Sexism, like love, works in mysterious ways. As someone who has spent my life teaching in women’s and gender studies programs – and writing about feminism and gay rights – I’ve learned that misogyny never seems to really go away but rather morphs and sidesteps and reappears like, well, herpes. Just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it you realize the little devil has just burrowed into a different part of the body politic. The point of this lurid metaphor is that misogyny, sexism, patriarchy (whatever you want to call it) hurts. It damages. It infects. And this electoral season is, alas, showing us once again that both the virulent forms of woman-hatred and the more diffuse or banal forms of everyday sexism are never far from the surface.
You would think that we all would have learned from our last go round with the misogyny machine that stalked Hillary’s first campaign for president. Two terms of a non-sexist president and 7 more years of feminist activism and reflection should have put the brakes on the men yelling for her to iron their shirts or the Hillary nutcrackers or the endless and predictable commentary on her hair, her clothes, her voice, her everything. You’d have thought the robust campus activism around sexual assault and new attention to the insidious forms of sexism that come from microaggressions and bullying and online harassment would have dampened our seemingly limitless ardor for unbridled misogyny.
But the same right-wing machine that has demonized her in the past never really went away, and they are now joined and emboldened by an epic and surprisingly explicit barrage of hate-filled diatribes from the likes of Donald Trump. Trump’s old-school bloviating disgust for women helps shape a political landscape in which some on the right can breathe a sigh of relief and get back to those good old days where it was just fine (in fact it proved your macho credentials) to call women “disgusting animals.” You know you’re in retro territory when Fox reporter Megyn Kelly becomes a sort of feminist heroine. Or maybe she actually has had her consciousness raised. Megyn? Are you really ready to come over from the dark side? I’ve got some good books for you to read. We’ll start with Simone de Beauvoir and move on from there.
And as I’ve written elsewhere, the left is of course not immune from sexism, although it is heartening indeed to see Sanders himself and his staff explicitly denounce the misogynist trolling of Hillary supporters. But all of us who have stood up for Hillary have been recipients of both right and left wing mansplaining (I received a little lesson from a gentleman just the other day on pay equity. Thanks dude – I didn’t know!), have been called dupes and dummies and worse. And if you complain about this behavior, well then you’re a whining girl playing the gender card.
So, for example, one central way sexism rears its head in this election is the claim that a vote for Hillary is a simplistic move of “identity politics” or (as I’ve been helpfully mansplained) of thinking with one’s vagina. So in this logic, it’s “playing the gender card” when one supports a woman but NOT when one supports a man. Why is supporting a woman evidence of narrow identity politics and supporting a man (for lo these 200 plus years) not? So voting for Cruz or Rubio (or Tom, Dick or Harry) is not voting for a man because he is a man? Why is no-one accusing men who support men of voting with their penises? But that’s one way sexism works: supporting women is perniciously framed as special pleading, and imagined as thoughtless, narrow, uterine-based. But supporting a man is never understood as such because “man” is simply human.
We all get that there are, of course, legitimate disagreements and differences. But the demonization of both Hillary and her supporters is simply out of proportion, particularly when real demons are out there to be righteously upset about. Of course not all criticisms of Hillary are veiled forms of misogyny – far from it. Indeed, her opponent has been ethical and principled in laying out his critique based largely on policy differences.
But when critical debate takes the form of whacky hatred, rage, and demonization, other forces may well be in play. It’s not just that we still live in an era of double standards (see Woodward’s comment about Hillary’s tone), or that sexism is still so pervasive and institutionalized that we often don’t recognize it, or that glass ceilings and structural discrimination remain real and present dangers to American democracy. It’s that so many are still rendered so apoplectic by the thought of powerful, wickedly smart women. Ask any woman who is powerful and wickedly smart. It’s hard out there for a feminist.