The Truth About The Republican Party's Pussy-Grabbing & Pedestal Problems

Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an author and assistant professor of history at The New School. The views expressed here are her own.

No-holds-barred condemnation is in order when a presidential candidate — or anyone — brags about grabbing women’s “pussies” uninvited, or busts into a changing room full of seminude teen beauty queens. There should be no doubt about someone's character when they brand a 10-year-old future-girlfriend-material, or grope a woman on an airplane, or shove their tongue down the throat of a journalist mid-interview.

Yet, as these stories of Trump's alleged behavior emerged, many of us feminists worried the public might just buy his excuses for all of the above: that bragging about sexual assault is mere "locker-room talk." Or that “just taking a look” at his accuser confirms that Trump, who only marries (and cheats on) models, would never victimize someone whose beauty doesn’t pay the bills.

Happily, denunciations of Trump’s behavior have come as fast and furious as his seemingly endless stream of sexist aggression. Trump’s GOP critics in particular are getting showered with special praise for bravely speaking out against their candidate. But their rebukes actually reveal the many faces of misogyny alive and well in the Republican Party. And they certainly don't herald the arrival of the “bipartisan feminist movement” The New York Times gushed about.

The countless what if-it-were-your-wife-mom-sister comments peppering social media buy into that same troubling logic: Women need protection and should command respect based on their family ties rather than firmly in their own right.

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Even those Republicans who trash Trump’s frat-boy boorishness buy into what feminist scholars have long called "the pedestal problem," the subtly sexist intellectual act of elevating women to an almost otherworldly, less-than-human status by emphasizing their delicateness, supreme virtue, fitness for motherhood, and essential difference from men.

The idea was coined by historians to describe 19th century middle- and upper-class attitudes toward “virtuous” (read “virginal and white”) women, whom men put on "pedestals." By contrast, poor women, women of color, enslaved women, or “ruined” white women of any class were excluded from the pedestal and treated as inferior and sexually available.

Since women launched the fight for suffrage in the 1840s, they argued for nothing less than the full rights of citizenship. Rejecting the idea that the pedestal — and the chivalrous behavior that accompanied it — was a privilege, Gloria Steinem said in 1972, “A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.”

The idea was coined by historians to describe 19th century middle- and upper-class attitudes toward 'virtuous' (read 'virginal and white') women, whom men put on 'pedestals.'

When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced in the wake of the Trump video that “women are to be championed and revered, not objectified,” two out of three of his adjectives had a decidedly 21st-century you-go-girl feel. But "revered?" This is not the language of someone who perceives women as equal partners in politics or otherwise.

Mitt Romney got in on it, too, speaking out passionately for "our women." The paternalistic implication was loud and clear: It's up to men of character to step up and protect their voiceless property. The countless what if-it-were-your-wife-mom-sister comments peppering social media buy into that same troubling logic: Women need protection and should command respect based on their family ties rather than firmly in their own right.

The words of GOP women only prove the point. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte did call out Trump for boasting about “degrading” and “assaulting” women, but invoked her authority to do so first as “a mom” rather than a powerful politician. Alex Smith, the first female president of the College Republican National Committee, tweeted, “The Party of Lincoln is not a locker room,” upholding even in her criticism the idea that the problem is not with men boasting about sexual assault in their figurative locker rooms, but with conducting such conversations in mixed company.
Photo: Brennan Linsley/AP Images.
For the most part, even Republican women who identify as feminists offer only vague criticisms of Trump’s “unacceptable” behavior, understandable given that any more precise censure would risk exposing how deeply incommensurate with feminism the whole GOP platform is.

Sound bites aside, none of this should surprise us. Trump's explicit, rape-y chitchat and incorrigible handsiness might now be a rarity on the national stage of presidential politics, but it's just one facet of persistent antifeminism that defines the GOP. Long before Trump showed up, the GOP had consistently fought against the advancement of women in almost every aspect of society.

Restricting access to abortion is rooted in the belief that women aren't really capable of making decisions about their own bodies. Rolling back welfare for single mothers? The ladies, especially those of color, can't be trusted with money, either. All-gender bathrooms? Republican men seem to think that girls and women must be protected from assaults by trans people, even though trans people are most often the victims of violence.
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Perhaps the best thing to come of Trump's candidacy is that we will no longer be blind to the coexisting, and mutually reinforcing, perils of the pussy-grab and the pedestal.

Bragging about pussy-grabbing doesn’t preclude Trump and his supporters from participating in pedestal politics, of course. Their #repealthe19th hashtag perfectly combines an aggressive attack on women’s personhood with throwback nostalgia for the days when rough-and-tumble politics were thought to be too intellectually taxing for irrational, impressionable women.

Trump’s oft-repeated defense that his remarks were "locker-room" banter — Melania followed up by dismissing them as "boy talk" — and thus forgivable, says that of course guys speak in ways we delicate flowers could never understand when they are in the safely macho space of the proverbial locker room (or older men on a tour bus on the way to a professional engagement, that is).

Trump's meanest jabs at Hillary Clinton reflect the same sensibility — in the days before the first debate, he whipped up a fervor about her physical health and then concluded the debate by questioning her stamina outright, exploiting stereotypes about female frailty. Holding Clinton to a higher moral standard and treating her only in relation to her husband, Trump depicts her role as a wronged wife a serious character flaw, while he gets a pass on his own philandering.

Even his rare charitable moments are in this spirit; Trump announced in the second debate: "I'm a gentleman" and ceded the first response to a question on health care to Clinton. But to feminists who have, for decades, critiqued holding-doors-open, ladies-first chivalry as the softer side of sexism, he only made his ungentlemanly behavior on the bus and beyond worse.

Perhaps the best thing to come of Trump's candidacy is that we will no longer be blind to the coexisting, and mutually reinforcing, perils of the pussy-grab and the pedestal.
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