Donald Trump is turning American political norms upside down in many ways, and the way he treats women is no exception. Leaked audio reveals Trump basically bragging about committing sexual assault. Trump’s many other misogynistic comments are so brazen and crude, and his alleged history of lewd behavior so long and rampant, that it’s almost hard to believe.
But the obviousness of Trump’s sexism is also what makes it dangerous. Trump is threatening to shift the center of gravity of what we consider “sexism” and lower our expectations for what counts as an attack on women.
Take Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, for instance. Republicans are coming out in droves to denounce Trump’s vulgar, violent comments about women, and expressing their hope that Trump will step down and let Pence lead the ticket instead. Pence himself said that he couldn’t excuse Trump’s comments. Many pundits see Pence as the sane, stable grown-up, and speculate that his style could be the moderate future the GOP needs.
But having Pence in power would be just as bad for women, if not worse, than Trump would be. Pence has one of the most extreme records on women’s health and rights in the Republican Party. And he doesn’t just hold extreme views; he’s also been very effective at making them a political reality. Trump’s boorishness threatens to make Pence’s radical attacks on women’s health seem moderate and reasonable by comparison. And that’s dangerous.
Trump’s open sexism is extreme and very bad in its own right
Let’s be clear: Trump has demeaned and objectified women for decades, and he continues to do so today. And the damage of his behavior goes far beyond hurt feelings.
Trump dismisses women he doesn’t like as fat, ugly, crazy, or weak. He reduces women he does like, including his own daughter, to objects of physical beauty or sexual desire. He obsessively attacks women who criticize him, from Megyn Kelly to Rosie O’Donnell to former Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado, no matter how bad it makes him look to do so.
And the leaked audio is a chilling reminder that Trump’s attacks on women aren’t limited to rudeness. He’s been credibly accused of rampant workplace sexual harassment by many former employees. He’s also been formally accused of sexual assault (by Jill Harth, who dropped her 1997 lawsuit but says she still stands by her claims) and rape (by his ex-wife Ivana, who has since walked back her claims but still never disputed the events she described in a deposition during their divorce).
Normalizing this kind of behavior is actively harmful to women on many levels. It activates people’s latent sexist resentments, which can lead to higher levels of violence and harassment toward women in general. And it reinforces the toxic power dynamics that make women afraid to speak out about the harassment or unfair treatment they endure from powerful men.
But to most people, Trump’s misogyny isn’t about subtle, institutionalized sexism or gender bias. It’s about the kinds of overt insults and crassness that polite society normally doesn’t tolerate. It’s almost cartoonish, which makes it easy to dismiss — or worse, to point at and say, “See that? That’s what real sexism looks like.”
But Mike Pence’s attacks on women’s health have already been devastating on a massive scale
Let’s start with Pence’s obsession with defunding Planned Parenthood — which is at least as intense as Trump’s decade-long obsession with insulting Rosie O’Donnell.
Planned Parenthood is a major health care provider, especially for low-income people. It provides a lot more than abortion; indeed, many health centers don’t offer abortion at all. Planned Parenthood offers contraception, STI screenings, and even primary care — and contrary to Republican talking points, it’s just not logistically possible for other providers to step up and fill in the gaps that would surface if Planned Parenthood’s funding is diverted elsewhere.
But in recent years, it’s become almost a ritual for Republicans in Congress to threaten to shut down the government, or hold up essential bills like Zika prevention, over defunding Planned Parenthood.
That’s all thanks to Pence, who started the trend while he was in Congress. Before 2007, when Pence was the first member of Congress to introduce legislation to defund Planned Parenthood, it wasn’t something most Republicans talked about. But he kept pushing the issue until it led to a government shutdown fight in 2011 — and pretty soon, bashing Planned Parenthood became routine for most Republicans.
This also started a major trend of defunding Planned Parenthood at the state level, which in many cases has gutted access to contraception, STI screening, and other basic health services, as well as abortion.
Pence has signed every bill restricting reproductive health in Indiana that crossed his desk, but his war on Planned Parenthood had some especially dire consequences for his state. After Pence cut funding for the women’s health provider, a rural Planned Parenthood — which was the only HIV testing center in Scott County, Indiana — was forced to close its doors in 2013. Two years later, Scott County became the epicenter of a devastating HIV outbreak.
Planned Parenthood has also been spuriously attacked for its role in fetal tissue research, which may have inspired Pence to sign an anti-abortion bill this year that was so extreme even many pro-life Republicans opposed it.
The law, which was later overturned by a federal judge, would have forced women to seek funerary services for their fetuses, whether they wanted to or not. It required required all fetal tissue — at any stage of development, and no matter whether it came from an abortion or a miscarriage — to be cremated or buried.
This would have prevented fetal tissue from being used in research, but it went much further than that. The wording of the burial provision meant that technically, even if a woman had a miscarriage at eight weeks of pregnancy at home, she would have to keep the blood and tissue, take it to a hospital or clinic, and have it buried or cremated by a funeral home.
The bill also banned abortion in cases of “disability,” which meant outlawing abortion even in cases of serious fetal anomaly.
These are what Pence’s policy victories look like. But his failed attempts are an even more sobering look at what might be.
Pence has done a lot of damage on reproductive health, but he could do a lot more as Trump’s vice president
Pence spoke with deep emotional conviction during the vice presidential debate about how his faith informs his opposition to abortion. But let’s not mince words about how damaging Pence’s actual policies have been, and how damaging they could be if implemented more widely.
If Pence had his way, more women would suffer or die from preventable health issues — whether from diseases that went untreated because of defunded health clinics, or complications from pregnancies where abortion would have been medically necessary, or injuries and deaths from unsafe illegal abortion.
More women would have unintended pregnancies because of reduced health care access, and they would be left no legal means to end them. And if they turned to illegal means — or even if they just suffered a natural miscarriage — they could end up in jail.
In Congress, Pence has repeatedly sponsored legislation to give “personhood” rights to fertilized eggs, which would ban all abortion and possibly some forms of contraception. He did not succeed in passing any of these, but he’s made clear what his goal is.
We know what it looks like in practice when abortion is banned: women suffering and dying from unsafe illegal abortions, or being thrown in jail for miscarriage like in El Salvador.
But we don’t even need to look further than Pence’s own state of Indiana for examples of this. Last year, Purvi Patel became the first woman jailed in the US for the crime of "feticide" for allegedly terminating her own pregnancy. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but the feticide conviction was later overturned and Patel’s sentence was reduced to 18 months of time served.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women has documented hundreds of other cases of women in the US whose pregnancy outcomes have led to their criminal prosecution. That number would likely increase if abortion were outlawed — which is more than a theoretical possibility, given that Trump has promised to nominate Supreme Court judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Pence sponsored other extreme anti-abortion bills while in Congress. One would have denied some rape victims coverage for abortion, by redefining rape as “forcible” for the purpose of federal abortion funding. Another bill would have allowed Catholic hospitals to deny abortion even to pregnant women who would die without it.
Politeness isn’t the same thing as moderation, or justice
Pence is often seen as a generic, establishment, inoffensive conservative who balances Trump’s chaos — someone who, unlike Trump, doesn’t think name-calling has any place in our national politics.
There’s no particular reason to believe that Pence is an unkind person, or someone whose beliefs aren’t sincerely held. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to which policies will or won’t hurt women.
Genteel repression is still repression, and Pence is politely fighting on the front line of a right-wing culture war that has already crippled reproductive rights in America. A glut of restrictive state laws ensure that many women who need abortions or other reproductive health care either can’t afford it or can’t get to a clinic that offers it. Reproductive justice advocates are fighting back, but it’s an uphill climb.
Pence’s extremism on these issues has already become normalized within the Republican Party. The official GOP platform calls for many of Pence’s policies — from passing an abortion-banning “personhood” amendment to the Constitution, to defunding Planned Parenthood, to opposing Roe v. Wade.
But again, Pence is unusually committed and effective at turning this kind of rhetoric into reality. And the loud rise of Trump threatens to obscure the quiet danger of Pence and people like him.