmart folds and unfolds a toddler’s pink dress as she nervously explains why she can’t join her husband in voting for Trump. It’s why two lunching co-workers in an Atlanta mall blurt in unison that they won’t cast their normal votes for the GOP “because he’s Donald Trump.”

That doesn’t mean they’re flocking to Clinton. Even before FBI Director James Comey announced vaguely that his agency was reviewing newly discovered emails on a computer linked to her aide Huma Abedin, Clinton was dragging as much political baggage as any candidate in memory. Her long list of enemies, her reflexive secrecy and the murky nature of the Clinton family business ventures all threatened at various points to derail her campaign in the final days. Then there is the national mood. Barack Obama has a 54% approval rating, yet the vast majority of voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and economic progress for most American workers remains stalled. And only once in the nearly 70 years since the end of World War II has a political party won three elections in a row.

Yet in the final weeks, Clinton kept her grip on a slim Electoral College advantage, and her low favorability ratings stayed higher than Trump’s. Clinton has always had a lead with female voters, but her opponent’s behavior has opened the biggest gender gap in more than half a century, with 60% of registered voters telling Pew in late October that Trump has little or no respect for the opposite sex.

It’s far more complicated than a battle between the sexes. Some women insist that Trump’s behavior is irrelevant, while plenty of men, like Arizona Senator John McCain, say the blustery billionaire has gone too far. The biggest decline in Trump support since September came among men, not women.

Both sides have dirty laundry to air. Three allegations of assault resurfaced from former President Bill Clinton’s past. Trump’s dismissive defense of “locker-room talk” inspired at least 12 women to accuse him of sexual misconduct. The revival of the email issue revolved around the perversions of Anthony Weiner, Abedin’s estranged husband, who was indirectly responsible for restarting the FBI investigation. And Trump kept the fires burning with his many gendered attacks on women, their looks, their sexual histories, even their alleged nastiness. In a race that could end with the first female President, the battlefield of 2016 has been fixed between the belt line and the gutter.

The challenge the country is facing is how much to value these issues in a referendum on our future. And in a time of historic upheaval, the decision will shape what women are allowed to achieve and what men are allowed to get away with in 21st century America.

Of course, the Trump argument is that the question itself is just a distraction. Ivanka Trump has defended her father as an “equal-opportunity offender.” He doesn’t pretend to “esteem” his opponents. He doesn’t “respectfully” disagree. He pays little lip service to the idea that “we’re all in this together.” Prisoners of war make poor heroes, the Pope is “disgraceful,” and the political press is “disgusting,” “dishonest” and “biased.” But even against this backdrop, women have always been Trump’s favorite targets.

During the first GOP primary debate, Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked him about his treatment of women, citing his use of insults like “pigs” and “slobs.” Afterward Trump retweeted supporters calling Kelly a “bimbo” and suggested she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” He dismissed business executive Carly Fiorina by saying, “Look at that face, would anyone vote for that?” He said Hillary Clinton “got schlonged” by Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, evoking Yiddish slang for the male sex organ.

His supporters have taken particular glee in these attacks. Buttons blazoned with phrases similar to Trump that Bitch and Hillary sucks, but not like Monica have been best sellers, according to Amy Spetner Doughty, a St. Louis nurse who sells similar political paraphernalia to make extra cash. University of Michigan researchers recently found that sexist beliefs were strongly correlated with Trump support. To his voters, each new attack seemed like a fresh breath in a world stifled by political correctness, and by the end of summer, that strongman swagger had earned Trump the favor of 70% of Republican men.

In the homestretch, however, the bluster turned on him. Trump interrupted Clinton and the moderator 55 times during their first debate, which ended with Clinton raising the story of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe whom Trump bullied for gaining weight. Trump hit back by tweeting to his millions of followers that they should check Machado’s nonexistent sex tape.

Then came the Access Hollywood tape, recorded in 2005, in which Trump was caught boasting that he could “do anything” to women, even “grab ’em by the pussy.” Moderator Anderson Cooper asked him about this at the second presidential debate, patiently explaining to Trump that such behavior is “sexual assault.” Trump insisted the comments were empty banter–“locker-room talk”–but as women came forward to accuse Trump of doing exactly what he had bragged about, many Republicans reached their breaking point. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan encouraged down-ballot candidates to cut loose from Trump if they needed to save their campaigns.

The tapes hurt. More than 60% of white female voters called the tape a “big deal” or a “deal breaker,” and nearly as many–53%–said they believed the women who accused Trump of sexual assault, according to a Quinnipiac poll taken in mid-October. In that same poll, 64% of white women said Trump had no sense of decency. Past exit polls have taught the GOP that it can win without much support from African Americans and can survive unpopularity among Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants or gays. But it can’t win in today’s America without strong support from white voters–and more than half of them are women. Mitt Romney won 56% of the white female vote in 2012, John McCain won 53% in 2008, and George W. Bush got 55% in his successful 2004 re-election bid. According to a Fox News poll from Oct. 26, Trump was winning only 47% of white women. As the polls tightened closer to Election Day, Clinton maintained a double-digit lead among white college-educated women and a significant lead among suburban women, both categories that Romney won in 2012.

Count Nancy French among those lost white women. French is a well-known voice of the Republican evangelical-Christian movement who has ghostwritten books for Sarah Palin and consulted on Romney’s 2012 campaign. She was never a Trump supporter, but French says the final weeks of the campaign have led her to the brink of crisis. Harassed by alt-right trolls online, she has stopped speaking to old friends and gotten into heated fights at church. In a fiery op-ed published in the Washington Post, French came out as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and broke with the Republican Party and the evangelical movement.

It’s unforgivable for “family values” Christian leaders to support Trump in light of the assault allegations, French argued. “Women are viewing this as a betrayal,” she says. “If you can endorse Donald Trump, it’s the albatross around your neck for the rest of your political life.”

Ruth Malhotra, a conservative Christian in Atlanta, shares some of those feelings. Trump has pushed her to a place she never thought she would go: outrage at the treatment of Hillary Clinton. “I think it’s disgraceful the way he’s talked to her and about her,” she says. Malhotra won’t go so far as to vote for the Democrat, although she’d rather wake up in Clinton’s America than Trump’s. She’s planning to vote for longshot independent Evan McMullin.

After the third and final debate, in which Trump muttered “Such a nasty woman” as Clinton was making a point, Amy Spetner Doughty noticed a shift in her inventory. She had stopped getting orders for Trump buttons, but she started moving a lot of Nasty Woman–themed T-shirts and other pro-Hillary gear. “You could feel how it changed,” Spetner Doughty says. “I’m such a small little piece of this, but you can feel the pulse of America.”

For other Republican women, that change sounds a lot like hypocrisy. Take Victoria Porter, for instance. Pausing one late-October afternoon after collecting diapers to donate to struggling moms at an Atlanta-area park, the Girl Scout troop leader and a mother of two said she is a survivor of sexual assault–and plans to vote for Trump.

Porter says she resents that Trump’s accusers “conveniently” waited until the last month of a presidential election to come forward with their accusations. More important, she can’t stand the way Clinton handled the sexual allegations against her husband when she was First Lady. “It’s not that Trump’s actions don’t bother me,” she says. “It’s that her actions bother me too. Being a woman, it’s almost like a higher accountability.”

Women are too large a population to boil down to a political bloc, and many resent any implication that their vote should be determined by their gender. Some women prioritize Supreme Court nominees. Some think Trump’s words are distorted–even concocted–by a biased news media. Some think Clinton’s email problems and the Clinton Foundation are more appalling than Trump’s incivility, and some vote on the single issue of abortion.

But over and over, in dozens of interviews over three days in the Atlanta suburbs, Republican women lambasted what they saw as a double standard in the reactions to Donald Trump compared with Bill Clinton. There was not the same feminist cacophony of outrage when Paula Jones accused Clinton of exposing himself, or when Kathleen Willey accused him of groping her, or when Juanita Broaddrick accused him of rape. The same female leaders who rallied around Anita Hill when she accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment fell largely silent when Bill Clinton was accused.

That’s the outrage Trump attempted to stoke when he brought Bill Clinton’s accusers to the second presidential debate. “Why are we attacking the Republican candidate for something that isn’t nearly as inflammatory as something that’s been done in the past?” said Toria Morgan, a Trump supporter in Marietta. “He’s not been proven to be guilty of anything.”

“We can look at him under a microscope and look at her under a telescope,” agrees Jan Horne. “That’s the only way they can compare them.”

To these voters, Hillary Clinton defended her husband and helped him escape consequences, then continued to elude justice by skating past her email scandal. Clinton’s critics feel that her handling of classified material–“extremely careless,” according to the FBI’s Comey–would be enough to get a non-Clinton fired or arrested.

But if Trump expected a pass because of Bill Clinton’s tawdry record, he may have misjudged the mood of America in 2016. Things have changed since the 1990s. Just ask Bill Cosby. Rape and sexual assault, once rarely discussed outside the context of violent attacks by strangers, have been front-page news for months.

Major institutions, from universities to sports leagues to media empires, have been forced to wrestle with their own histories of tolerating sexual mistreatment. The notion of affirmative consent–“yes means yes,” rather than “no means no”–has become the standard on many college campuses, and the rallying cry of a public education campaign led by Vice President Joe Biden. What was once tolerated in shadows is now regularly condemned in the public square.

For some voters, lewd language and sexual misconduct have nothing to do with their vote. Dorothy Baskin says she just doesn’t care about Trump’s “locker room” talk. “I talked to my husband, ‘Be honest with me, do men talk like this?’ He said, ‘Dorothy of course,'” she recalled. “That will not affect my kids or my grandkids, the economy, the military.”

But even the areas that seem to have nothing to do with sex have been affected by the gender revolution in 2016 America. Sexual assault in the military has come under greater scrutiny, combat roles were opened up to women last year, and General Lori Robinson recently became the first woman ever to lead a combatant command. And the jobs crisis has converged with the gender transformation. Many of the economic anxieties facing American families are the result of a shift from near total male dominance to increasing female equality. Trump’s base–white men without college degrees–find themselves on the bleeding edge of that change.

When Trump talks about jobs, he focuses on a very particular type of work: the less-skilled but well-paying union jobs that have been decimated by technology and globalization. These are the jobs that once allowed American men to support a middle-class family on a single income. Over the past 25 years, employment in manufacturing and utilities–two fields friendly to men without college degrees–declined by 30% and 25% respectively.

That economic shift has precipitated a masculinity crisis. “This is an election about the loss of the jobs that used to allow them to feel like successful men,” explains Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist and author of Labor’s Love Lost. Seismic change in the economy has “not only lowered their income, it’s lowered their sense of self. They can no longer be successful at doing what men were supposed to do.”

At the same time, much of the economic growth over the past 35 years has been in areas that require social skills over physical strength. The fastest-growing industries just happen to be dominated by women. Jobs in education have increased 105% while jobs in caring fields like nursing and social work have jumped by 99% since 1990. But “there’s a cultural resistance among men to taking jobs that they think are beneath the dignity of a manly man,” Cherlin says. “Men have to start taking jobs that they think of as women’s work.”

Women now make up the majority of college graduates and earn most of the nation’s graduate degrees, a change that some experts say may have led to the increased income polarization of the past three decades. With more women getting degrees, more college graduates marry other college graduates. On balance, these are higher earners; they pool their resources and pass them along to a smaller population of more privileged children. The result is a growing socioeconomic distance between families with two well-educated parents and families without a college graduate in the house.

This divide shows up vividly in the polls of Trump and Clinton voters, since wealthy and educated voters tend to side with Clinton. And the tide of change shows no signs of slowing: 23% of married mothers now outearn their husbands, a fivefold increase since 1960, and 40% of households with children rely on a woman as the sole or primary breadwinner. As of 2010, women received 57% of bachelor’s degrees and 63% of master’s degrees. Female participation in high school sports has increased nearly tenfold since the introduction of Title IX in the 1970s.

Young and educated men are fine with the changes, according to Jack Myers, author of The Future of Men: Masculinity in the Twenty-First Century. He reports that a third of men call themselves feminists (compared with 63% of young women in a Washington Post poll), while more than half of Gen Z kids grew up in a home where the principal breadwinner was a woman. College-educated men spend formative years on campuses preoccupied with promoting gender equality and preventing sexual assault.

This is the message that the Clinton campaign has used to win over the millennial voters who flocked to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. “Politics is capturing what’s happening in every other place in our society,” explains Myers. “This election is defined around the fundamental conflict not between men and women but between patriarchy and feminism.”

And the divide is great. None of the volunteers at the GOP headquarters in Cobb County, Georgia, identified herself as a feminist. “We want men to be men and women to be women,” said Bobbie Frantz, a Trump voter from Doraville. “We want to be strong women, but we don’t want to take over the role of the men.”

In the final days of this campaign, that divide has turned ugly. Ruth Malhotra, who works for a Christian nonprofit in Atlanta, always thought of her church congregation as family. But recently the friendly faces have turned hostile. As one of the only members who refuses to vote for Trump, Malhotra felt ostracized–screamed at during Bible school, interrogated by church ushers, harassed by fellow congregants on Facebook. People she considered friends or even spiritual mentors have said that they are ashamed of her, that she needs to get right with God, that criticizing Trump will help Hillary Clinton and Planned Parenthood. One woman said that by opposing Trump, Malhotra had sided with Satan.

The silver lining, she says, is the support she’s heard from acquaintances on the opposite side of the political spectrum. When her Facebook gets bombarded with hateful rhetoric, her more liberal friends back her up. “It’s made for strange bedfellows,” she reflects. “It’s made me more understanding of people who are not like me politically. And I’ve started to extend more grace to those views, because I wish the pro-Trump people would extend that grace to me.”

When she shared one of the more disturbing messages with a friend, she found herself quoting an unlikely source: First Lady Michelle Obama. “When they go low, we go high,” Malhotra told her friend.

Nancy French describes a similar experience in the wake of her abrupt departure from the Republican Party. “I would extend incredible benefit of the doubt to people in my tribe,” she recalled, “but I never really extended that to the left.” Yet when French published her essay about her sexual abuse and the decision to leave her party, a liberal acquaintance reached out to offer support. The two women had barely spoken since they met on a bike trip years ago, but they made plans to reconnect.

French says she’s looking forward to putting aside political differences. “I wouldn’t necessarily call her a baby killer,” she offers, “and she wouldn’t necessarily call me a homophobe.” Instead, they’ll be looking for a common ground all too lacking in Donald Trump’s America. “It’s a call for civility.”

The ballot box will decide if it has been heard.

This appears in the November 14, 2016 issue of TIME.

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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