The presidency of Donald Trump will be remembered for many things; his two impeachments, his saber-rattling against other nations, his consistent racism, and, of course, the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC. That last act in particular will long linger in our memories and was a fitting reminder of just how extreme Donald Trump and his ardent loyalists are. Much of the discourse surrounding Trump’s departure from office has rightfully focused on that monumental event, drawing from it conclusions about the far-right nature of the Trump administration and the threat he undoubtedly posed to minority communities and to democracy in general.
What has drawn less focus in recent weeks, however, is the threat that Trump posed to women. His presidency represented a thinly veiled, four-year long assault upon feminist values and upon women in general. Trump now leaves behind him a political and judicial situation that is undoubtedly more conducive to the withdrawal of women’s rights than that which he inherited.
This should not surprise us as Donald Trump was a deeply misogynistic president, perhaps the most misogynistic in the nation’s history. As far back as 1992, Trump was vocal about his hatred of women, famously telling the New York Magazine that “you have to treat them like shit”. More recently, he has cemented his reputation as a misogynist with an array of offensive comments about female political opponents and celebrities. For example, of a rival for the Republican Party presidential nomination, Carly Fiorina, he noted “look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”. And who could forget the infamous leaked recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women? Even his own daughter is not immune to being objectified by him, with Trump sickeningly referring to her “very nice figure” and noting that “if Ivanka weren’t my daughter perhaps I’d be dating her.”
Donald Trump’s misogynism was not an electoral liability. On the contrary, it proved to be a strength. It held particular appeal for a crucial constituency of the electorate, the Christian right. On the surface, we might expect devout Christians to be discouraged from voting for Trump due to his sexualised way of speaking about women and his history of philandering, as well as the numerous allegations of rape made against him. Instead, his share of the Christian evangelical vote surpassed that of Bush Jr. in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. The reasons for this are likely diverse but one could argue that the preservation of patriarchal values was prominent amongst them. Essentially, hardcore Christians could ignore Trump’s immorality and his obvious ignorance of religious matters because he was the candidate who best represented a return to patriarchy, that is, a restoration of a time where women knew their place, which was to have their bodies and lives controlled by men.
While the evangelical vote was a crucial component of the coalition that delivered Donald Trump to power, it was by no means the most important one. Trump’s misogyny held a much wider appeal with misogynistic values now recognized as being a kind of “gateway drug” that is used to lure insecure men into support for the far-right.
Research backs up the proposition that this is what may have occurred during the 2016 presidential election. In 2018, The Washington Post investigated whether men who were insecure about their own masculinity were more inclined to vote for Trump. Such men were characterized as feeling intense pressure to act in stereotypically masculine ways and feared losing their status as “real men”. The hypothesis of the study held that men suffering from what academics call “fragile masculinity” seek to reaffirm their masculinity by supporting tough, macho-type politicians, of which Donald Trump’s sexism was indicative. The study found that support for Trump in geographical areas characterized by high levels of such insecurities was much higher than in areas where such feelings were less prevalent. Interestingly, the study also found that “fragile masculinity was not associated with support for Mitt Romney in 2012 or support for John McCain in 2008 — suggesting that the correlation of fragile masculinity and voting in presidential elections was distinctively stronger in 2016”. It is likely then that Trump’s misogynistic boasts about his sexual conquests and his general way of discussing women may have been a crucial vote-getter among insecure men seeking to reaffirm their masculinity.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s blatant sexism was more than just an electoral strategy; it very much informed how he governed. Once in office, he followed policies that appeased the Christian right and further revealed his own attitudes regarding women. In the words of the human rights advocacy group Global Justice Center: “The Trump administration has engaged in a broad, systematic effort to undermine reproductive choice and bodily autonomy.” His healthcare reform agenda included several measures that made it more difficult for women to procure abortions and to gain access to reproductive services.
Furthermore, Trump used his power of judicial appointments to pack federal courts with anti-choice judges, with much controversy surrounding the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, a man who faced credible accusations of sexual assault. Trump also made the disgraceful decision to change the definition of domestic violence under federal law, a move that meant that the Justice Department would no longer consider non-physical forms of abuse, such as coercive control and psychological abuse, as being domestic violence. Campaigners say this move by the Trump administration “rolled back women’s rights by half a century”.
Arguably his most damaging act was the rushed appointment to the Supreme Court of Amy Coney Barrett as a replacement for the feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Barrett has a long record of voting conservatively when it comes to abortion rights and her appointment undoubtedly threatens the legal right to an abortion. In her academic and judicial writings, she has continuously expressed skepticism of broad interpretations of abortion rights. With Barrett replacing Ginsberg, the balance in the court has decisively tilted to the right and it is likely in the future to pass rulings that are detrimental to women’s rights on a range of issues including abortion and health care.
Barrett’s background means that she should be considered as much more than a mere conservative. Her family has close ties to a Christian group that believes men are divinely ordained as the head of the family. The group, known as People of Praise, has been portrayed by its critics as “hierarchical, authoritarian and controlling, where men dominate their wives, leaders dictate members’ life choices and those who leave are shunned”. The group is eerily reminiscent of the patriarchal, religious society portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which tells the story of Gilead, a fictional theocratic state which has replaced a recently dismantled USA in the wake of a collapse brought on by a disruptive milieu of political instability, declining fertility and environmental catastrophe. In Gilead, the state forces fertile women to become child-bearing slaves (Handmaids) to a Christian Fundamentalist elite. Inevitably, some have drawn comparisons with People of Praise, with the women in this group expected to live in total submission to the men in their community, just as they are in The Handmaid’s Tale. People of Praise even utilized the word “handmaid” as a female leader assigned to help guide other women in their daily lives, with Barrett herself serving in such a role at one point.
The onset of a Gilead-style theocratic state is obviously not on the cards. Nonetheless, the fact that one of the most senior judicial positions in the country is occupied by a person with strong links to such a disturbing group highlights the ongoing danger of a significant rollback of women’s rights. But the threat to women does not just emanate from the Supreme Court. Women face dangers from a variety of directions, including the growing online movements that seek to denigrate and subjugate them. These movements have on occasion inspired violence, including massacres. Once such group of men, known as incels, short for “involuntarily celibate”, channel their sexual frustrations and their sense of sexual entitlement into an ideology that sees the world as fundamentally unjust toward men who are not conventionally attractive. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable crossover between the incel community and those who support the far-right politics that Donald Trump represents.
Of course, violence against women is not usually the result of weird men online advocating it. Rather, it is an almost normal experience for women across the globe, of whom one in three will face sexual or physical violence in their lives, most likely from somebody they know, and very likely with no repercussions for the perpetrator. Reportedly, less than 1% of rapes and attempted rates result in a felony conviction, meaning that sexual violence is, in effect, decriminalized. When we add to this the ongoing attempts to curtail the rights of women, economic policies that often disproportionately harm women, as well as online movements of misogynists that encourage violence toward women, we can see the potential emergence of a long-term roll back of the gender equality agenda.
How do we account for these trends? An argument can be made that they might result from collective nostalgia amongst some men. Decades ago, there appeared to be a slow but inexorable process that might one day lead to full gender equality. From the 1960s onward, more and more women entered higher education and better paid jobs. Women gained reproductive autonomy with a liberating new innovation, the contraceptive pill. This was accompanied by a renaissance of feminist thought which, according to writer Roger Osborne, “became a serious intellectual and social force that made everyone, from historians and literary critics to journalists, artists and legislators, reassess their attitudes and their outlook on the world”. Throughout the western world, conservative laws banning divorce, contraceptives and abortion were removed. The men were still in charge, but women were gradually becoming less oppressed.
Much of this occurred during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Capitalism, the post-World War 2 era that ended in the mid-seventies. This era was characterized by high economic growth that was matched with rising wages and generous welfare program that benefited men and women alike. It was, by today’s standards, a relatively egalitarian (in terms of wealth distribution) society in which the rights of women made remarkable progress, albeit from a low base.
The Golden Age did not last long, a mere three decades. Subsequently, social democracy was replaced with a set of policies that sought to undermine worker power and redistribute wealth back to the elite. The ideological basis for this, neoliberalism, remains to this day the governing ideology for global and national economic relations and is a prime cause of the deindustrialization that has been identified as being key to Trump’s rise.
The end of the Golden Age of capitalism and the onset of the neoliberal era did not directly stop the slow but steady progress to a more gender equal society. But as women’s participation in the workforce continued to grow throughout the eighties and nineties, many types of well-paid, traditionally male oriented work began to disappear as deindustrialization, globalization, and automation all accelerated. Collective nostalgia can be a powerful force and perhaps many men — particularly those who rail against feminism — subconsciously (or consciously) blame the relative successes of women for their own newly found economic insecurity.
Furthermore, it is not difficult to imagine how such trends could lead to a rise in “fragile masculinity”. If the equitable Golden Age of capitalism proved fertile ground for the advancement of women’s rights, might the subsequent age of inequality prove to achieve the reverse? I think it is fair to say that with slower economic growth, and with the proceeds of this growth accruing overwhelmingly to an ever-narrowing elite sector of society, many people feel resentful and economically insecure.
This is arguably the cause of the rapid growth of far-right forces across the world, with those who perceive their traditional identities as being threatened turning to politicians who tell them that they are right, that their identities are indeed being threatened and unjustly so. The idea that white people are being replaced or oppressed, for example, is one manifestation of this. Research has shown that this was a key factor behind Donald Trump’s popularity. Another manifestation is the idea that feminism has gone too far, and that men are now the oppressed group. These ideas and movements have been growing for a long time, decades in fact. But recent years have seen an acceleration of such troubling trends and we are now at the point where the rights of women are being threatened by men like Donald Trump.
The misogynist-in-chief is now out of office. Yet the conditions that gave rise to his presidency remain. What is more, Donald Trump has provided a blueprint of electoral success for right-wing candidates to follow. Undermining the rights of women and loudly proclaiming sexist values is likely in the future to be an easy path to electoral success that many Republican Party candidates will seek to follow. As a result, the hard-won rights of women will need to be continuously defended.