Kellyanne Conway is everywhere—arguably more visible and accessible than the media-obsessed president himself.
And like most women in a position as high profile as hers, she is under particular scrutiny. But after a photo of the senior adviser sitting awkwardly on the Oval Office couch among HBCU Presidents set off an internet firestorm, conservative commentator Amanda Carpenter wrote for Cosmopolitan, “Conway’s gaffes aren’t the reason AFP posted that image for the world to gawk upon … Each of these things happened because Conway is a woman.”
And while on the surface, I would agree—Conway certainly has been subject to misogynistic critiques on her age, sexuality, and competence with which a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white man would not have to contend—this shallow understanding is exactly the problem. To only address sexism in this particular vacuum is to ignore the white, patriarchal dominance being reinforced in these defenses. As “Call Your Girlfriend” co-host Aminatou Sow remarked, "A lot of people would have you believe that it’s a bullshit controversy to be upset about, and that we’re not focusing on the ‘right’ things. I would submit to you that a lot of those people were white people … To me, this picture just illustrates a double standard that is really shocking, but also not surprising at all. It just encapsulates everything you know about America and “responsibility politics.” I cannot imagine if that was, like, anybody in the Obama White House who did that, cannot imagine if that was any of those Black people in the room."
Indeed, throughout Barack Obama’s tenure as Commander-in-Chief, the 44th President and his wife, Michelle, were the subjects of these very racial double standards. There was the time when Republicans lost their minds over Mr. Obama resting his foot on his Oval Office desk or when Mrs. Obama had the audacity to simply wear a sleeveless dress. Did the same people who are dismayed over Conway’s treatment come rushing to stand up for the Obamas? No, they did not, as Clayton Purdom explained in AV Club: “The Conway photo shows a casual disdain for decorum that seems uniquely in line with the Trump administration’s lack of respect for Black America and the crowd of esteemed intellectuals in the room … The image of Conway casually swiping through her phone rather than taking an opportunity to better understand the thoughts and concerns of some of the most important names in Black thought strikes a uniquely resonant chord.”
On top of the racial implications of the snapshot, this perceived slight on sexist grounds is particularly rich, given that Conway has spent her life denouncing the feminist movement. She has advocated for “femininity not feminism,” saying “If women want to be taken seriously in the workforce, looking feminine is a good place to start.” White women like Conway are more than willing to reinforce these gender stereotypes for their own gain, but then are dismayed when those same sexist norms come back to bite them. Conway herself has even tried to claim a “triple standard,” meaning that conservative women are further denigrated because of their political ideology. Along this vein, Carpenter lamented that Conway “should be a feminist icon as the first winning female presidential campaign manager,” but that she “gets hardly any respect from liberal feminists.”
And therein lies the problem: As Stassa Edwards noted in Jezebel, “Conway wants to have her proverbial cake and eat it too; feminism is bad except when it’s good.” She will happily clear the way for people to come rushing to the defense of (white) women who prop up patriarchal power, but will scoot aside for those same folks to tear down the women who challenge it. As Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert noted on the heels of a recent New York Times’ piece defending Conway, “Just checked Nexis; there wasn't a single NYT headline during the Clinton campaign that detailed ‘sexist attacks’ against Hillary.” Where was Kellyanne when Clinton’s appearance, voice, and health were ruthlessly picked apart by the media and members of her own political party? Oh, that’s right; she was busy enabling the rise of a man who gleefully brags about sexually assaulting women, among many other disturbing things.
And that is arguably the worst aspect of this dynamic—women in Donald Trump’s inner circle are often deployed to leverage their (white) “feminism” to push through his harmful causes. Nowhere is this sinister appropriation more apparent than with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. On the surface, Ivanka shadowboxes as a modern feminist woman: She is educated, has overseen successful businesses, and now plays an integral role in the Office of the President (nepotism laws be damned). Additionally, Ivanka has attached herself to advancing policies on equal pay and family leave. But beneath the feminist-adjacent veneer is a noxiousness that serves to soften President Trump’s white nationalist agenda. And that “neither here nor there” brand of politik is incredibly treacherous, as Anne Helen Petersen observed in BuzzFeed:
Her ostensible apoliticism is, in fact, the most dangerous sort of politics, cloaking its own power in the banal aesthetics of domesticity and femininity, outwardly professing, “I’m not part of this narrative,” even as her ubiquitous presence communicates just how much a part of it she is.
Much like Conway, Ivanka uses this feminist posture when it serves her, but does nothing substantive to advance equality for all. If anything, she's complicit in her father's misogynist policies (and racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, etc.) because she has his ear and does nothing to stop it—a despicable quality SNL spoofed this past Saturday night. Perhaps this thin sheath of feminism that these women selectively wrap themselves in is an unfortunate outcome of the movement’s re-entry into mainstream conversation. As Erin Gloria Ryan of The Daily Beast asserted, “Ivanka’s advocacy-as-trendy-accessory isn’t exactly an outlier at this moment in American culture. ‘Feminism’ the label has long been morphing from an ideology to something that can be worn to parties.” In essence, it’s feminism for profit, not for meaningful social advancement.
On the flip side of this femvertising cynicism is a recognition that while feminism can be “too inclusive,” it also “needs to be popular to become a mass movement.” Look no further than the Women’s March—which was more widely attended than Trump’s own inauguration—and the ensuing protests that have influenced policy. Those grassroots movements show that there is value in the power of the masses, as Katha Pollitt argued in The Nation, "There’s a lot of room between celebrating Ivanka’s little pink dresses and excluding everyone who doesn’t call for communism this afternoon. In recent years, feminism has actually become broader and deeper: Reproductive justice, which centers low-income women of color, is replacing choice as the framework for reproductive rights, to choose just one example. The Women’s March found room for a broad array of women, from Muslim women to trans women to women of all races, holding signs for Black Lives Matter. It wasn’t feel-good feminism—but it did feel good."
All that said, where does that leave the Ivankas and Kellyannes in the realm of feminism? Gillian Thomas, a senior lawyer at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, believes that “if women were more united and speaking up at this behavior, including when it’s perpetrated by the left, we’d all be a lot better off.” And while I concur that misogyny is a problem in the progressive movement as well, I can’t help but feel that this reflexive desire to protect Conway (and Ivanka) is another instance of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. Sexism is always worth identifying, but I’m not sure that women who are committed to dismantling systems of oppression should stand in the figurative line of fire for the women actively perpetuating them. As Edwards noted: “It’s the conundrum of conservative women, generally employed to keep critics at bay and the ideology of individualism intact.”
Women who betray intersectional feminist principles for their own individual benefit have made their choice. And if the GOP is indeed the “party of personal responsibility,” then I’m holding women like Conway accountable—to themselves.