The President and the Vice President appear to relate to women in drastically different ways. Mike Pence has been married for over thirty years to the same woman. He has never been caught in a sexual scandal so common among powerful men. To avoid temptation, he strictly regulates his interactions with women: he will not dine with a woman other than his wife, nor will he attend a mixed-gender social gathering without her. Pence aims for monogamy in marriage and chastity outside of it, goals consistent with his evangelical faith.
The President, in contrast, is currently married to his third wife, both of his previous marriages having ended in divorce. Far from limiting his interactions with women other than his wife, the President has a history of flirtation and more. He is on record as declaring that he would go after his own daughter, since she was “hot,” were he not her father. He famously described a sexual assault on a married woman; more telling of his attitudes than the grabbing he described was his amazement that she did not respond to his overtures. He has repeatedly assessed the attractiveness of women, not only the extent of their sexual allure, but also declaring those he deems ugly, fat or otherwise unattractive. On Tuesday, when Ivanka Trump told a gathering of the Group of 20 at a summit on women’s entrepreneurship in Berlin on April 25 that her father supported women’s economic empowerment, the hissing crowd was no doubt thinking of the President’s many statements about women as objects of sexual desire. Two more different approaches to women, marital fidelity, and social propriety are difficult to imagine.
Yet the impulses behind both approaches have much in common. Both men see women essentially in relationship to men, as existing to serve and please them. In neither man’s view are women independent individuals free to chart their own course. They are rather intended as men’s helpmates and sexual partners. Women in this view fulfill their destiny if they work to satisfy men. The President is openly appreciative of women who meet his expectations for personal appearance and who willingly gratify his desires. For Pence, this role is best fulfilled by a woman loving, honoring, and obeying her husband, as well as protecting him from the temptation other women represent. While Pence tries to be good, Trump seems less concerned with transgressing (or less aware of) various social norms. Yet for both men, women are not primarily people first, and women second, but are defined by their womanhood. Many policies promoted by the party the two men lead follow from this shared premise.
For both the President and the Vice President, despite their different perspectives, women must fit themselves into a world of male privilege.
Two sides of the same ideology, the chaste Pence and the profligate Trump represent male privilege. If women exist to serve men, then everything else women seek becomes secondary or even unacceptable. Control over her own body, seemingly a fundamental individual right, challenges male privilege. Engaging in sex or not, using birth control, or seeking an abortion, in this view, ought not to be her decision. The ultimate objectification of women and the ultimate act of male entitlement is of course rape, and some commentators have derided Pence’s self-sequestration as consistent with both rape culture and the logic of the hijab. If women exist for men, a woman should avoid male attention by staying away or being veiled. The stance assumes male aggression and places the onus on women to dodge it. Pence thus attempts to take responsibility for his actions by avoiding temptation, effectively barring women from interacting with him in certain forums. For both the President and the Vice President, despite their different perspectives, women must fit themselves into a world of male privilege.
Many women of course accept at least the more moderate version of male privilege. They hope to marry a Mike Pence, who will continue in the relationship, supporting and guiding them. Or they dream of attracting a rich man on the prowl for his next sexual conquest or, better yet, the latest wife. Whether all the women who accede to this ideology accept all its premises, they at least understand that such attitudes and expectations dictate their prospects.
Other women defy this ideal. They are professional women who put career above family, women who make more money than men, women who choose not to marry, women whose bodies don’t conform (and especially those who don’t care whether they conform), and women who love other women. Such women aim for professional success, financial independence, and bodily integrity in defiance of these ideas about their true nature and proper role.
The men in the White House—as well as the campaign that got them there and many of the male media personalities who promote them—have been frequently characterized as misogynistic. The President, confronted with these assertions, proclaims it a lie. He loves women, he has repeatedly declared. This assertion is true if we understand it on his terms: he loves women who strive to please, women who are beautiful and compliant. Women who demand to be treated as equals, who see their worth defined by their humanity over their desirability, not so much.