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A victory for misogyny

15 November 2016

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Professor Sharon Bessell is Director of Gender Equity and Diversity and heads the Children’s Policy Centre and the Poverty and Inequality Research Centre at the Crawford School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on social policy for children and she currently teaches Global Social Policy (POGO8044) and Development Theories and Themes (POGO8072).

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Trump is not a new hope, he’s a harbinger of hate, Sharon Bessell writes.

Since the 1970s the focus of global strategies to correct gross gender disparity in politics has been to increase the numbers of women in parliament. Quotas, inclusive electoral systems, and training for female candidates have all been used to address the disturbingly intractable gender disparity in decision-making bodies – from local councils to national parliaments. In many parts of the world, women’s political representation has slowly – often painfully – increased.

Today we see a new phenomenon. Not ‘simply’ low numerical representation, but the democratic election of a United States president who has espoused an alarmingly sexist set of values. If in 2008, Obama campaigned on a message of hope, Trump has campaigned on a platform of hatred. Hatred and fear.

The groups against whom Trump has expressed hatred have been well documented – from fallen Muslim American soldiers to illegal immigrants and unspecified “bad hombres”. But first and foremost Trump’s campaign and character have been marked by a clearly articulated loathing of women. With its roots in the Greek words for hatred and woman, misogyny is a term sometimes used too loosely. In this case, it is fitting. Trump’s dislike of, contempt for and deeply-held prejudice against women has been palpable not only throughout a deeply divisive election campaign, but throughout his very public life.

Some analyses of the 2016 US Presidential election result will no doubt focus on how the pundits got it so wrong. Echoing the outcome of Brexit, few polls indicated that Trump could be triumphant. Deeper analyses will focus on the deep structural factors that led to an outcome that many could not let themselves imagine. Financial crisis; economic restructuring leading to the loss of traditional jobs, inequality and a deep sense of vulnerability; frustration with politics-as-usual; social disconnection and isolation – each of these factors helps us to understand why so many Americans chose a candidate who made a sport out of offending and vilifying so many of his fellow citizens.

While Trump is the epitome of the untouchable kings of capital whose greed and disregard for any notion of social responsibility created the financial meltdown that began in the US in 2007-2008, he was able to successfully present himself as a breath of fresh air in the toxic hotbed of elite politics. Clearly many voters – desperate for an alternative – bought the carefully-constructed myth that the billionaire property developer was ‘one of them’.

In seeking hope, the American people have – tragically – installed in the White House a harbinger of hatred – particularly a hatred of women. More optimistic commentaries of Trump’s victory speech suggest that he may be able to turn the page – to move towards a new persona that fosters unity rather than division. Indeed, the victory speech could have been far worse, but it cannot erase the litany of sexist, racist and offensive comments made by Trump over years.

At the centre of Trump’s tome of hate-speech is a deep abhorrence of women. His comments have been well-documented and do not need detailed repetition here. What is clear, however, is the depth of sexism within the United States. How else could a man who gleefully admits to sexually assaulting women have been elected as president? How can we explain the public embrace of a man who is verbally abusive towards any woman who dares cross him? That Trump’s opponent was female adds another dimension to a gendered analysis of the election outcome. The result suggests that a president who shamelessly espouses misogynist values is more tolerable than a woman. The outcome of this election is a disaster for gender equality in the United States. Given the United States’ position as a global power, it is a disaster for us all.

The 2016 US presidential campaign has been about many things, but first and foremost it has been about gender politics. The clear message appears to be that commitment to gender equality is at best tenuous – and easily sacrificed in contexts of uncertainty and insecurity.

The message is depressing: it signals that very little substantive progress has been made towards a society where women and men stand side-by-side as equals. On hearing the result of the US election, my fifteen-year old daughter said, “tomorrow the sun rises on a darker world.” Indeed, it does. The coming months and years will bring gendered analyses of what has just happened that are far more sophisticated than this. For now, we are left to ponder how we begin to explain to our daughters and to our sons that misogynist values and the abuse of women – physical and verbal – is not only socially acceptable in the world’s self-proclaimed beacon of democracy, but is rewarded by the highest office in that country.

As we grapple to come to terms with the outcome of the election, we must not forget the fact that gender was central to the campaign and to the outcome. Rather than succumbing to the despair that advocates of gender equality are feeling, we need to rally to a feminist vision that is needed today more than ever.

This article was first published by Policy, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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