The victory of Donald J Trump in the November 2016 US presidential election came as a particular shock to those who had believed that the American nation was ready and willing to elect its first female president. Evidence of Trump’s sexually suspect tendencies in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes had seemed likely, for a while, to signal the end of his campaign.
But even this wasn’t sufficient to derail him. Incomprehensible though Trump’s success may at first have seemed, his victory over a female candidate in a battle fought and won with apparent contempt for women’s rights makes a curious kind of sense if we read it as just the latest manifestation of a misogynist and anti-feminist line in American cultural life, stretching back to the 1940s and beyond.
To understand what lies behind Trump’s ideology and rhetoric, and the motives of his supporters (including the 53% of white women who voted for him), we can look to the work of a disparate group of American anti-feminist thinkers. They came to prominence in the early 1940s, gained strength in the 1950s, and were provoked to vocal ire by the rise of second-wave feminism in the early 1960s.
It is here that we find the origins of four key features of Trump’s campaign.
Trump’s moniker, “Crooked Hillary”, was a masterstroke. Snappy yet vague (and thus irrefutable), it gained instant traction. But it was hardly original. In portraying his opponent as untrustworthy, corrupt, and unfit for public office, Trump was reworking a theme common in the anti-feminist rhetoric of the post-war period.
Writer Philip Wylie’s 1942 best-selling polemic, Generation of Vipers, excoriated American women for disempowering their husbands, emasculating their sons, and leaving a once great American nation on its knees. You don’t have to look hard to see shades of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra here.
For Wylie, women in political life are “crooked” by definition, and part of a national slide into “moral degeneration, civic corruption, smuggling, bribery, theft, murder, homosexuality, drunkenness, financial depression, chaos and war”.
‘Grab them by the pussy’
Such views gained wide circulation in the popular media of the time, including in magazines like Playboy which launched in 1953. Typical Playboy features of the age included: “A Vote for Polygamy: The One-Wife System Is For The Birds”, “All Married Women Are Bad, Yes?” and “The Sorry Plight Of The Human Male”.
A 1955 article by Jay Archer, “Don’t Hate Yourself In The Morning: You Weren’t The Only One Having Fun”, provides an early precedent for Trump’s later justification-cum-defence of his “locker room” talk.
Archer advises his readers that if a woman refuses sex – or reluctantly consents but later “weeps inconsolably” – her views can be disregarded.
Pity the white man
The Republicans’ ability to portray and empower white men as the aggrieved victims of female, black and ethnic, and LGBT power, and thus as long overdue for recompense, also finds precedents in post-war anti-feminist thinking. For Wylie, again, this time in a 1956 Playboy essay, “The Abdicating Male And How The Gray Flannel Mind Exploits Him Through His Women”, women have deviously taken control of America’s wealth. They “own America by mere parasitism”.
In a message that anticipates the views of today’s popular right, Wylie sees ordinary men as “culpable” for allowing women to take power, and urges them to fight back and claim what’s rightly theirs.
Women against women
One of the most surprising features of Trump’s victory was that he was able to galvanise (white) women and to persuade them that a vote for Hillary Clinton was a vote against their own better interests. Trump’s success or, more properly, Clinton’s defeat, has thereby demonstrated an important, if sometimes overlooked, truth: women do not necessarily, or always, feel comfortable with feminism’s perceived goals.
Again, we can look to the evidence of the immediate post-war years for signs of what was to come. In the 1950s and 1960s, writers such as Phyllis McGinley, supported by a huge fan base, protested against the new wave of feminism.
McGinley was a Pulitzer-prize winning poet, a wife and a mother who (her professional accomplishments notwithstanding) saw feminism as a threat to her identity and to women’s place in the natural order.
Betty Friedan’s influential The Feminine Mystique, on the negatives of life as a housewife, was published in 1963. McGinley’s “riposte”, Sixpence In Her Shoe – a defence of the “honourable estate” of housewifery – appeared the following year and outsold Friedan’s book by at least two to one.
McGinley’s position was not without ambivalence – her celebration of traditional femininity was, in part, a strategic counter to the misogyny of Wylie and his peers. Nevertheless, she was widely acclaimed for giving voice to the numerous ordinary women to whom feminism, as popularly understood, did not speak.
That white women voters took against Hillary Clinton in such large numbers and instead supported a candidate whose words and deeds seem predicated on women’s silence and subordination indicates that many continue to hold this position dear. And here, perhaps, is where the Democrat campaign foundered.
The support of such women could not, it transpired, be guaranteed. Only a history of women’s rights that did not also take into account the long and chequered history of anti-feminism could have regarded Clinton’s victory as a fait accompli.