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Louis C.K., Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, and the rise of benevolent sexism in liberal men

Hillary Clinton Campaigns Across Florida, Encourages Early Voting Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Louis C.K. is supporting Hillary Clinton in next week’s presidential election, and it’s not just because she’s a woman. It’s because she’s a mom.

“A mother’s just got it,” C.K. told Conan O’Brien on Conan Tuesday night. “She feeds you and teaches you, she protects you, she takes care of shit.”

Mothers, C.K. says, make better presidents than fathers. We’ve had fathers as presidents for the past 240 years, but “a great father can give a kid 40 percent of his needs, tops. Tops out at 40 percent. Any mother, just a shitty mother, a not-even-trying mother? Two hundred percent.”

C.K. obviously means well. He’s trying to compliment mothers in general and Hillary in particular, and to reframe the political liability of her gender into an asset. But he’s playing into a very old and unpleasant narrative that’s become weirdly popular among liberal men this election cycle: the idea that we need women in government because they are intrinsically morally superior to men. Women should be represented in our government, this story goes, not because they are people, but because they are better than people: They are angelic; they are virtuous; they are pure.

That’s the story Michael Moore was telling when he tweeted a few days ago that women have not, historically, committed atrocities, implying that women have the kind of moral purity we need in our elected representatives.

As Jessica Ellis pointed out on Twitter, Moore’s assertion is historically inaccurate: Women worked on the Manhattan Project, were instrumental Nazi leaders, and have shot up schools. Women have committed all sorts of atrocities — it’s just that most of them have been erased from history, in the same way that most of women’s more positive accomplishments have been erased.

We don’t learn in school about Elizabeth Graves, who helped to create the first atomic bomb, just as we don’t learn about Cecilia Payne, who discovered that hydrogen is the building block of the universe. We don’t, in general, learn about the women who do things, regardless of whether those things are great or terrible.

And in part that’s because we’re attached to the idea that women aren’t supposed to do things. They’re supposed to be pure and virtuous and set a high moral example for men to follow when men go out and do things. Indeed, that was one of the central arguments against women’s suffrage. In 1911, the anti-suffragist J.B. Sanford wrote:

The mother's influence is needed in the home. She can do little good by gadding the streets and neglecting her children. Let her teach her daughters that modesty, patience, and gentleness are the charms of a women. Let her teach her sons that an honest conscience is every man's first political law; that no splendor can rob him nor no force justify the surrender of the simplest right of a free and independent citizen. The mothers of this country can shape the destinies of the nation by keeping in their places and attending to those duties that God Almighty intended for them. The kindly, gentle influence of the mother in the home and the dignified influence of the teacher in the school will far outweigh all the influence of all the mannish female politicians on earth.

We know now that it’s plainly untrue that women have more political influence when they sit at home and take care of their children than they do when they’re allowed to vote. In this election, as it became clear just how essential voting women are to defeating Donald Trump, Trump supporters called to repeal the 19th Amendment and rescind women’s suffrage. That’s how important and powerful women’s suffrage is.

But Sanford’s other assertion is just as untrue. Women are not intrinsically morally superior to men. Mothers are not inherently more virtuous than fathers. When we tell that story, we are returning to the idea that women are pure angels who are responsible for molding the moral fiber of the nation.

We should not have a woman as president because women are pure and virtuous and angelic. We should have a woman as president because women are people who make up more than half of the US population, and because women deserve to see themselves represented in our representative government.

Watch: If Clinton is president, sexism could get worse

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