On Wednesday, 16 conservative female members of the media joined together to put out a well-intentioned if demented letter urging Donald Trump, their party’s leading presidential candidate, to admit that a woman’s experience might be worth considering.
The letter, which you can read here in full, was written in response to Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s assault on Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields—an assault which was captured on camera and reported firsthand by the Washington Post, but which the campaign has repeatedly denied, choosing instead to subject Fields her to widespread abuse from Trump’s hellacious base and work as hard as they could to tarnish her reputation.
Specifically, Lewandowski, Trump, and Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson initially insisted that Fields’ claims were invented to earn herself publicity. Then, after the video footage was released, Trump changed tack—Fields was actually attempting to assault Trump, and Lewandowski was defending him.
In response to all that, this group of professional commentators thought that a relatively polite open letter would do the trick. (You wonder: as women who have covered the GOP for a living, they should know better. But on the other hand, it’s been their job to support the way this party functions, too.)
“The press is to have an adversarial, yet civil approach to those in, or running, for elected office,” the letter reads. “Never in this line of work is it acceptable to respond to reasonable and legitimate questioning with use of physical force.”
The letter, which is signed by Dana Loesch, Katie Pavlich, Meghan McCain, and S.E. Cupp, among others, continues:
The photographs, audio, videos, and witness accounts documenting the treatment of Michelle Fields by Corey Lewandoswki [sic], Donald Trump’s campaign manager, are inexcusable and unprofessional. Donald Trump should immediately remove Lewandowski from his campaign. The Trump campaign has stated that Lewandowski will not be fired even if convicted, however unlike the Trump campaign, we believe in making a statement on the record to clearly highlight the difference between right and wrong.
It’s a noble sentiment, but one that either betrays an utter lack of understanding of Donald Trump and of the party to which he and these women belong, or else a total unwillingness to accept the facts.
First of all, Trump is notoriously, astoundingly unconcerned about what the media thinks of the way he’s running his campaign, much less what female pundits think (ie. “Crazy Megyn Kelly;” “Blood coming out of her wherever;” other female reporters have been called “third-rate reporters,” “absolutely terrible,” “liberal clown;” he referred to CNN commentators S.E. Cupp and Ana Navarro as, “two of the dumbest people in politics,”) and he has largely grown in popularity based on smug disdain alone. That these women feel a civil, quietly virtuous gesture such as this one would ruffle the steel wool on his head is depressing.
More depressing, perhaps, is the hopeful naiveté exhibited by this group of intelligent women—who fight tooth and nail, continuously, in order not to be associated with liberal feminism, but now hope that some mechanism within their own political party might suddenly swing into gear when they are the ones pointing out sexism and misconduct.
And most depressing of all is the suggestion within the letter that they’ve already adopted a fatalistic viewpoint. That last sentence—“even if Lewandowski is not fired, which he won’t be, we believe in making a statement on the record”—is so utterly defeated. It’s so pragmatic and even more alarming as a result. What else can we do? they are asking themselves, understanding that their party’s mistrust of women at this point seems permanently baked in.
There’s a Republican answer in this situation that allows the party to condemn the assault without admitting that the treatment of Fields has been depressingly gendered. “Physical aggression towards any reporter, regardless of gender, is unacceptable,” goes the easy way out. But that response goes flat as soon as you survey the reactions from the Trump campaign, from Breitbart News, and from Trump’s base. All of these camps have relied on the assumption that a female reporter might have something to gain from such a scandal (strikingly similar to the widespread assumption that some women falsely report sexual assaults for publicity or money).
Meanwhile, Vocativ reported that the campaign’s rhetoric against Fields had resulted in hundreds of tweets from Trump supporters using language like “bitch,” “whore,” and “bimbo.”
But what are Republican women to do? The Republican party has no mechanism for dealing with blatant instances of gendered abuse, because it doesn’t have the language to do so. For so many prominent Republicans (at least the prominent Republicans of this election cycle), any sort of demonstrable sexism is an invention, a tool fabricated by the left to stoke outrage, and the way this affects Republican women’s ability to assert their independence is painful. A Republican troll (or somewhat standard party member; his bio reads “Freelance writer, Constitutionalist”) replied to Dana Loesch, saying, “These broads need to get back in the kitchen and make some sandwiches & be quiet.” To that, Loesch replied, “We only make sandwiches for real men.”
Reading this, you wonder: what might it be like to have earnestly believed in all this as a woman? To have been invested in a meritocratic system where sexism either isn’t real or is something that the best women rise above? What happens when, one day, the hideous, sexist gaslighting you thought you were protected from happens to a respected, credible conservative woman like you?
What happens when, all at once, it becomes clear what others have been saying—that Trump’s inability to treat women like humans will actually have a significant effect on his electability, and that it’ll sink the party’s prospects in the end? Or, perhaps what’s scarier, that it won’t, largely because the GOP has built a contemporary ideology based on the premise that sexism doesn’t matter, that anyone can be as successful as anyone else and it just so happens that white men are the best at it, that discrimination is a liberal construct and isn’t real?
And what do you do when you realize that Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the only other remaining candidates, refuse to address women as a distinct group with a distinct experience except to say that they should be protected as wives and from themselves? When you realize that Cruz and Kasich can stay conveniently, conspicuously silent because it won’t affect their standing either way?
The New York Times wrote this week about the growing push among congressional Republican women to appeal to their own:
Acutely aware that the Democrats will most likely have a woman at the top of their ticket in 2016, [Rep. Cathy] McMorris Rodgers and some of her female colleagues undertook an ambitious campaign — and an unconventional one by Washington standards. They decided to reach out to women via women’s magazines and new media, hoping to connect with them in grocery store aisles and through popular online forums.
They recorded some success with upbeat tales of Republican women scattered through the pages of publications such as Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Marie Claire and, most recently, Elle...
“I think it is important that we respect that women have different political views,” said Ms. McMorris Rodgers, a strong conservative who grew up picking fruit in her family’s orchard in eastern Washington and became the 200th woman ever elected to the House. “The idea that just because you are a woman you should be supporting Hillary Clinton I think is false. There is a broad base of political views.”
When Jezebel writer Ellie Shechet and I went to New Hampshire for the lead-up to the primary, we asked voters on both sides of the aisle what women needed most, and which candidate could conceivably get it for them. Democrats listed access to good reproductive healthcare, wage equality, and more representation among a number of other pressing concerns; Republicans far and away refused to answer.
“I think we all need to be treated as a unit,” one Rubio supporter told us. “I think the black-white issue, the women vs. men issue isn’t uniting us all together. We need to be working for all of us.”
Of course, that position fails when gender becomes an issue.
Illustration by Bobby Finger