Last week, Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly lamented that the world has changed for women. “When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” he said. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases.”
Before we get too far into yet another week in the hellscape that is Donald Trump’s America, this deserves a moment of our attention. Kelly seemed to have been giving a nod to the avalanche of stories of sexual assault and harassment that women have shared in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. (Kelly snuck his comments in just before going on to deliver a litany of lies about a black Congresswoman in the name of patriotism.)
But his comment — whether he knows it or not — is part of the conservative yearning for the “good old days” that (not so unlike the current days) were good only for some of us. Such reverence of the past is a poorly coded longing for the days when women and people of color — and above all, women of color — “knew their place” and white men could enjoy unfettered access to most anything they wanted, including women’s bodies. In those days women were sacred only when white men needed a good excuse to persecute black folks for being black.
John Kelly, who was born in 1950, apparently has few memories from childhood and clearly has not watched Mad Men. When he was a child, women weren’t allowed to use birth control, abortion was illegal, and girls who got pregnant were often sent away to deliver their babies in secret and forced to give them up for adoption. The term “sexual harassment” — or any legal framework around it — didn’t exist, which meant actions we now consider to be both culturally inappropriate (however omnipresent) and legally actionable were normative daily realities women were forced to endure in all aspects of their lives. Throughout Kelly’s youth, racial and gender discrimination in the labor market, in education, and in the financial system was not just endemic — arguably it still is — but was also permissible thanks to bad rules and major gaps in our laws. In order for a woman’s salary to be considered on a loan application, some lenders required “baby letters,” documents that proved women were using family planning or that pledged they would terminate an unexpected pregnancy. And don’t forget that women couldn’t apply for a credit card without a man vouching for them until the 1970s.
The obvious irony of Kelly’s “sacred women” bit is that he is the front man for a president who is the embodiment of all that is toxic with masculinity in America. From pussy grabbing to grotesque name calling to suggesting women be punished for having abortions, Trump has publicly and explicitly disrespected and denigrated women more than any elected official in modern history.
The painful irony doesn’t stop with Trump’s grabby hands or offensive mouth. It extends well into the rules he and the party he represents write for the American people. Consider the last two weeks alone: Trump has signaled his support for the House of Representatives’ 20 week abortion ban; rolled backcontraceptive coverage; proposed dramatic changes that will make health coverage more costly and less comprehensive, especially for women; applauded the GOP budget that guts Medicare, Medicaid and a host of programs critical to the wellbeing of women and families to pave the way for a massive tax cut for the wealthy. Oh, and his administration is currently holding a 17-year old immigrant in custody, refusing her access to an abortion as she edges ever closer to the stage at which Texas law outlaws the procedure.
One of the most painful parts of this saga is that Kelly’s words will resonate with some (mostly white) women, who think there was a time long ago when we were better off, that our subordination then and now is nothing more than harmless locker room banter, and that it’s possible or worth sacrificing our autonomy in order to achieve some greater good (that’s not possible). They are and will continue to be foot soldiers in the battle against equity.
Don’t let Kelly fool you. Women have never been sacred. And Trump and the GOP have no intention of making us so.