On Wednesday, Sanders tried to argue that the fact she got the job illustrates her boss’ commitment to working mothers.
“To the best of my knowledge, I’m the first mom to hold the job of the White House press secretary,” Sanders told a packed room of reporters in the White House briefing room. “That says less about me than it does about this president.”
But there are so many other things that say so much more about President Donald Trump’s support for women and working mothers.
There are his comments about just grabbing women by the genitals, and the dozen-plus sexual assault accusations he faces, which he denies. But there’s also his more recent behavior, like singling out an Irish journalist and talking about her “nice smile” during a serious event. Or telling French President Emmanuel Macron that his wife is in “good shape.”
These aren’t simply compliments, as any woman knows. They’re remarks ― made in a professional setting ― that put women on notice that their looks are priority No. 1. That they’re not on the same playing field as men.
This might be less relevant if Trump were doing a lot for women and working mothers within his administration or at the policy level. He is not.
Women working in Trump’s White House are earning about 63 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, according to a comparison of median salaries in the administration conducted by the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute think tank.
One problem is there aren’t many women in the most senior administration roles. Slightly fewer than one-quarter of those positions are held by women. Under President Barack Obama, the percentage of women in top roles oscillated between 35 and 45 percent. Under President George W. Bush, it was between 27 and 40 percent.
Perhaps most damning, though, is Trump’s relentless drive to repeal Obamacare, which would mean taking health insurance away from millions of working mothers. Under the law, the number of working mothers who were uninsured fell to a historic low.
Trump calls the health care law signed by his predecessor a “disaster.”
To be fair, Trump has proposed a couple of things that could possibly help working mothers. He is the first Republican to include a plan for paid family leave in his budget. It falls short of ideal, but it’s something.
He also proposed some tax credits for families who use child care, but they would mainly benefit upper-middle-class parents.
Neither proposal stands much of a chance of going anywhere ― and would be more than offset by the consequences of other Trump administration goals like stripping away health care and scaling back reproductive rights.
Sanders failed to mention those policies on Wednesday. Instead, she pointed vaguely to tax reform.
“Empowering working moms is at the heart of the president’s agenda, particularly when it comes to things like tax reform,” she said.
For her part, Sanders got into politics via her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). She joined the Trump team in February 2016. She has three young kids, the oldest of whom is starting kindergarten soon, she said on Wednesday.
HuffPost would love to know how she manages essentially two 24/7 jobs ― parenting and working as a press secretary ― and how Trump empowers her to do so. Sanders did not respond to an email sent with more questions.
Perhaps Trump’s tax reform proposal will help with her daily juggle? Hard to say.
The administration’s tax reform “proposal” so far consists of a barely sketched-out plan a couple of Trump advisers released in April that would deliver tax breaks to rich people. More recently, the president seems to have reversed course and is now talking about tax breaks for middle-class people.
Anyway, taxes aren’t what’s keeping the majority of mothers out of the workforce, or holding them back in the job market. The reasons women aren’t participating in the labor market in the U.S. at the same high rates as in other developed countries are more complicated, including a lack of paid maternity leave, sick leave and affordable child care ― as well as low wages, a lack of health benefits and a dearth of job flexibility.
For upper-income women ― like Sanders, who can presumably afford child care and health insurance ― the barrier to advancement is bias.
And really, the president is the Bias Guy in Chief.
Women, in Trump’s view, have to work harder than men to prove themselves equal. During the campaign, he said women deserve equal pay if they can be as good as men ― the presumption of course being that typically, they’re not. “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job,” Trump said.
“Men are better than women, but a good woman is better than 10 good men,” Trump would reportedly tell the women he hired at his real estate company. Many of them were grateful to him for their shot. One told The Washington Post that Trump would keep a photo of her at a heavier weight in his drawer and take out the “fat picture” when he was unhappy with her.
The feeling that women have to prove themselves to measure up to men ― who are assumed to be competent ― and look perfect while doing so is precisely the kind of attitude that’s holding back smart and successful women from ascending to the CEO office, as New York Times reporter Susan Chira wrote last week.
“I always had to do better than anybody else to be considered equal,” former McDonald’s USA president Jan Fields told Chira.
Of course, there are always exceptions: Thirty-two women managed to land CEO spots at Fortune 500 companies, against all odds. And yes, Sarah Huckabee Sanders scored an influential role in the White House, along with Kellyanne Conway ― who was hired at the insistence of a Trump donor.
Let’s not mistake the exceptions for the rule.