The meme-ready sight of eyerolling congresswomen in white and Nancy Pelosi’s clap-back was empowering. But this administration is a multi-pronged war against women and they may just triumph.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” Trump snapped at last night’s State of the Union. His irritation may have been the most revealing moment of the evening. He had just finished announcing how many jobs his administration had created for women, and was about to pat himself on the back for the record number of women elected to Congress. (Most of them elected specifically on the basis of their opposition to him, but never mind.) However, before Trump was done anointing himself a feminist hero, some of the women in the chamber actually started clapping. He immediately broke character to shut them up.
This is Trump’s attitude toward women boiled down to its primal essence: Women exist as convenient rhetorical devices, characters in a story or a lie, a way to drum up emotion in his audience. However, if we actually talk, or argue, or get in his way, his first instinct is to silence and subjugate.
The most notable bit of subjugation, of course, was the announcement that he would pursue a federal 20-week ban on abortion—one which will kill mothers and pregnant people who need later abortions for health reasons, and condemn many unviable fetuses to die longer and more painful deaths shortly after birth. His announcement mimicked the language of the most extreme and reality-detached anti-choice lobbyists:
“Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” (They did not.) “These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world.” (They are, often, fetuses with anomalies so severe they cannot survive outside the womb—nearly all non-health-related abortions take place in the first trimester, except where abortion restrictions have made the service so difficult to access that the procedure is delayed.) “And then, we had the case of the governor of Virginia where he stated he would execute a baby after birth.” (No, we didn’t have such a case.) “To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.” (There’s no data on when a fetus can “feel pain.” Anti-choice activists seem to have picked the 20-week marker out of thin air. This is an invented fact, a myth, from the same conspiracy theorists and liars who told us Planned Parenthood was selling baby parts.) “Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.”
The mother’s life, presumably, is not innocent enough to count. Nor was the life of Jakelin Caal, the 7-year-old girl who died in border patrol custody after her father’s warnings about her health were ignored. Nor were the lives of the thousands of children who have been forcibly stolen from their parents and irreparably traumatized by ICE, or the lives of their mothers and fathers, who lost their beloved children simply by trying to find a better life for them in a new country.
But pointing out the hypocrisy is too easy. It also doesn’t work. This is Trump, the guy who gleefully confessed to sexual assault on a hot mic, oversaw an administration where multiple immigrant women have reportedly been sexually assaulted by U.S. immigration officials, denied those women necessary abortions afterward, and then claimed, in his state of the union, that Latina women should not immigrate to the United States because “one in three women is sexually assaulted on the long journey north.” We know he’s lying, and he knows we know he’s lying, and that’s the point: As the man with the microphone, he reserves the right to rewrite reality as he sees fit.
The 20-week ban is not surprising. It was one of Trump’s first promises; in 2016, he sent a letter to “pro-life leaders” pledging to pass what they called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act.” Over the past few weeks, Republicans have increasingly been picking fights in bad faith—no one could have possibly believed that Virginia governor Ralph Northam actually offered, on-air, to murder babies, even if Northam himself soon proved to be the worst possible messenger—so that anyone who’d been following the issue could see they were looking for a pretext to introduce the ban.
Yet it seems to have snuck up on us, yet again, drowned out by the ever-plentiful flow of sewage that spews forth from the Oval Office on a daily basis. It is a not-so-secret secret among media feminists that abortion-rights coverage actually does fairly poorly these days. People don’t read about it or get outraged about it as much as they did under Obama, because there is so much else to get outraged about. “There’s so much that’s specifically awful about Trump,” one editor told me, “that it’s hard to be interested in the awful stuff that would happen under any Republican.” This is true even though we are likely to lose more reproductive rights and protections under Trump, or thanks to Trump’s Kavanaugh-equipped Supreme Court, than we have since the passage of Roe v. Wade.
This, too, is part of how Trump writes women out of reality. His administration’s attacks on women and trans people can only go so far because they’re aimed at groups we render invisible, like pregnant people in ICE custody, or because he keeps up such a steady carnival of offense and horror on some issues (defending Nazis, stealing babies, conspiring with foreign interests to undermine our elections) that we assume we’re safe on other fronts. Trump may distort any truth he encounters, he may reduce women to rape fantasies and imaginary victims of scary Latino gangsters and “the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child,” he may proclaim his concern for sexual assault victims while putting an accused sexual predator on the Supreme Court or tout his family-leave policy after proclaiming pregnancy an “inconvenience” to bosses—but, on some level, we let him, if only because we’re too tired to fight him on every issue at every moment of every day.
Yet that is the task at hand, because if we know anything by now, it’s that these issues are all one issue. There’s no reproductive justice in America if an asylum-seeking mother cannot hold her child and keep her safe and uncaged. There’s no freedom without bodily freedom, including the right to have the abortions you need, when you need them, and for any reason that you may need them. There is no way to support and advocate for women without hearing their voices—and even now, with all those women in Congress and a half-dozen female presidential candidates and Nancy Pelosi casting her masterful side-eye and fuck-you clap at the man with the microphone, women are at risk of being spoken over and drowned out. The task is what it always was: to resist Trump’s attempts to rewrite reality, to refuse being made into symbols and insist on being heard as real, breathing, feeling, opinion-having people. If there’s one thing we know, after all, it’s that he hates it when we make noise.
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