How Will Women Fare Under a Pussy-grabbing President?

Prof. Frances Raday is one of the leading lights in Israel’s feminist struggle. Although dismayed by the election of a self-confessed groper, she believes Donald Trump’s presidential reign may surreptitiously benefit women in the long run.

Donald Trump posing with some of the contestants in the 1988 Miss America beauty pageant, on board his yacht in Atlantic City.
Jack Kanthal/AP

The rise of Donald Trump has undermined the idea of postfeminism in recent months. I believed feminism had exhausted itself and reached a dead end the moment it collaborated with capitalism and neoliberalism, and that women should be thinking mainly about liberating both themselves and men from their economic and social chains. It never occurred to me, though, that a misogynist bully like Trump would ever be elected president of the United States and drag the feminist struggle back.

The day after his election, I literally became sick with sadness. The pussy-grabber, around whom all women were clones of the perfect woman, had become the leader of the free world, armed with far-reaching plans for perpetuating the patriarchy. His election was an earthquake for feminists.

To analyze the antifeminist phenomenon of Trump’s rise to power, I turned to Prof. Emeritus Frances Raday of the Hebrew University’s faculty of law. She is a veteran Israeli feminist, an expert on labor law and the only Israeli woman to serve as an independent human rights expert for the UN Human Rights Committee (she is a member of its Working Group on Discrimination against Women). She’s been in this role for seven years and, therefore, has a unique view on the situation facing women around the world, and the processes and trends taking place with regard to the political situation.

She says Trump’s election success “shook up my daily life. Along with the populism of Brexit and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and events in Hungary and Poland, things are happening in the world that are completely reversing everything that has been achieved in the defense of human rights.”

How do you perceive the situation of women everywhere after Trump’s election.

Raday: “Democracy today includes the women’s element in a global way – women vote and are elected, and have achieved a role in public and political life most places in the world. Almost the only states where this isn’t happening is the strict Muslim countries – and even there, it’s happening, but in very small percentages. But now, there is a real danger to the political and economic achievements of Western women.

“Trump came to power on the back of two key threats pressing on women in a pincer movement. One is the threat inherent in the economic system of neoliberalism, which ignores the fact that men and women carry different burdens – since neoliberalism is oblivious to everything other than the exploitation of human capital, and doesn’t take into consideration the needs of the person who provides that capital. In general, women bear the burden of pregnancy, birth and caring for the family, which weighs heavily on equal opportunity in public life – both economic and political.

“Then there’s the threat in the strengthening of religions, where the patriarchal hegemony is trying to get women into a state of subordination to male power in the family and the community.

“These two things are growing stronger, and women are the first victims of these two trends – of economic inequality and the politicization of religions. Trump is encouraging religious patriarchy and developing the stereotype of the aggressive, chauvinist male as a role model in the public political sphere – which hinders the advancement of women in the neoliberal economy and democratic politics.”

What do you mean by “politicization of religions,” and how is religion troubling women once more?

“Religions have been aggressively returning to the political front since the 1990s, and in the past seven years the political influence of religion has been on the rise. As a result, on the UN panel of experts of which I am a member, we agreed – in a way that transcended borders of culture, language, religion and region – on the urgent need to recognize the human rights of women as fundamental rights that are not subject to the hegemony of religion.

“In three main religions, there are different problems in the area of political pressure that, exclusively and tragically, affect women. In Islam, this is manifested in the denial of women’s autonomy, their subordination to male authority, the demands for modesty that distance them from public spaces, and violence toward women – whether institutional, legal, communal or familial.

Prof. Emeritus Frances Raday.
Tomer Appelbaum

“In Christianity, it’s expressed in the takeover of the rights of women to make decisions about their own fertility. A small number of countries prevent them from obtaining means of birth control, and an increasing number of Catholic and evangelical Christian countries are preventing them from obtaining services to terminate pregnancies, even when trying to preserve their own physical or mental health.

“As for Judaism in Israel, women are shackled to religious law in divorces, while the activities of the religious lobby to create segregation are gaining strength. This is reflected by banning women from singing at official ceremonies in public institutions, and excluding women from the public space through sex segregation – for example, in religious army units, on ultra-Orthodox university campuses, on buses, etc.

“Trump’s election is a sign of the trend toward increasing politicization of religion in the United States. Not only have all his appointments been the antithesis of common sense – like a secretary of education who doesn’t believe in public education, and a head of environmental protection who doesn’t believe that humans are contributing to the greenhouse effect – but also all these people are evangelical Christians. The evangelicals are the most patriarchal religious group in the United States and the most vocal opponents of abortion. They supported Trump because he ran for the presidency with the declared intention of appointing a justice to the Supreme Court who will reverse the [Roe vs. Wade] ruling that determined a woman’s right to decide on termination of a pregnancy. The issue of the right to abortion is very central to the history of feminism in the United States.

“In the report we wrote regarding the situation of women’s rights in the United States before Trump’s election, we identified the restrictions on the right to abortion as one of the things that threatens equal rights for women there. The right to an abortion is central to a woman’s life, because it enables her to control her body and determine her life plan and the number of children she has. This right has to be given on the economic level and not as an abstract right, because otherwise it will remain a privilege of the rich.”

How do we promote feminism in these conditions?

“We must deal with women being members of different cultures and religions. We need to find the shared and central agenda relevant to the time and place. Feminists in the United States chose the issue of abortion. Muslim women have to deal with subordination and the imposition of male power within the family: Muslim women have to get free of men’s religious power – male legal guardianship. And Jewish women must grapple with the rise of religious elements that are threatening the achievements we have made. Unfortunately, even today women do not realize the threat that religious patriarchy is posing to women’s advancement in the public sphere in Israel.”

Israel seems to have made significant advancements in feminism, handling sexual harassment and sexual assault against women. Where would you place that achievement?

“I see violence toward women as a side effect of the structural discrimination against women in the family, and on the political and economic level. The war against this violent side effect is very important, but it doesn’t strengthen the feminist political agenda to change the power base of women. We are facing this struggle because everyone agrees on it: There aren’t any camps that will oppose or mock people who oppose violence toward women. And there has been a certain amount of success in this area: awareness has increased, and there are cases of punishment that instill fear in some men. However, statistically speaking, there hasn’t been a significant decrease in violence toward women. In Israel, women’s political and economic achievements began with the founding of the state. What is lacking is the determination to make gender equality a very high priority on the political agenda: to oppose religious segregation, to protect the welfare state.”

You define yourself as a socialist feminist. What’s the difference between your feminism and cultural and identity feminism, and could it be said that with Trump’s rise it is now obsolete?

“Cultural and identity feminism deals with psychological differences between men and women, with stereotypes, or with the different social affiliations of women – which have led feminists to talk about feminism as though every group of women and every culture creates a different and unshared feminism. This worldview has generated a clash between feminisms, instead of saying the structure of the religious and economic base puts women in a similar situation the world over. I can say there is a tremendous difference between women in the developing world and women in the developed world, but there are also a great number of similarities. In my view, cultural differences are branches of the tree, but the roots and trunk of the situation of women everywhere are the same.

“The split in the feminist camp began in the 1980s and occurred for a number of reasons. First, socialism became an archaic word, which was rejected by the neoliberal world in which the feminists lived. Second, there was a justified acknowledgement of multiculturalism – i.e., the demand to recognize what’s not part of the ruling white culture. The question of identity became central, and this was true with regard to different skin colors and the LGBT community. But they forgot that women have problems that aren’t connected to identity.

“Overall, the socioeconomic structure and influence of religion are the main challenges confronting women. This is not the case for the other groups. ... If discrimination on the basis of identity is prevented, that could solve the other groups’ problem – but it won’t solve women’s problem.”

A group of female demonstraters blocking a road in California, in protest at the election of Donald Trump, November 9, 2016.
Patrick T. Fallon/AP

What is your prediction for the Trump era?

“I expect an increased struggle by feminists against sexist stereotypes and anti-erosion of rights that have already been achieved – such as their rights (as part of health care) to birth control measures, and services providing termination of pregnancy in certain circumstances. The visibility of women committed to equality in political life will be damaged – they won’t be serving in the administration, and they won’t be getting appointments to the court or the diplomatic corps.

“Every woman who objects will be exposed to a round of insults from President Trump and will have to grow a thick skin. However, it is possible that, ultimately, Trump’s machismo will lead to a strengthening of the feminist consciousness. Also, an expansion of the fight to include women who were convinced there was no need for feminism in the 21st century because equality had already been achieved.”