These are highly polarized times, but there are still some things that cut across party lines. Like sexism.
We’re seeing evidence of this now, for the millionth time, courtesy of Chelsea Clinton and Kellyanne Conway. The former first daughter took to Twitter last week after Conway, an adviser to President Donald Trump, was subject to a disgusting joke from Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) about a photo of Conway sitting on a couch in the Oval Office with her legs curled under her.
The whole incident has been portrayed as a “man bites dog” kind of moment on the left ― OMG, progressives can be sexist, too!
The right, meanwhile, has held it up as evidence that leftists are hypocrites, willing to be sexist when it suits their political agenda.
Sadly, there’s some truth to that. While many progressives are genuinely committed to the causes of feminism and women’s equality, some are perfectly happy to take a page from the misogynist playbook in the name of politics.
Remember the Bernie Bros? During the presidential primary season, some of the most ardent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pounded former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with a gendered hammer. They criticized women for supporting Clinton because of her gender ― as though it was somehow invalid to want to see a Democratic woman land the Oval Office and end centuries of male domination. There were critiques to be made of Clinton as a candidate, but it’s clear that some “Bernie or bust” types were openly animated by misogyny. Like the guy who registered a Bern the Witch campaign event in New Jersey.
Liberal sexism predates the 2016 presidential campaign, of course. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd famously won a Pulitzer for work that slut-shamed Monica Lewinsky as a crazy bimbo and a “ditsy, predatory White House intern.” And in the early ‘90s, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and his male colleagues did little to help Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment get a full hearing during the Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas.
Fast-forward to the aughts and you can’t help seeing the sexism underneath criticisms of Sarah Palin, in so many ways the female precursor to Trump, as “ditzy.” No one calls Trump a ditsy bimbo ― though he’s on his third wife, has had a well-publicized string of affairs and demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of a good deal of policy.
More recently, we shouldn’t have been surprised that the one Trump Cabinet nominee to face serious pushback from Democrats was Betsy DeVos, one of only three women nominated to Trump’s Cabinet. The education secretary is just as radical, dangerous and unqualified as Scott Pruitt, who now heads the Environmental Protection Administration. But only she was derided as a dimwit.
“Betsy DeVos Is a Stupid, Stupid Person,” reads a headline on The Root, a progressive website. The URL for that story is less subtle: “betsy-devos-is-a-stupid-bitch.”
Critics on the left ― men and women ― have been going after Conway for months. Deservedly so: She’s lied on behalf of the Trump administration, wholesale making up a terrorist attack that never happened. Speaking more broadly, she’s distanced herself from the idea of feminism and her job involves defending a man who’s been repeatedly accused of sexual assault, who’s signed executive orders hostile to women and who’s put together an overwhelmingly male administration.
But not all criticism is created equal. And some progressives have shown no qualms about using sexism to go after Conway. Until Richmond crossed a line with his crude remark, though, no one seemed to care.
Richmond unleashed a wave of Conway defenders ― women stepping up to explain that while they may disagree with her tactics and her politics, the 50-year-old political strategist doesn’t deserve to be run through the misogynist mill that processes so many powerful women. In fact, no one does. (Richmond apologized on Sunday.)
Like Clinton and Palin and countless other women in politics, Conway’s been criticized for her looks, had her tactics dismissed as “crazy” and had her “lust for power” parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
And that’s the core issue, of course. Women who want power aren’t normal. They’re crazy.
Men who want power? Well, they’re just boys being boys.
Women who aspire to office are seen as overstepping the bounds of what girls are expected to do. And for that, they’ll almost always face sexist pushback ― from all corners.
There are ways to change that, of course. You could sit back and wait for a massive cultural shift in the expectations and assumptions that start as soon as a little girl gets her first Barbie doll. Or, more women could run for office and win ― until their sheer numbers make sexist critiques harder to level.