Can a Woman Beat Trump? The Cultural Structure of #SexistRidicule

Catherine M Wallace

The survival of American democracy may depend upon defeating Donald Trump in 2020. Many highly qualified women are running for the Democratic nomination. That's unprecedented, and it raises a loaded question: do the Democrats risk too much if they nominate a woman—any woman—to run against Trump? 

       I don't have the answers. But I do know this much: the GOP has traded in sexism for generations, just as they have traded in racism. We need to wake up to that too. Given the success of Trump's open appeals to white supremacy, we can expect openly male-supremacist attacks on women running for president. The sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton may pale in comparison. In this blog post, I want to unpack a cultural-history backstory that will help us to recognize, to confront, and to deflate Republican #sexistridicule.

       To do that successfully, we need to understand three deep cultural structures upon which sexism relies. The first is gender stereotypes—what cultural historians call the "gender complementarity model." This Western cultural paradigm attributes one set of characteristic virtues to men, and a different but parallel set of virtues to women: the "good man" and the "good woman" have distinctly different virtues and abilities.

        And heaven help any woman who displays a stereotypically "masculine" trait. She is in for it. That's my second cultural structure: there are remarkably predictable double-bind attacks on women who defy the stereotypes imposed by the gender complementarity model. We need to  see these attacks coming before they explode around us.  

       Finally, underlying all of this gender nonsense is an intellectual habit found deep in the source-code of Western culture: we divide everything into two parts, and then we define these two parts in a zero-sum way, as cosmic contradictions of each other. In this deep source-code, femininity is firmly associated with deficiency, fraudulence, and moral disorder. The inescapable inferiority of women is the bedrock upon which American racism in all its varieties was later constructed: black people were like women, but more so.

       This cultural backstory may be baffling to anyone young enough to have grown up assuming gender equality. Gender equality, like racial equality, has become a central American value. But it is not yet the American reality. We can more easily achieve these ideals if we know exactly what we are up against and how that opposition permeates ordinary daily experience.

        That's important for more than the next election cycle

          The Gender Complementarity Model

       In fall of 2018, prior to the midterm elections, PRRI conducted one of its periodic American Values surveys. In this survey, they asked whether electing more women will makes things better in this country. That's a loaded question too: better in what way? They didn't specify. But the answers give us a hint about what people assumed "more women" would achieve. Seventy-two percent of Democrats agreed. Only twenty-six percent of Republicans agreed.  

       Unfortunately, there's a long troubled cultural history behind the belief that women across the board—all women, simply because we are women—are inherently better than men at some tasks and inherently apt to endorse a certain set of political values. Let's begin there.

       Given what we have seen from Trump, his administration, and Republicans in Congress, it doesn't surprise me that many people feel that we need a few good strong women to come in and clean up the mess Trump has created. After all, women have been cleaning up after men for thousands of years. Our nation can be understood as something like a household writ large, and right now our house is a mess. One obvious reaction is feeling that we need to elect good women to restore order.

      The cultural pressures behind such thinking may be entirely unconscious. The feeling that "we need more women here"—more women, any women—ignores the fact that anatomy does not dictate a woman's  political allegiance. After all, there are plenty of women at Trump rallies. According to the best, most rigorous data, thirty-nine percent of women voted for him, including forty-seven percent of white women. (By comparison, Clinton won ninety-eight percent of black women's votes, and sixty-seven percent of Hispanic women's votes.)

      Politically naive faith in a universal feminine politics reflects what's called the "gender complementarity" model. John Gray made a fortune peddling gender complementarity in his best-seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992). Unfortunately, research by the Gottman Institute demonstrated that the more fervently a married couple believes in the classic gender stereotypes peddled by the gender complementarity model, the more likely their marriage is to fail. 

      By the time Gray's book appeared, Carol Gilligan had already made a big name for herself with In Another Voice (1982), where she argued that the moral reasoning of women differs in characteristic ways from the moral reasoning of men. Men emphasize rules, she said; women focus on relationships. Men prioritize logic; women prioritize feelings. Unfortunately, Gilligan repeatedly refused to publish the research data from which she drew these conclusions. Millions of women embraced her work nonetheless. They felt affirmed by her defense of traits that Western gender stereotypes label as "feminine."

      Here's the problem: the gender-complementarity model attributes authority and leadership to men. Power is intrinsically masculine. A powerful woman, then, is a contradiction in terms. The immense, often unconscious validity of how we engender political power underlies our fears and doubts about whether a woman, any woman, can defeat Donald Trump. We think it's reasonable to expect that a critical mass of voters will vote against any woman simply because she is a woman. (Needless to say, many people held the same negative expectation about Barack Obama too: no black man could ever be elected president in this country.)       

      The gender complementarity model looks like the following chart. Here are the exceedingly ancient, deeply authoritative stereotypes shaping the Western construction of gender as a social reality—and quite possibly shaping our self-perceptions as well.

 

men should be    

women should be

strong

gentle

tough & assertive

flexible & receptive

courageous

accommodating

intelligent

compassionate

rational, logical

good-hearted

fact-oriented

people-oriented

heroic leaders

supportive followers

ambitious

self-sacrificing

 

At its best or most functional, the gender complementarity model tries to maintain social harmony on a separate-but-equal basis that segregates women into valued but entirely subservient roles. Men and women belong in "separate spheres," he managing public affairs and she managing private life and the domestic household. This model underlies male-only leadership among Roman Catholics and most evangelicals.  "He for God," as Milton explains; "she for God in him."

       The gender complementarity model is deeply flawed at the conceptual level, whether or not it accurately reflects the gender differences claimed by people like John Gray, Carol Gilligan, and a host of other thinkers for whom anatomy is destiny in this peculiarly dualist way. Here's the key problem as I see it: both mental health and moral virtue demand that we integrate supposedly "masculine" traits with supposedly "feminine" traits. A effective, morally mature leader is both intelligent and compassionate, both tough and flexible, both ambitious and committed to the common good. We don't achieve moral maturity if we limit ourselves to one column or the other. 

        As Germaine Greer pointed out almost fifty years ago in her book The Female Eunuch, "good women" are not being virtuous if we are generous because we can't say "no," or if we are forgiving because we can't stand up for ourselves.  That's not being virtuous. It's being exploited. Women have to be strong, tough, courageous, and powerful before we can be authentically gentle, flexible, self-sacrificing, and forgiving. Otherwise we are doormats.

        In a parallel way, a man who is merely tough and aggressive is in fact rigid and abusive. In personal relationships, he's a bully. In politics, he's a tyrant. That's no good either. That's why Trump is such a parody—such a pathetic parody—of mature masculinity: he lies compulsively because he is terrified by the least little threat to his fragile image of himself as the all-dominant Emperor of Everything.

         And that's not all: we need to recognize what happens rhetorically under the gender complementarity model when a woman does stand up for herself. What happens when a woman dares in any way to claim social and political equality with men? What happens when a woman displays any of the characteristic virtues attributed to masculinity? Worse yet: what happens to a woman who actively seeks leadership by running for President of the United States? Stop a minute here to reflect upon your own experience. Or remember Republican attacks on women like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, or Elizabeth Warren. What do people say when a woman asserts the virtues, abilities, and social roles that the West genders as masculine?

         That's the dark side of the gender complementarity table.  It's my second deep cultural structure.

The Double Binds Constraining Powerful Women

         If good women are by nature submissive and subservient, then any woman who is not submissive is not a good woman. Powerful women are bad people. Women who seek or assert authority are bad people. The rhetoric—the characteristic language—used in condemning such women  maps out point by point within the classic Western gender complementarity model we have already examined. A woman who displays a supposedly "masculine" trait will be attacked for failures drawn from the corresponding set of "bad woman" qualities. Here's what that looks like.                                                            

defiant women 

good men

good women 

weak,  dangerous

strong

gentle

inconsistent, dishonest

tough & assertive

flexible & receptive

cowardly, threatening

courageous

accommodating

dumb, wrong, clueless

intelligent

compassionate, caring

irrational, "emotional"

rational, logical

good-hearted

silly, naive, insubstantial

fact-oriented

people-oriented

abrasive, bitchy, shrill

heroic, ambitious

supportive, self-sacrificing

 The characteristics listed under "bad women" are something like the musical key in which sexist dog-whistles are composed. They are the rhetoric of sexist ridicule. We know we are up against sexist ridicule when traits like these are attributed to women automatically, without evidence, or when women face such criticism but men doing all the same things are not criticized. A woman who speaks up may be condemned as abrasive, for instance, but a man saying the exact same thing will be praised as ambitious and a go-getter, 

         Here's a more specific example: A woman who claims the strength to be president will be denounced as an apriori threat to national security because she is too weak to stand up to our adversaries. Our enemies will never respect her. Our military, security, and diplomatic corps will never submit to a woman's leadership, because powerful men by definition do not defer to women. Other nations—Germany, for instance—have done perfectly well under the leadership of a powerful woman. But these nations do not suffer as we do from a highly politicized, theologically corrupt Christian fundamentalism with its attendant deep-seated ideological misogyny. 

         Consider, for instance, what has been said about Elizabeth Warren. Republican attacks on her credibility would be a lovely case-study in the rhetoric of sexist put-downs. I have heard Warren repeatedly dismissed as unelectable because she is "controversial" or because she is "divisive." A man who came out with proposals like hers would be praised as "original" and "incisive." He would be praised as "brilliant" and "a leader." People might attack such a man as wrong or as dangerous, but they would not dismiss him out of hand for being "controversial" or "divisive." Was Paul Ryan dismissed out of hand because his economic program made him personally controversial or personally divisive? Of course not. Warren is being attacked on these specifically sexist grounds because women are supposed to be loving and universally lovable—not smart, confrontational, outspoken, and incisive.

         Warren is also criticized as "shrill" because her style of delivery is forceful and passionate. Despite his far greater on-stage intensity, Bernie Sanders is not dismissed out of hand for being "shrill." Or as countless people pointed out at the time, if Christine Blassey Ford had carried on as emotionally as Bret Kavanaugh did, she would have been written off as an "hysterical woman."

         You don't have to run for president to run into all this: sexist critiques are aimed at "dangerous" women at any level. Look at what has been said about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is a year older than Paul Ryan was when he was first elected. He was hailed as a wiz-kid, as "up-and-coming," as the brilliant young leader of a whole new generation. Nobody called him a "little boy." But Ocasio-Cortez has been dismissed as a "little girl," as "flighty," as "light-weight," as "in over her head."

         That's how this chart works. A woman who steps out of place is attacked as personally illegitimate. She is false or fake. She is deceptive and devious and transparently incompetent. A woman can know she is up against the gender complementarity model when she is attacked as fraudulent. "Lying Hillary" suffered such attacks for decades before Trump—of all people—took up the accusation. 

         In her book Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership (1995), Kathleen Hall Jamieson, then dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, described these sexist attacks as an array of catch-22s that shape the lives of all women, not just those seeking office. Her deep array of particular examples are dated by now, but her general analysis remains invaluable. If you speak up, she explains, you will be mocked, shamed, ignored, or denounced. If you don't speak up, you will be ignored and perhaps later condemned for your silence. If you take a stand, you are a bitch and a liar. If you don't take a stand, people will try to walk all over you. If you are young, beautiful, or traditionally feminine in appearance, you will be dismissed as incompetent. If you are undeniably competent, you will be ridiculed as sexless, frumpy, or a hag.

         I can add to Jamieson's list. I bet you can too.  If you work well with others, you lack leadership. But if you exert leadership, you are not a team player. If anybody anywhere is unhappy with you in the least, you are illegitimate because you are divisive and controversial. But if you never say anything disruptive or challenging, then you have nothing to offer. If you specialize, you are narrow. But if you address broad issues, you lack expertise. If you are original, you are wrong. But if you are not original, you are trivial and derivative. If you have children, you are not serious about your career. But if you do not have children, you are frustrated, angry, and sexually deficient. If you recognize that this is happening and call it out, you are being hostile, defensive, and irrational. If you don't call it out, you are surrendering your authority to hostile, defensive, irrational men.

         Here's the bottom line of all such attacks.  Men who question our legitimacy are in effect saying, "we don't want you here, you make us feel uncomfortable, you threaten our authority, and we will grasp at any straw to legitimate our psychological distress." That's gender panic. That's sexually insecure men revealing their insecurity. It's men who feel sexually shamed (consciously or unconsciously) by a woman in any position of power, influence, or authority. It's men who cannot refute our ideas in any substantive way and so they resort to silly, desperate, sexist claims.

         If we fail to recognize this ancient dynamic, we are apt to be silenced by it. We can be silenced if we are frustrated and blindsided by the irrationality of it all. We can be silenced if we are intimidated by the intensity of male gender panic. But if we recognize what's going on—if we recognize the large and ancient cultural paradigms in play—then we can confront the sexist dynamic directly. We can confront it just as women are ever more forcefully and directly confronting sexual harassment and sexual assault. If a man grabbed you and kissed you against your will in an office hallway, you'd know what was going on. You'd know what choices to make. We need to recognize these put-downs just as instantaneously. 

         We can do this. We know we can do this.       

Evil Is a Woman

         The gender complementarity model draws its remarkable power from one of the deepest conceptual structures shaping Western culture. In the dynamic of this structure, evil itself is gendered feminine. That's a story you need to know. They didn't teach us this stuff in school, at least not directly. It was there, as the evidence of systemic racism was there; but it was kept hidden in plain sight. We need to wake up to it. It's not just our cultural past. It's our present. And it's our future unless we do something about it, which we are beginning to do.

         Here's the scoop. We think about gender in these crazy ways because the West has a deep-set cultural habit of analyzing everything into pairs of simple either-or logical opposites. That's why we think we have mapped the political terrain when we have divided everything into liberals versus conservatives, or progressives versus libertarians, or urban versus rural, or Democrats versus Republicans. This is how the West works. This dualism is my third and final conceptual structure underlying classic attacks on women in Western culture. 

         After we have divided reality into what we define as two mutually exclusive parts, then we argue endlessly about how to make these mutually-exclusive opposites hold together and work together. We crack Humpty Dumpty in two and then set about trying to reassemble him, trying in fact to reconcile what we have already defined as inescapably cosmic contradictions. In The Measure of Reality, cultural historian Alfred W. Crosby explains that the West has been doing this for thousands of years. In The Plain Sense of Things, James C. Edwards explores both its philosophical implications and its enduring influence on what he calls the "normal nihilism" of consumerist culture.

         Here's my point: in the West, the differences between men and women have been assimilated wholesale into the simple binary oppositions shaping our culture. In the West, leadership is gendered male because virtue itself is gendered male. The very word "virtue" is gendered: vir is the Latin word for "man," as in "virile." To be virtuous is to be masculine. To be feminine is to be evil and—if you refuse to remain submissive— a dangerous threat to common good.

         The association between women and sin goes back to the Adam and Eve story, or at least to how this story has been used as weapon against women. "Church fathers" explained that Eve's sin was listening to Satan. Adam's sin, on the other hand, was listening to his wife. That's why the "good woman" is both silent and obedient—especially in public. That's why the "good woman" was held legally subordinate to her father and to then her husband. That's why she could not vote, sign a contract, own property in her own name, or testify in court. That's why women still cannot be trusted to make morally-appropriate decisions about our own pregnancies. Women are immoral by definition, and women who challenge male supremacy are unspeakably vile.

         Outspoken women are not simply challenging male supremacy. Capable, powerful women are defying the moral structure of the universe. We are whores, which legitimates sexual assault against us. We are the personification of everything that is corrupt, evil, and dangerous. (Hence the passionate energy of that chant, Lock Her Up!)

         Here's a short list of the relevant gender-laden synonyms for good and evil as these are traditionally understood in Western cultural discourse.                                                                                                                            

The Good

The Evil

perfect

imperfect

consistent

inconsistent

permanent

impermanent

predictable

unpredictable

rational

irrational

capable

incapable

prudent

greedy

courageous

cowardly

strong

weak

steadfast

inconsistent

safe

dangerous

honest

dishonest

smart

dumb

hard-working

lazy

responsible

irresponsible

Every sin listed the right-hand column gets attributed wholesale to women and to people of color even in the absence of supporting evidence : we are morally defective because white men constitute the moral norm—and we have failed to be white men. Worse yet, any one moral failure on the list resonates to and evokes every other moral failure. To be guilty of anything on the list is to be presumed guilty of all the rest. (And note, if you will, that in these classic Western terms, Trump's moral failures are spectacularly gender-laden. Make of that what you will—).

         Looking squarely at the rhetoric of male supremacy can be very depressing, just as it's depressing to look squarely at the rhetoric and the heritage of white supremacy. But seeing these cultural structures clearly can also be empowering: if we recognize it instantly, if we see in the blink of an eye what's going on—and if we are not afraid of it—we can turn the tables adeptly on anyone making unfair and irrational complaints against us. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a master of this.

         Here are some examples. To discredit her Green New Deal, pundits  accused AOC of hypocrisy given the size of her own carbon footprint. Her response pointed out the illogic of her critics. Here's what she said: "I have to admit something to you all. Frankly, I don't know how my environmental reputation can recover. Today I wrote in a book made out of paper. Apparently using present technology means I can't fight for new jobs, investing in infrastructure, and renewable energy."

         Look at the double bind. If I use existing technology, I can't advocate for environmental responsibility. If I can't use existing technology, I can't advocate for anything. Such attacks are not focused on her ideas. They portray her as illegitimate—as a fraud. As I said before, when people try to discredit us personally rather than engaging with our ideas, be suspicious.

         Or this: a conservative writer called for a boycott of Girl Scout cookies because seventy-two percent of Democratic women in the Senate and sixty percent of Democratic women in the House were once Girl Scouts—including Ocasio-Cortez herself. By contrast, only one Republican woman in Congress had once been a Girl Scout. Here's what Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: "Boycotting cookies that teach little girls leadership skills...Nice job. I'll take 10." She names the fact that the writer calling for this boycott was simply opposed to women in leadership. 

         Note what she didn't do. She did not reply with statistics about Girl Scout membership in red states or among Republican households. She did not argue that Girl Scouts are non-partisan. She did not defend Girl Scouts or her membership in Girl Scouts in the least, because the issue here really wasn't Scouting at all. The issue was a broad attack on Democratic women in Congress—at the expense, mind you, of programming for little girls. And Ocasio-Cortez has been ridiculed as a "little girl." So her comeback cut to the heart of the matter: my critic opposes teaching leadership skills to little girls. I support such instruction; I buy Girl Scout cookies.

         She leaves a major claim implicit, as if it's so self-evident it doesn't need to be said. If women with leadership skills run for office as Democrats, maybe that's because Democrats advocate for women's rights—which the GOP has steadfastly opposed for the last sixty years.

         There is a method to her come-backs, a method any of us can master. She does not counter-assert her legitimacy. Instead she looks critically and confidently at the logic and the key assumptions being made by her critics. She unveils their assumptions and their intent. She points out their sleazy logic. She laughs at all of it. She shrugs it off. In doing so, she makes her critics looks weak, pathetic, and ridiculous.

         Responding adeptly to attacks demands cool self-possession. You have to know who you are. You have to value who you are. You can't be afraid of attacks, and you can't be afraid of the people who attack you. You need to see their attacks coming; you can't flinch in the face of assault. You can't doubt your own legitimacy.

         But that's not enough. You also need to know who they are. You need to know exactly who they are, how they think, and what they are assuming that is complete and utter nonsense. That is, you need to know the ancient rhetoric of sexist ridicule. You need to recognize the array of double-binds that are classically deployed against capable women.

         So how we learn to do this? How do we gain and keep that unflappable, quick-witted confidence?

         I think we learn by sharing our stories. Look what we did for one another by sharing our #metoo stories. We all have even more stories about sexist put-downs. I have one story—one!—about a moment where I had a good comeback to a transparently sexist put-down. But I have more stories than I want to admit about times when I was blind-sided, times when I did not respond effectively to transparently sexist attack. Maybe now, thirty or even forty years later, I know what I should have said. But y'know, that's okay. Better late than never. And the more clearly I understand what I should have said back then, the more likely it is that I'll have a good comeback in the future.

         Crafting comebacks is not the only reason we need to hear one another's stories. Sometimes we just plain need one another's sympathy and support. Sometimes these memories are so painful that we still can't think straight. Maybe even now we don't see what we might have said. We still feel trapped, humiliated, helpless—and morally wrong. Guilty. At fault. Fraudulent. In situations like this, we need our friends to construct a come-back for us—and to affirm that we are not crazy. We are not hostile and paranoid. Shit like this happens.  

         And so, review that dreadful list of negative qualities attributed to women. Remember a moment when someone attacked you on that basis. Or go back to the good women/ bad women chart, and remember some moment when you or a woman you know were trapped in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" conundrum. Share that story with a couple of friends. What did you say? What might you have said? Share a sharp, revealing come-back. Invent one now. It is never too late to reclaim our dignity.

         Above all, we need to laugh together. We need relish our smart-alek comebacks. We need to celebrate the fact that our lives are immeasurably freer than the lives of our grandmothers—much less the lives of women in Milton's day. Or Thomas Jefferson's day. We must do this to defend our daughters and our grand-daughters. We must see it to that every girl grows up with the moral maturity and moral self-possession necessary to her own self-defense.

         Above all, in the months ahead, we must defend all of the women running for president. When they are attacked with #sexistridicule, all women are being ridiculed.