By Heather Hackman
I saw a headline Tuesday describing Donald Trump’s debasing of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony with a picture of white women, strategically placed behind the podium, cheering him on as he did so. How to explain this? An uninformed position would suggest that “everyone is entitled to their opinions”, but of course it’s not that easy. Scratch beneath the surface and you see the fingerprints of sexism, gender oppression, male dominance, patriarchy and whiteness all over that deeply problematic display.
But, how does this happen? How did we get to a place where (mostly white) women will support an admitted sexual harasser and someone who constantly demeans women? The answer can be found in a deeper question – How does a dominant group who is the numeric minority (men) maintain control over the numeric majority (women and trans* folks)? Two central methods – socialization into an ideology that makes it seem normal, and/or state-sponsored violence. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, but the proportion to which they are used depends on the political reality. Apartheid South Africa used socialization to spread the ideology of the inferiority of POC, but also made much more ready use of state sponsored violence to maintain its power.
Conversely, when it comes to gender oppression in the U.S., socialization seems to be the slightly favored tactic, followed by what is still a substantial amount of violence against women and trans* folks. The purpose of this socialization is to ultimately silence women by making enough women and men think that these dynamics are not “sexism” but simply “the way that it is” or “the way men and women are” thereby eliminating any resistance to the system of oppression. To be sure nowhere near all women (and not all men) think this, but in the U.S. enough women and certainly plenty of men have been convinced of this basic ideology that uniform resistance to gender oppression is difficult at best.
Below is an explication of three pathways that this gender role socialization takes place. All are rooted in the need to control women and maintain the access to resources, power, privilege for men. Any deviation from the script results in the use of violence as is evidenced by the gender violence directed toward Dr. Blasey Ford, the backlash to the #MeToo movement, and the extreme levels of violence experienced by trans* people all over the U.S.. Of course, the system simply frames this backlash as “men defending themselves” and suggests that any erosion of the power held by men makes this “a bad time for men in this country”. Absurd to the extreme given the statistics in every major metric of the U.S., but such is the power of dominant groups – to simply say it means that it must be so.
The first of the three pathways is the placement of everyone into a rigid gender role binary. Thus, while our lived experience is gender fluidity, the system of gender oppression only sees and tolerates ideas of gender that are diametrically opposed and portrayed as essential and thus biologically based via the conflation of gender with biological sex. Examples are men being seen as naturally “tough, in control, strong, emotionless, interested in sports and war, competitive, and in charge with no need of help from anyone” while women are naturally “quiet, not too assertive, not too smart, beautiful (tall, thin, white, rich, sexually submissive), powerless, mothers and caretakers first, and followers”. As you can see, these meta-narratives of gender apply largely for white men and women, but many of their implied characteristics are used in differing ways across race and class lines to reinforce racism and classism as well. Ultimately, the above calcified binary, when conjoined with power, then leads to the “inevitable” differential in societal power between “real men” and “ladies”. Socializing all genders into this binary-based ideology serves to make this power differential and its concomitant gender oppression seem “normal” and “natural” and “inevitable”. The goal of this process is for all men to see themselves as rightfully the ones in power, leading and dominant, while women should see themselves as secondary, silent and powerless.
To be sure, this socialization is pervasive in U.S. society, not incidental or occasional. Every element of U.S. society from education to mainstream media to history to laws to toys to social activities to clothing to…you name it, has evidence of deep socialization into gender role narratives. Meaning, if you socialize an entire society to see gender disparities as natural and inevitable, you will get at least some of the targeted group (in this case cisgender women and trans* folks) and most of the dominant group to go along with it. Once these messages are established in our individual and collective minds, male dominance and gender oppression encounter little true resistance. Thus we see some “Women for Trump” willingly supporting his misogyny.
But the process of getting even some women to go along with this system does not stop with the mere creation and enforcement of gender role narratives. Within this vast process of socialization lies a second pathway that helps explain what I saw – heteronormativity. For those women who identify as heterosexual and who are in / seek relationships with men, challenging men’s dominance, or even just questioning the tired tropes born out of the above gender role socialization, can feel like a precarious proposition given the intimate nature of one’s relationship to men. It’s this dynamic that had Tammy Wynette sing “stand by your (abusive) man” without our entire society reacting with dismay. The absurdity of it can be seen when comparing this to other forms of oppression – e.g. it is quite rare for POC/N folks (save for Kanye West) to write songs, poems, etc. entreating other POC/N to “stand by your (racist) White person” no matter how oppressive they are.
Some authors have called this the challenge of “sleeping with the enemy” and described how complicated it can be to name systemic, institutional, interpersonal and individual gender oppression in our society while being partnered with cisgender men who may or may not have a clue about those very dynamics. Sometimes it just seems “easier” to let it go and put up with the daily slights, insults, demands and mere invisibility in order to keep the peace in the relationship and get through the day. Over time this sexism becomes so normative that it’s no longer seen for what it is. Of course, it is never packaged as heteronormative / sexism and is instead framed as “being a good wife, mother, woman”. Thus, the compounding power of socializing cisgender women into believing the rigid and limiting gender role messages about themselves and the “real men” in their lives (understanding the variations across race and class), combined with the pressures of being in intimate and constant relationship with the very group that is perpetrating your oppression and benefitting from it on a daily basis, can serve to have many cis-women who are heterosexual support those who are standing in front of an audience and degrading their very sovereignty and humanity.
A final socializing pathway is the pressure of Christian hegemony with respect to how women should (and should not) behave and simply “be” in the world. My colleague and friend Erin deeply identifies as Christian and just shared with me today how infuriating it is to have so many Christian leaders in the U.S. lauding Mr. Kavanaugh while heaping horrible accusations on Dr. Blasey Ford. More than just being an opinion proffered by “men”, these comments are offered be faith leaders and said to be “supported by the Bible” and therefore rooted in what it means to be a (white) Christian. Given that perhaps 2/3 of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, the collusion of women in these Trump moments can be understood by examining the additional power “faith” has in suggesting that women should be silent, that “boys will be boys”, that men are sovereign and women are submissive, and that the natural order is patriarchy. I am focusing on Christianity here given its significance in U.S. power structures, but Judaism and Islam also have communities of followers who place women in secondary, subservient positions to men.
To be clear, I am not blaming women for this moment, for Kavanaugh, for Trump, for any of it. In exploring why there were women standing behind Donald Trump on Tuesday I’m trying to shed light on the pernicious ways in which men have been telling a story about gender roles, about power and about our society that has conveniently served their goals around access to power, privilege and resources in the U.S. And, unfortunately, some women have been so inundated by those messages that they, too, believe them. This of course is not limited to “Women for Trump”, but is also applicable to those who claim moderate, liberal and even progressive identities around gender / politics / social issues while repeatedly buying (literally and figuratively) into troubling aspects of misogyny, albeit not as explicit as the Kavanaugh circus.
So, when I see those white, middle-aged, possibly middle-class women standing behind Trump waving signs of support, my primary focus is not on the women themselves but on how they are used as cover by the dominant group for dynamics that are much more specious and harmful to women. Dominant groups have always used some members of the targeted groups as cover like this – Clarence Thomas, Phyllis Schafly, Christopher Reeve, Joe the Plumber, Log Cabin Republicans, and so on. When it comes to gender, however, the socialization via gender role narratives, heteronormativity, and Christian hegemony has been so deep, pervasive and long-standing that it makes sense that there are likely more “women for Trump” than can typically be found with other targeted groups in other forms of oppression.
Understanding where to place my focus affords me two avenues of action: First, I can keep my eye on the source of the problem (bell hooks’ explication of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy) and not be distracted from it by “Women for Trump” (but definitely eventually get to them). The problem we need to address is the hold that male dominance has on our society and we must never lose sight of that. The more we name it, focus on it, call it out, the more we are able to change systems at their core. So instead of simply telling the Houston school they cannot have that sexist trope above the lockers in their hallways, we can tell our schools to stop perpetuating gender binaries, the subordination of women, and the socialization of men into toxic masculinity. We can demand an end to violence being directed toward our trans* students and instead enact policy change, curricular change, and pedagogical change in our education system that will let our schools be places where gender is a non-issue and all energies can therefore be put into learning and building community.
Second, I can focus my attention on causal factors that lead to “Women for Trump” by assailing our education system, our media, our social spaces, our private sector, our non-profit sector, and other areas of our society with accurate, gender justice content and education. If we want gender liberation, it will require a profoundly intense decolonization process whereby we help everyone who has been exposed to this misinformation uproot it and replace it with liberatory ideologies. This is mind work, this is body work, this is soul work. Across the gender spectrum, our bodies carry the pain of millennia of this garbage. Clearly, we need something better since this Kavanaugh spectacle is tearing at some of the deepest roots in our society. Said differently, if sexism were truly “working” as a social reality for our society we would not be so opposed to what is happening. But it is not working. It never has. Not if what we want is both a healthy and thriving society, and one that is truly a democratic republic (yes, these points will also require deep racial, economic, and other justice work to come to fruition). In fact, gender oppression is profoundly harming our society by the normalization of violence against women, by the loss of whole humanity for men, by the life-threatening realities for trans* folks. We are losing people, we are losing creativity, we are losing great minds, we are losing loved ones…we are losing ourselves. In no way, shape or form can we say we are a civilized society when someone like Brett Kavanaugh can even be considered for the most powerful court in our country. If confirmed he will adjudicate for another 30-40 years and all of our lives will be impacted by the sexism of this man.
“Women for Trump” is a symptom, a symbol of oppressive gender dynamics that run much deeper in the U.S. Dynamics that are bent on holding patriarchal power or die trying. Senator Graham’s directionless outburst alongside Mr. Kavanaugh’s testimony are both “testimony” to the sanctity of patriarchy in our society and the deeply corrosive impact it has. “Women for Trump” is the modern Tammy Wynette and is more indicative of the effects of these pathways of patriarchal socialization than of anything else. Yes, I hold women accountable for their choices, but if all I do is yell at them the real “Wizard behind the curtain” slinks into the night. Thus, while those women are an affront to the liberation of women everywhere, I will never take my eye off the prize – an end to the scourge of patriarchy / gender oppression and the long overdue rise of gender justice.
Read in browser Â»