Last week, as sexual harassment and assault allegations against men in Hollywood continued to snowball (opens in new tab), Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed the more than 20 women who've accused Donald Trump of harassment and abuse as liars. (opens in new tab)
It was a rich line coming from Sanders, who tells lies for Trump (opens in new tab) on a near-daily basis. But it did serve as a reminder that conservative women have long thrown their gender under the bus in exchange for power.
I'm often asked how women on the right could align themselves with a movement that seems to fundamentally believe them to be inferior. Feminists look at the likes of Trump-surrogate Kellyanne Conway (who supported the then-candidate through his "pussy grabbing" controversy), conservative media darling Tomi Lahren (opens in new tab), or right-wing, anti-choice women’s groups like Concerned Women for America (opens in new tab) and the Susan B. Anthony List (opens in new tab), and wonder why they would so readily sell out other women.
The truth is it can work to their advantage. Accepting and promoting patriarchy comes with benefits for conservative women—sometimes financial, sometimes psychological and emotional.
Take Sanders and Conway, who have both publicly dismissed women who have spoken out about sexual assault (opens in new tab). Their defenses are clearly cynical and serve a political purpose, but for conservative women more broadly, going along with the idea that women lie about assault—or blaming women for sexual harassment by claiming that they somehow brought it on themselves—can be a form of self-protection. Believing that other women are “bad", and that that’s why something terrible happened to them, enables you to convince yourself that you are safe.
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For white women, like the 53 percent who voted for Trump, it means feeling confident that somehow the patriarchy—which diminishes and discriminates against people of color, immigrants, and the LGBT community—will not also come after you.
Another long-used strategy for women leaders on the right has been amassing power by arguing that other women shouldn't have any.
Consider anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, widely credited with stopping the ratification of Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s. She proclaimed (opens in new tab) that the movement for gender equality was “a fight with human nature” and that women didn’t need any more rights than they already had. The arguments she made decades ago paved the way for conservative beliefs on women and sexual assault in the 21st century: She insisted that “virtuous women” aren’t sexually harassed and that there's no such thing as marital rape—victim-blaming that’s still rampant today. She opposed the ERA partially on the grounds that bathrooms would have to be unisex, which she claimed would put women in sexual danger, the same faulty argument now used to discriminate against trans people (opens in new tab). Incredibly, Schlafly's work also focused on telling women that they...shouldn't work. She preached that a woman's place was in the home, while she herself enjoyed a successful and lucrative career as a writer and speaker who traveled the world.
For the women in Trump’s orbit today—whether Sanders, Conway, Melania, or Ivanka—their presence helps to assuage the notion of Trump is a raving misogynist. At least, that’s the hope. In return, they enjoy incredibly successful careers and high profiles at the expense of their dignity. (See: Lahren's latest costume antic.)
In reality, though, aligning with misogynist men is no safeguard. Look at the women at Fox News, who say they were harassed and abused by Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly—despite playing along with conservative talking points and mocking the very feminists who worked so hard to pass policies that would eventually help them.
I’m sure patriarchal head-pats are nice, as are successful careers where you can rise the ranks more easily because you’re willing to throw other women under the bus to do it. But remember: Misogynists believe that all women are lesser-than, even the ones who defend them. One day, they’ll turn on those women too.
Jessica Valenti is a contributing editor to MarieClaire.com—read her weekly column here.
Jessica Valenti is a columnist and author of five books on feminism, politics, and culture. Her latest book, Sex Object: A Memoir, was a New York Times bestseller. Valenti is also editor of the ground-breaking anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and the founder of Feministing.com, which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” She has a Master’s degree in Women’s and Gender Studies and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
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