The GOP Is Seizing the Feminist Moment, So Why Can’t Democrats?

There’s nothing worse than watching the left’s inaction while Republicans happily call themselves the real feminists

Ivanka Trump with the winners of the Pledge to America’s Workers Presidential Award in Washington, D.C. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

I’ll give it to Republicans: As sexist as they are, they somehow manage to use all that misogyny to their advantage. While Democrats are still performing postmortems on the 2016 presidential election — reeling over the sexism that played a role in voters’ decisions — the GOP elevates religious zealots like Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court while praising her for the size of her family and marveling how the laundry ever gets done in such a busy house.

In that way, conservatives really have a leg up on their left-wing counterparts — their sexism is core to their belief system, and they’re not afraid to empower women who support that ideological project. Democrats, on the other hand, haven’t come to terms with how deep misogyny runs on both sides of the aisle and are so afraid of sexism that when given a young, diverse roster of exciting presidential candidates, they selected… Joe Biden.

We’re in the most powerfully feminist cultural period in decades — maybe ever — and somehow it’s Republicans who are seizing the moment.

It’s true, most of the conservative strategy around women is a shameless misrepresentation of what feminism actually is. Because Republicans don’t actually care about women’s rights and the meaning behind the movement to further them, they can twist progressive rhetoric to suit their own needs. Under their version of “feminism,” Ivanka is a women’s rights icon, laws against abortion are empowering, and a president accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women is a trailblazer because he hires women.

It’s a cynical game of contortion, but it’s shrewd. The Republican Party isn’t afraid to use feminism’s mainstream popularity to get what right-wing lawmakers want. And if that means putting more women in power — something they’d normally blanch at — so be it!

Perhaps if Democrats had the same kind of clear-eyed understanding of their own sexism, we’d be making more feminist progress. On Sunday, for example, the New York Times published an article about voters who didn’t support Hillary Clinton who now plan to vote for Biden. We heard from men who just “identif[ied] more” with Biden, or who saw him as a “regular guy” while imagining Clinton as someone who “just wanted the job because she wanted to be the boss.” One woman thought Clinton came across as “lying and conniving”; the Pennsylvania Democratic chairman straight-up admitted, “It’s just a lot easier with Joe Biden because he’s a guy and he’s an old white guy.”

Democrats know the misogyny is there, but instead of interrogating it or strategizing on how to address it, they’re taking the quick and easy way out: superficial acknowledgments that mostly ignore sexism and move on. They call out Trump’s sexism but shroud their own in concerns over “electability.”

It’s a tired and outdated approach: There’s a new generation of voters who want to talk about misogyny and are more feminist than we give them credit for. (Among the many examples giving me hope: the young women on TikTok doing their makeup over the audio of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s speech about being called a “fucking bitch.”)

What if Democrats were more eager to cater to their votes instead of the fickle seesawing of sexist moderates? Instead of having the same conversations again and again about working-class white male voters, Democrats could try to expand their base and bring in new voters. What if instead of seeing Hillary Clinton’s loss as an indictment on all female candidates, Democrats stopped letting panic guide their decisions?

I understand that Trump’s presidency has all of us scared; we don’t want to lose the election, and we need to get the country back to some semblance of stability, especially amid a terrifying global pandemic. But there is something so infuriating about a party and voters who call themselves feminists, and ostensibly support feminist values, while shying away from the most obvious feminist acts — like elevating more women to powerful positions and taking honest stock of our own biases, even in a time when it feels risky to do so.

Democratic voters need to be honest about why they threw their support behind Biden — and make sure that it’s our values, not fear, that lead us.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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