When White House counselor Kellyanne Conway tried to defend President Trump’s record on women Thursday, she picked a strange way to do it: claiming that attendees of the Women’s March, and many other women who oppose Trump, “just have a problem with women in power.”
“One thing that’s been a little bit disappointing and revealing and that I hope will get better is, turns out that a lot of women just have a problem with women in power,” Conway said onstage Thursday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the nation’s most prominent gathering of conservative political activists and operatives.
Conway also praised Trump’s treatment of women in the workplace such as herself, as she often did during the campaign. But she also claimed that “this whole sisterhood, this whole ‘let’s go march for women’s rights,’” is really more about “constantly talking about what women look like, or what they wear, or making fun of their choices, or presuming that they are not as powerful as the men around.” She said it’s “unfortunate” that many feminists have such a “presumptive negativity about women in power.”
Conway is right about one thing: Research clearly shows that a lot of people, women included, really do have issues with women in power. Women are judged more harshly than men are for their leadership failures, and even for seeking leadership positions in the first place. It’s likely that Conway herself, as the first woman campaign manager to get her candidate elected president, has had firsthand experience with that in her professional life. Perhaps that experience is what led her to make these comments.
But to say that women who oppose Trump are the ones who really have issues with women, and not Trump himself, dodges the deeper problems associated with gender and society. It’s also a classic example of how conservatives often view feminism and other movements for equality.
Conway’s comments make no sense if you know anything about the Women’s March
The most obvious problem with Conway’s suggestion that Women’s March attendees have issues with women in power is that the overwhelming majority of them voted for Hillary Clinton.
Three researchers from the University of Maryland, Dana R. Fisher, Dawn M. Dow, and Rashawn Ray, conducted random surveys of people who attended the main Women’s March in Washington, DC. Fisher shared their findings with Vox: 90 percent of those surveyed said they voted for Hillary Clinton, 1.7 percent said they didn’t vote, 2.3 percent voted for a third-party candidate, about 6 percent didn’t say who they voted for, and just 0.2 percent said they voted for Trump.
The attendees also had a diverse array of political concerns, from climate change to immigration to police violence. But the majority, 60 percent, cited “women’s rights” as one reason they were motivated to march.
Public opinion research by PerryUndem Communications also found that Trump’s comments about women, specifically, had a powerful influence on many people’s desire to take political action. That may help explain why the Women’s March became the most popular anti-Trump action over inauguration weekend.
Meanwhile, the Women’s March itself had nothing to do with debating women’s fashion choices. Instead, speeches and signs focused on issues like ensuring access to comprehensive reproductive health care, elevating the concerns of women of color and poor women, protecting immigrant families, stopping climate change, and fighting sexual assault and ensuring that victims are believed.
Conway’s boss has actively worked against every single one of these issues that so many Women’s Marchers supported.
President Trump has allied with the pro-life movement, signed an executive order that can do extreme harm to global women’s health, and vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. He has threatened to deport every unauthorized immigrant living in the United States, including mothers and children with no criminal record.
And not only has Trump been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women but he was also caught on tape bragging about it, dismissed that bragging as mere “locker room talk,” and called the women who accused him liars and suggested they were too unattractive for him to sexually assault.
Conway, who defended Trump against these allegations during the campaign, also claimed at CPAC that Trump is “not fully understood for how compassionate and what a great boss he is to women.”
But while it’s true that some women who have worked for Trump have praised him for his mentorship, others claim that he treated women in discriminatory ways. And his public record on women in the workplace is spotty: He called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers, he lied about offering child care to his employees, he suggested that women who experience sexual harassment (even his own daughter) should just find another job, and he frankly discussed in his own books how he would often evaluate the sexual attractiveness of his female employees.
Conway’s comments make more sense if you consider how many conservatives tend to view feminism
Conway’s remarks reflect a common stereotype among conservatives about feminism, and other movements for social equality: the idea that by trying to correct historical wrongs and level the playing field for marginalized groups, progressives are really just coddling and insulting members of those groups.
The idea that women don’t need feminism is common among anti-feminists like Conway. They claim that feminism encourages women to hate men, and that it encourages women to think of themselves as weak or as victims.
Conway spoke proudly of how she was raised as an “independent woman” — so independent that nobody in her household “ever had to say the word ‘feminism.’” Conway said that her mother didn’t “feel sorry for herself,” or complain, or “rely on government.” She “just figured it out.”
This idea — that if the government helps people, it’s actually hurting them by making them “dependent” and unable to fend for themselves — is incredibly common on the right. Just look at Paul Ryan’s rationale for cutting food stamps and other spending on the poor, for instance.
On some level, holding this attitude requires assuming that all the necessary work to achieve social equality has already been done, and that everyone has equal opportunities to succeed.
But when it comes to working women, for instance, it’s hard to reconcile this belief with reality. If women really have the same opportunities as men to succeed in public life, what does it say that women still make up less than 20 percent of Congress, or that women’s wages still plummet just as they enter their childbearing years, or that women hold two-thirds of all low-wage jobs, or that roughly one-third of working women experience workplace sexual harassment?
Does it say that women’s opportunities aren’t really so equal after all — not because women are weak, but because the social and institutional decks are stacked against them? Or does it say that women are so fundamentally different from men that the status quo — women holding less power and making less money than men across the board — is just the way it is, and isn’t worth trying to change on a systemic level?
Modern feminism tends to take the former view, and anti-feminists like Conway tend to take the latter. But anti-feminists also struggle against perceptions that they are “anti-woman” or oppose “women’s equality.” If they admit that they don’t believe society needs to change that much to accommodate women’s needs, that could be perceived as standing in the way of women’s progress.
To Conway and those who share her beliefs, the solution seems to be painting feminists as the real enemies of women’s progress. And they advocate a very particular vision of “empowerment” — one that says women need to use sheer force of will to overcome the obstacles against them, but that has very little to say about why those obstacles are there in the first place.