This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.
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by Carol C. Mukhopadhyay*
The 2016 election truly set a precedent for gender politics. The Democratic Party became the first major US political party to select a woman, Hillary Clinton, as its presidential candidate. As is now well-known, she won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes but lost in the Electoral College. Among the multiple factors responsible for her defeat, gender played a major—though under-analyzed—role. The failure of (mainly male) political consultants and pollsters to recognize how gender issues and misogyny permeated this campaign may be one reason they miscalculated Trump’s appeal and the election results. Yet post-election discussions, often by these same pundits, continue to downplay gender, or simply draw upon long-standing cultural and religious models that blame women for personal and societal failures. So we blame Hillary for being such a “weak” candidate (by what standards?), or “white” (Euro-American) women for “abandoning” Hillary Clinton, despite evidence to the contrary relative to previous elections.
Therefore, as we assess the likely impacts of a Trump/Republican presidency, we must not ignore gender, especially since the progressive Left has often prioritized other “isms” and injustices over gender justice. In what follows, I will sketch some of the ways this election has affected and will continue to affect gender issues in the United States.
Women on the US Political Leadership Stage
In 2016, for the first time, two women participated in televised presidential primary debates. Millions, including children, saw articulate and accomplished women competing with men for the title of Commander-in-Chief. In three presidential debates, millions watched Hillary Clinton successfully handle the prototypic Alpha male, Donald Trump, as he alternatively bragged, growled, interrupted, smirked, insulted, even stalked, and in other ways tried to dominate and intimidate his presidential opponent. Untold numbers of women decided they, too, were “nasty women,” and proud of it! The positive role-modeling impacts were incalculable… But how long will they last, now?
The Gendered White House Family
The 2016 presidential campaign challenged, at least momentarily, the traditional gendered institution of the White House’s First Family. If the president’s spouse were to be male, what would happen to the First Lady role? Who would be “help mate” and “listener,” handle “domestic affairs,” and organize important social occasions? Had Hillary Clinton become president, gender would have come to the forefront as the “First Gentleman” role evolved. Certainly no one expected Bill Clinton to choose China patterns, redecorate, or become a fashion setter.
The First Family and First Lady who will inhabit Trump’s White House symbolize a retrograde, pre-feminist vision of gender and family. News reports already show Donald Trump surrounded by and conversing with men… except for the strikingly dressed, heavily made-up, spike heels–wearing, visually present but silent and voiceless future First Lady. What role model does Melania Trump represent for US girls? And for girls (and boys) globally? It is a model of womanhood where looks are more important than having something to say, and physical appearance rather than educational or professional accomplishments is the route to success, wealth, and power.
Consensual Sexual Interactions
The Presidential campaign stimulated a discussion of often-ignored gender-related topics. Despite some progress, sexual harassment and sexual assault, including rape, remain widespread at work and colleges (see the Stanford case), as well as the pressure on women—and institutions—to remain silent. The backlash against women willing to share their Trump stories during the campaign illustrates why women are reluctant to come forth; but it also inspired thousands of other women to go public with their own experiences.
The ability of the Trump campaign to deflect—and of voters to ignore—Trump’s brazen bragging about sexual assault, the multiple well-researched cases of Trump’s unwanted sexual aggressions, and his denials and threats of retaliation against accusers do not bode well for the future. Voter reactions indicate that “locker room talk” and unwanted sexual “advances” are still considered normal and acceptable by some, perhaps many. After all, “boys will be boys”… just like our president!
Double Standards and Patriarchal Stereotypes
The 2016 presidential campaign reflected a double standard for women vs. male candidates. Hillary Clinton’s competence and stamina were subjected to scrutiny and criticism not applied to male candidates. Additional gender-specific criteria were imposed: likeability, smiling, warmth, and appearance—she did not look” “presidential.” But had she been 6’1” ft. tall, with large biceps, and “tough,” she would most likely have been disqualified from the start!
Acceptable male traits—being ambitious, goal-focused, strategic, and wanting the Presidency—became part of a “power-hungry” critique of Hillary Clinton, and many voters perceived her as less trustworthy and truthful than Donald Trump. At Republicans rallies, shouts of “lock her up” bore a frightening resemblance to mob violence against African Americans, or Jews, gays, and socialists in Nazi Germany; or to the violence that fueled Medieval European witch-burnings of women.
One of the most troubling consequences of Trump’s election concerns reproductive rights. For women who grew up without access to birth control or legal abortion, and for feminists who have studied gender systems, reproductive rights are essential for achieving gender equality. Under a Trump/Republican administration, we can expect assaults on and attempts to criminalize abortion, and increases in forced pregnancy and forced motherhood.
Any Supreme Court justice nominee must pass an anti-abortion, anti–Roe v. Wade litmus test with profound consequences for court decisions. States will increasingly pass restrictive laws requiring abortion clinics to have hospital-level facilities, or defining a fertilized cell (sperm-egg fusion) as a person, with any pregnancy termination constituting “murder.” Even if abortion remains legal, we can expect other burdensome regulations, such as parental or spousal consent, invasive vaginal probes, long waiting periods, or requirements that physicians provide biased, often false abortion “information.”
The virulent anti-abortion rhetoric of the Republican primaries and Trump’s electoral win will embolden anti-abortion activists to intensify protests and intimidation tactics. Some Planned Parenthood clinics have reported more verbally aggressive protestors, harassing clients with shouts of “Don’t kill your baby.” We may see challenges to laws restricting protestors (e.g., blocking clinic access), as well as clinic bombings and murders of physicians and other abortion providers. Fewer medical schools will teach abortion procedures, and even fewer physicians will take the risks (physical and financial) of providing abortions. Today, with Roe v. Wade intact, less than 15% of all US counties have a legal abortion provider. That percentage will decline.
The war on Planned Parenthood will intensify. Planned Parenthood, under current law, cannot use public funds for abortions. Defunding Planned Parenthood essentially means making it ineligible to receive Medicaid reimbursement for other health-related services like cancer screenings, pregnancy, family planning, or genital infections. This affects poor women the most, and millions could lose access to basic health care and contraception. Planned Parenthood will survive; but its resources, ability to serve current clinics and populations, will decline. And all reproductive rights organizations will have to expend resources to challenge restrictive laws or defend against new attacks (e.g., accusations of fetal tissue “sales”).
Under the lead of conservative religious Republicans, comprehensive sex education programs may be replaced by abstinence-only programs that only advocate sex within heterosexual marriage (despite their documented failure). Even if contraception coverage should survive new attacks of the American Family Foundation, more private businesses, like Hobby Lobby, will probably refuse to cover employees on grounds of their personal religious beliefs.
Recent declines in unplanned teen pregnancies will likely be reversed as comprehensive sex education is defunded. Female fertility rates will increase, most among younger, poorer, less educated women from conservative religions. If history repeats itself, we can expect negative impacts on girls schooling and on education-dependent jobs and careers. Women and families will struggle to feed, care for, and educate additional unplanned children; and local and state governments will strain to provide education and other services for a growing population. Less contraception access leads to more pregnancies… and to more abortions, legal or not. Currently, an estimated 22 million women experience unsafe abortion worldwide, causing approximately 47,000 deaths each year. Those numbers will go up.
Trump’s election in many ways represented the reemergence, indeed the triumph, of hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized, hyper-aggressive, tough-guise masculinity… and a successful assault on the models of gender and gender relationships represented by Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters. Some younger professional women were apparently shocked at the level of sexism and misogyny revealed by this election. They had naively assumed that they were living in a post-feminist, post-sexist, post-misogyny world.
Perhaps one positive impact of Trump’s victory will be to awaken these young women (and men), to stir them to action and into taking ownership of the next wave of feminism. The fear is that it might take several years to recover from the damages of a Trump/Pence/Republican administration.
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Additional Resources and Links
Center for American Women and Politics
Pew Research Institute (US and International Data)
Presidential Gender Watch
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*Dr. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay (website) is Professor Emerita in the Department of Anthropology at San Jose State University. She specializes in gender, family, sexuality, race/ethnicity, methodology, and comparative education, and has conducted field research on gendered activities in domestic, political, and public life in India and the United States. Recent publications include How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology (with R. Henze and Y. Moses, 2014) and several articles and chapters in edited books.
Header image (left): “Keep Abortion Safe, Legal & Accessible” by Debra Sweet, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.
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This article should be read by all of us who have been stymied into thinking something like the election of Trump would ever happen. I think we were all lulled into a false sense of where our country was, and that institutional sexism was on its way out. Well this author has shown that hyper-masculinity is alive and well, and we all have to push back against it everyday in every way.
Delightful and unfortunately too true