You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Trump’s Patriarchal Counter-Revolution

Sexism is making a comeback under the president and his heavily male administration, sparking a renewed war over gender equality.

Pool/Getty Images

At first glance, the president and vice president might seem like polar opposites in their relationship to women. Donald Trump is a libertine who has described his sexual promiscuity as his “personal Vietnam” and boasted that the privileges of celebrity allowed him to grab women by their genitals, while Mike Pence is a committed evangelical who, like others of his faith, abides by strict rules of sexual propriety. As a much-discussed Washington Post profile last week noted, “In 2002, Mike Pence told The Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.”

As different as their behavior toward the opposite sex might be, Trump and Pence are two sides of the same coin of patriarchy. Pence wears the traditional mask of chivalry while Trump is undisguised by any pretense of loftier motives. Yet Pence’s own actions, though governed by religious rules, are hardly an improvement for women in terms of consequence.

Even if we leave aside the political impact of Pence’s hardline opposition to reproductive freedom, there’s also the fact that his rules for personal conduct are incompatible with gender equality. As Emma Gray observed in the Huffington Post, Pence’s ability to limit his contact with women is a privilege he enjoys as a powerful man in a male-dominated world. His female counterparts don’t have that luxury. “The ability to refuse to be alone with someone who is not the same gender as you and still climb the professional ladder is a privilege that is simply not afforded to women,” Gray observes. “Imagine if Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi refused to attend political functions where alcohol was served without their husbands in tow to supervise them.”

Expanding on this theme, The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman argued that Pence’s rules might have a personal motive but they have a clear “discriminatory” public impact. “Over his career, [Pence] has had many colleagues and employees,” Waldman argues. “With the men, he can have complex relationships that traverse work and social contexts, build trust, and eventually help their careers. A woman who hoped Pence would be a mentor to her, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to avail herself of those opportunities, since he can’t even have lunch with her.”

To put it another way, Trump’s genital-grabbing and Pence’s gender-segregation share a common opposition to gender equality.

Of course, working in the Trump White House, Pence won’t have to worry about meeting too many women he might have to have a professional lunch with. Trump’s cabinet picks, as of last month, had more white men (18) than any president since at least Reagan (who had 17). There are just four women in cabinet-level positions, all at low ranks. This is the worst gender imbalance in the presidency in nearly 30 years. (George H.W. Bush only had two women in his cabinet in 1989.) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even crafted a macho secret identity when he was ExxonMobil’s CEO, sending sockpuppet public relations emails under the alias “Wayne Tracker.”

“Wayne Tracker would be just a stupidly amusing piece of trivia—except that it fits so incredibly neatly into the pattern of performed hypermasculinity in this administration,” New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister wrote last month. “Our nation is currently being governed by lots of the kind of men who think it would be cool to have the name ‘Wayne Tracker.’ Trump himself, obsessed with the bigness of his crowds, his ratings, his fortune, and his penis, once invented an alter ego named ‘John Barron.’”

The gender make-up of Trump’s cabinet is hardly an accident. It’s increasingly clear that Trump’s victory in the last election has initiated a patriarchal counter-revolution. Hillary Clinton was the first major-party female candidate and an outspoken feminist. In campaigning against Clinton, Trump not only didn’t hide his sexism, he actively deployed it. He repeatedly made the sexist jibe that Clinton lacked the “stamina” to be president, and also attacked her as a “nasty woman” for criticizing him, suggesting that her political combativeness undermined her femininity.

It’s no coincidence that last year’s election saw the most polarized gender results ever in American presidential politics, with Clinton winning women by 12 points (although losing among white women) and losing among men by 12 points. As Jill Filipovic suggested in The New York Times, the now-familiar photos of Trump surrounded by old white men might not be a sign of an administration that is out of touch but rather one that knows how to please its base. “For liberal women, this latest all-male photo is a visualization of our worst fears realized,” Filipovic notes. “For many Trump supporters, though, it’s evidence of a promise fulfilled.”

To be sure, Trump occasionally tries to throw a sop at his feminist critics, as in his awkward celebration of Woman’s History Month in March, when he praised the strong women he’s known—with a patronizing proviso. “Just think of what our country could achieve if we unleashed the power of women entrepreneurs nationwide. Think of that,” he said. “So as a man, I stand before you as president, but if I weren’t president, I wouldn’t be happy to hear that statement—that would be a very scary statement to me because there’s no way we can compete with you,” he said. “So I would not be happy. Just wouldn’t be happy.”

Breitbart, the ideological organ of Trumpism, recently tried to defend the president’s record on gender by noting that female appointees make up the “backbone” of Trump’s National Security Council. But the facade of feminism presented by Trump and Breitbart is countered by evidence that the president’s sexism is serving as a model for other men. Researchers at Wharton University studying the negotiating styles of men and women found that Trump’s election victory had a measurable impact: After he won, men became more aggressive toward women in disputes about money.

As Trump fosters renewed sexism, he’s also provoking a feminist counter-movement. The biggest single protest so far in the Trump presidency was the Woman’s March the day after inauguration, which attracted half a million protesters to Washington and as many as 5 million protesters worldwide. Many women have kept up the pressure since then. The Huffington Post’s Ariel Edwards-Levy recently reported that the wave of popular opposition to Trump— as measured by citizen phone calls to their representatives, organized by activist group Daily Action—skews female. “The activists flooding congressional offices with those calls are overwhelmingly female, according to a survey conducted by Democratic pollsters Lake Research Partners and shared with HuffPost,” Edwards-Levy wrote. “Of the more than 28,000 of the group’s members who responded to a poll sent out by text message, 86 percent were women.”

Trump won a battle against Clinton and feminism in 2016, delivering more than just a symbolic blow to gender equality. But his and Pence’s counter-revolution has sparked a renewed struggle against sexism in America, ensuring that the war against their patriarchal restoration will be at the center of politics for many years to come.