If there is one takeaway from observing the destruction of Hillary Clinton over the course of last year, culminating in her electoral defeat to one of the most grotesque demagogues of the modern era, it is that misogyny is a tremendous force in American politics. Large segments of the American electorate preferred an incompetent and serially bankrupt liar, who boasted of of sexually assaulting women, instead of one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the White House. “Trump that bitch” was the de facto slogan of the winning campaign, and the majority of white voters across nearly every demographic group were happy to oblige – including, shockingly, 53 percent of white women voters. That millions of women supported such a candidate, not grudgingly but enthusiastically, is a cruel twist in this disaster.
Of the many women who helped put Trump in the White House, one stands out for her pivotal role: Kellyanne Conway, the first woman in history to run a successful U.S. presidential campaign. Like Phyllis Schlafly, who used her considerable skills and intellect to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment a generation ago, Conway is merely the latest reminder that women often play an indispensable part in upholding the patriarchy, not only as foot soldiers but even as generals, strategists and propagandists. She is not the first, and will certainly not be the last, woman in a position of political influence who will stir controversy among feminists about how to handle her ascension. Does her success, like that of peers such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, who also use their influence to oppose women’s equality politically and socially, represent an emerging crisis in feminism? What are we to make of a powerful woman such as Kellyanne Conway, who denounces feminism and libels it as a movement that is “anti-male” and “pro-abortion”?
There are some who suggest that despite her ideological opposition to feminism, Conway’s success should nevertheless be considered a victory for the feminist movement and thus celebrated. This seems to me a deeply misguided idea, because the subordination of women is the central precept, if not the only precept, of the political movement she is spearheading. Misogyny is not an unfortunate side effect or byproduct of the Trump worldview, but rather its organizing principle, while everything else appears to be negotiable. On virtually any other issue, Conway’s con-artist-in-chief has proven himself pliable to take one side or the other, or both, as opportunity dictates and the credulousness of his supporters allows. The issue on which Trump has left no room for doubt is his overarching belief that women exist to serve and please men. Consequently, women in the public sphere opposed to him are Trump’s choice targets for vitriolic abuse and ad hominem attacks, and his supporters have contributed to an online culture of misogynistic threats and expressive violence that has made it increasingly dangerous for the women who defy his authoritarianism.
Conway dealt a symbolic blow to feminism in engineering Trump’s electoral defeat of Clinton, but the eviscerating wounds his administration inflicts on gender equality will be far more devastating and long lasting. The administration has begun the process of dismantling the civil rights apparatus that has taken decades to construct, and women will be key victims of these actions. Reproductive rights are in grave danger, particularly for lower income women and women of color. State legislatures have been emboldened to restrict abortion services to the point of rendering them inaccessible to women in certain parts of the country. The Department of Education, under the direction of Betsy Devos, is hastily repealing protections for transgender individuals and victims of sexual assault. Crucial progress that was beginning to crystallize on the gender pay gap, parental leave, and sexual harassment in the workplace has come to a grinding halt with alarming signs that we will soon start moving backwards. It has become far more difficult to have faith in even a halting march towards gender equality in the US, as the battle lines are redrawn to mitigate retrogressive policies.
As much as Conway and her ilk disavow the feminist movement, the fact is that without the first and second wave feminists of the preceding decades, she would not be in the position of power she occupies. The irony deepens when we reflect on Conway’s predecessors, the anti-feminist women who condemned the suffragette movement and mocked the women pushing for financial and labor autonomy in the post-war era, to realize that she is their modern day incarnation. Had her antecedents prevailed then, she would undoubtedly be spending most of her time in a kitchen somewhere rather than on national television. The benefits that she reaps due to previous struggles have normalized what was once unthinkable for a woman to such an extent that even the most misogynistic of political campaigns endorses them. Republican women in power who preach misogyny and embrace the patriarchy are a living testament to the success of feminism, in that they are able to occupy positions of influence. However, they certainly do not in any way advance the cause of feminism. Such thinking would be the equivalent of declaring the election of Donald Trump a victory for science if we discovered that he is alive today due to advances in modern medicine.
Though counterintuitive, it is a well-researched fact that marginalized groups are not immune to absorbing and displaying the social biases that are prevalent in society. Implicit bias research has reinforced this understanding, and while women may be more aware of the misogyny they face, they still may both consciously and subconsciously possess misogynistic attitudes and exhibit sexist behavior. This is also likely exacerbated by tendencies among oppressed groups desiring to ingratiate themselves to the oppressing class, since they feel that might spare them or accord them individual privileges within the existing hierarchy. Unfortunately, women are often complicit in the policing and shaming of other women, whether it is taking part in ‘slut-shaming’ or refusing to expand the umbrella to broader groups of women. In evaluating the gender values of women in positions of influence one should take the same precautions as when evaluating men. Though there is strong benefit to feminism of having female leaders as role models, there is little evidence to show that women in power necessarily help other women. Furthermore, the temptation to hold women in positions of influence to a higher standard than men when it comes to gender equality should also be resisted because it is a deeply un-feminist mode of thinking. A woman’s right to equal access to all positions spanning the ideological spectrum should not be conditional or contingent on serving feminism. Conversely, a woman such as Kellyanne Conway should not be underestimated as a threat to women’s rights simply because she happens to be a woman. In fact, we must expose any attempts by Conway to exploit the fact that she is female in her efforts to dismiss and whitewash concerns about the misogyny and anti-women agenda of the Trump administration.
How do those committed to advancing women’s equality contend with the fruits of their arduous labor yielding powerful antagonists such as Kellyanne Conway? First and foremost, we should take some bitter comfort in recognizing that once women count among our opponents in political battles, we are witnessing our success even in our struggles. Interwoven in that is a lesson for us as feminists that we should never become complacent in the face of female leaders and power players, whether they may be on the left or right and whether they may be allies or adversaries. However, progressives and feminists must also be cautious in our disagreements with female adversaries not to fall into the all too common trap of misogyny. The misogynistic ridicule targeting the signs of age on Ms. Conway’s face do not defeat her agenda, they denigrate her womanhood and that of every woman bearing the weight of time on her body. Purveying sexually charged memes of images where Ms. Conway is kneeling does little to refute her dangerous lies, but instead debases every woman who positions herself to obtain and provide pleasure through oral sex. Feminists must insist and demand a zero-tolerance for misogyny directed at our female opponents both within our own ranks and in the larger progressive movement because if we fail to do so, then we are neither feminists nor progressives.
As a mother, I often reflect on the wise words of Kahlil Gibran in his masterful poem “On Children” and as feminists, we should take heed that our fellow women for whom we fight may find liberation through our toils, but they do not belong to us.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”
Mischa Haider is a transgender activist and mother. She is an applied physicist at Harvard University who studies applications of mathematical and physical models to social networks. Prior to her work in social networks, she did research on femtosecond lasers and NMR studies of protein structure. Before coming to Harvard, she was involved in research on high temperature superconductivity at Imperial College. She has written for the Advocate and Tikkun, and her research has been published in Applied Physics Letters. She also is a member of the Board of Trustees at Lambda Literary.