The standard move these days, when a male public figure stands accused of sexism, is to deploy female family members to the media to explain that they believe their male relative is the bee's knees that anyone who thinks otherwise is simply making stuff up. A man can oppose women's basic reproductive rights, say sexist stuff in public, or even be accused of raping dozens of women, but the women in his life say he's nice to them, so who are you to say otherwise?
Now Donald Trump's camp is using this trick, putting his daughter, Ivanka Trump, that he has with his first wife out in public to declare that her father is no sexist. Ivanka told People that her father is "highly gender-neutral".
"If he didn't feel that women were as competent as men, I would be relegated to some role subordinate to my brothers," she added, as if how he treats his children is the sole measure of how sexist a man is. She also went on to point out that he has hired and promoted women at his company as further evidence to support her belief that her father is "one of the great advocates for women."
The problem with all this is that hiring women doesn't change the fact that Trump has a long history of having extreme double standards when it comes to men and women, castigating women for having body functions and physical imperfections. Ivanka Trump dismisses this, pointing out that he insults men, too. "If he doesn't like someone, he'll articulate that, and I think it's also part of what resonates about him," she argues.
It's a weak argument. Donald Trump does, indeed, hate a lot of people. He is a hateful man. (Though she's right this is clearly what appeals about him to his supporters.) Being a sexist is exactly one of the subroutines you expect of a man whose inclination towards the world is to bellow hate at everyone he perceives as slightly different or who challenges his worldview. No one doubts, for instance, that Trump is probably more forgiving of the women in his life for daring to have body functions he disapproves of, like menstruation or urination, that he has castigated Megyn Kelly and Hillary Clinton for having. But that doesn't change that fact that it's incredibly unreasonable to shame women for having female bodies in the first place, no matter what it is they have supposedly done to offend you.
Ivanka Trump's strategy here is to treat sexism as a black-and-white phenomenon, and to argue that unless a man hates all women all the time, he cannot possibly be a misogynist. You see this strategy employed quite a bit, and if you buy into this argument, it means there is no such thing as a sexist. After all, nearly all men, no matter how poorly they treat women, probably have had moments of kindness or tenderness to some woman at some point in time.
If being nice to your daughter means you get a free pass to treat all women otherwise like garbage, then the number of "true" sexists in the world can probably be counted on one hand. Clearly, the notion that one can only be deemed sexist if one is awful to all women every moment of the day just is too damn narrow of a definition.
But even though this kind of argument is laughably easy to shoot holes through, there's a reason that so many public figures, especially politicians, get their female family members to run defense for them when they are rightfully accused of sexism. It's because most of us, even the most feminist of us, can relate to this desire to see the best in the men in our lives, even when finding the best requires a microscope and a pair of tweezers.
"Any woman can spot an anonymous misogynist," Nona Willis Aronowitz wrote in a recent piece for Matter. "And yet one of the major obstacles in the Fight Against Patriarchy is that a sexist guy will always seem like an outsider — a bad-news ex-boyfriend, perhaps, but not your male feminist friend, your super chill brother, your gentle dad."
It's hard for any of us to admit that, for instance, a loving father who gave us everything — which is surely how Ivanka Trump sees her father — shows a very different face to other people, even though it's almost painfully obvious that Donald Trump is a really awful person, with misogyny being just one of many of his easily identifiable sins. And most men who harbor such repulsive beliefs do a much better job of hiding the ugly side of their personality from the women in their lives.
Consider, for instance, this horror story posted by a woman on Reddit a year ago. Her husband accidentally left a browser up on Reddit, allowing her to see what he was up to when left to his own devices, and what she found horrified her.
My husband is a troll. A really fucking nasty troll. He leaves horribly mean comments to all kinds of people. They're filled with racist slurs, awful insults, he tears into fat people, ugly people, etc. He loves to troll around places like /r/progresspics to discourage people, etc. He's sent PMs to people to call them names, calls women who post on /r/gonewild sluts and whores and cunts, etc.
I was horrified. Completely horrified. My husband is a nice, gentle man who is supportive and kind. In our 9-year relationship, we've fought three times total. I never thought this is a behavior he would take part in.
This is an extreme example, but it is an important reminder that most of us, even misogynists, have layers. The same person who shows a friendly, gentle face to his friends and relatives can often have a secret life where he hates everyone and everything, simmers in bigotry, and will totally be voting for Donald Trump. It's such a widespread problem that even the polls are affected by it, as pollsters believe many Trump supporters are unwilling to out themselves, even in an anonymous phone survey.
This is why it's so critical to disregard it when sexist politicians send their female relatives out to defend them to the press. It's not that these women are lying. They probably do see a different side of the politician, someone who acts like he respects women and is kind to his female relatives. But we must judge these men by how they act when doing their job, not when at home with family. That means judging them not just by their words, but by their actions, including their support for anti-woman policies. The issue is not how you treat your daughter, but whether you can respect women who aren't blood relatives.