Misogyny is indeed bipartisan. If the Democrats in Congress seem overwrought and thunderous these days about all things Russian, it is their silence that is speaking quite loudly for itself on other matters. An incident involving Kellyanne Conway, the controversial creator of this political season’s most cynical catchphrase, provides the most recent example of congressional and other prominent Democrats caving in to political expediency rather than taking a principled stand against public displays of misogyny.
Conway has been criticized, with good reason, for her untiring duplicity and shameless opportunism. But last week, she prompted outrage for posturing of a different kind. She was caught by cameras with her knees casually perched on a couch in the Oval Office. Get that, everyone? Yes, she was kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office with her legs slightly parted! It was a scandal truly worth investigating – why, the Senate Intelligence Committee would have been called into action had the suspense lasted much longer. We eventually learned that she was kneeling because it allowed her to take a better picture of a meeting between her boss and leaders of historically black universities and colleges in the U.S.
But valid reasons for squatting aside, her leg-spreading, couch-kneeling audacity prompted a furor in the cyber-shaming universe commonly known as Twitter. Then Democratic Representative, Cedric Richmond, decided to add a little personal touch to this righteous commotion and suggested at a public dinner that Conway “looked kind of familiar in that position there.” Richmond later explained that he only meant that Conway was “behaving too comfortably” in an otherwise formal setting. That explanation does not really make sense on its face, but it makes even less sense when you consider that Richmond’s original comments at the dinner followed references by a Republican senator to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair (also carried out in the Oval Office, but likely not on the same couch). In other words, sex was quite definitely on the mind and some casual slut-shaming banter may not have appeared to be out of place.
Richmond’s comments sparked outrage among multiple Republicans but Democrats, who usually like to own outrage over crude comments directed at women, stayed mostly silent. In fact, when Nancy Pelosi, was explicitly asked to condemn Richmond’s statement, she dismissed the premise and said “everybody was making crude comments.” Right. That makes it fine, I suppose. At least she didn’t say that Conway was asking for it.
After several days of taking heat, Richmond eventually apologized for having allowed himself to be misunderstood. He did not forget to remind us that he has been a champion of women and women’s issues for years. Sounds an awful lot like “Nobody respects women as much as I do.”
Richmond’s crude words (and yes, he did mean exactly what you think he meant) and the Democrats’ refusal to call him out are wrong for so many reasons. First, such outright or barely-concealed sexism are just wrong on principle. Enough said. Second, the gleeful public ganging up on Conway is starting to resemble the more subtle, casual sexism that hounds most powerful women in the public eye, whether they are Democratic, Republican, Hollywood star or CEO. When sexism is subtle – for instance, when people react unfavorably to a woman because she is a woman, but may not use explicitly sexist language to put her down – it is admittedly hard to always definitively discern the blurry lines between legitimate criticism, mostly harmless (if a little edgy) humor, and unfair double standards that are selectively used to judge women. Certainly, Conway herself is a master at manipulating these blurry lines and often casts questionable blame on the allegedly sexist motivations of her (or her boss’) critics as a responsibility-deflecting tactic. Alas, there is no best-selling instruction manual yet that can be used to identify subtle sexism with mathematical precision. But it is worth noting that many of the same liberals who frequently – and largely accurately – detected subtle forms of racism being exercised against Obama over the last eight years are now (and have previously been) engaged in sexist derision against women they do not like. These people can hardly argue that they do not have adequate powers of reasoning to decipher bias when it exists. Third, as a practical matter, this kind of opportunism reduces the Democrats’ ability to challenge a famously misogynistic White House team (lead by their pussy-grabber-in-chief) on moral grounds. You do not get to claim the moral high ground if you flee from it whenever it is politically convenient. Fourth, this allows Trump, Conway and others in their camp to turn any conversations about women into a shallow partisan game and they will do it. They are already doing it. Just as Trump turned the sexual assault allegations against him during the 2016 presidential campaign into a referendum on Bill Clinton’s decades-ago sexual conduct, he will turn future accusations of his own and his administration’s failings on women’s rights into a kindergarten squabble of “…but they did it first.”
Finally, is Conway worth defending? This is, after all, a woman who claims to reject feminism and feminist principles because they are anti-male and pro-abortion, hangs out on a daily basis with the worst kind of misogynistic thugs, and defends an indefensibly sexist boss for a living. But hard as it is to accept for many liberals, wily, morally-bankrupt conservative women are also women (as are female millionaires, pro-lifers and war-hawks). Also, this is not really about Conway or any specific woman. It is about the principle of it. And Democrats and other liberals are not doing anyone – especially not women – a favor by endorsing or condoning misogyny when its dressed in sheep’s clothing.