How the Trump Administration Gaslights Women

Last month, when then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced several credible allegations of sexual assault, Republican Party leadership almost immediately procured a letter signed by 64 women attesting to the Judge’s respect for women.

We’ve seen this before. Nearly every alleged abuser has had a wife, daughter, childhood friend or other woman they have a close relationship with immediately summoned to the podium to testify about just how not-sexist they are. First Lady Melania Trump did it. Journalist Julie Chen, wife to ousted CBS executive Les Moonves, did it. Woody Allen’s stepdaughter and wife Soon-Yi did it.

The logic behind this line of defense is that if an alleged male abuser didn’t assault one woman or two women—or, in Kavanaugh’s case, 64 women—he didn’t assault any woman. And it’s just one example of the reductive treatment of women by right-wing rape apologists, who often weaponize anti-feminist women and dispatch them as human shields. These men and their ideologies rely on the tokenization of a few women to gaslight all women.

Over the past two years, we’ve watched the president excel at this strategy. Women in the Trump administration have consistently been tasked with defending and explaining some of this administration’s most cruel, misogynistic attacks.

Last year, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to the podium to defend the Trump administration’s decision to repeal the contraception mandate, which saved American women $1.4 billion annually and empowered 55 million American women to gain access to copay-free birth control. She defended the decision as a matter of religious freedom, as if the punishment of women for not conforming to their insurer or employers’ religious views doesn’t mark a violation of our religious freedom.

Sanders was the administration official who responded to questions from the press about why former Democratic Senator Al Franken should resign in the wake of sexual misconduct charges if her boss, who has been accused of sexual abuse by more than 20 women, refuses to do the same. She suggested in her response that we should only investigate allegations of assault if the alleged male perpetrator has publicly confessed. 

The First Lady, meanwhile, has offered trite, rehearsed lines about believing women and survivors in interviews—just moments before qualifying statements declaring that women who come forward must provide “hard evidence,” as if survivors should be wearing body cameras when they’re attacked. (I also somehow doubt that due process and presumed innocence are the concern here, considering that Melania Trump is married to a man who regularly leads chants of “Lock her up!” in reference to a woman indicted for no crimes.)

White House counsel Kellyanne Conway, a frequent mouthpiece for and defender of Trump’s most vile policies, also addressed these topics with the press. She defended Kavanaugh’s nomination by coming forward about her own experience with sexual assault—fulfilling Trump’s goal, by discrediting other survivors in the process and calling them liars, of gaslighting Americans into believing that confirmation of Kavanaugh, or the targeted abuse of survivors at large, was somehow “survivor-approved.”

In 2017, first daughter Ivanka Trump, who branded herself an advocate for working women, vocally lauded the Trump administration’s decision to rescind an Obama-era mandate that required employers to report the salaries of their employees to help expose pay disparities along the lines of gender and race. Tellingly enough, for all her performative speech about the empowerment of women and children, Ivanka has allegedly relied on child labor and abusive factories to produce her fashion line. 

More recently, it was Homeland Security Secretary Kirsjen Nielsen who answered for the administration’s cruel policies. This summer, she became the face behind Trump’s family separation policy, which involved pregnant women being shackled, forced to sleep on floors or otherwise abused at detainment centers and women and girls assaulted by border patrol officers. Up until her recent decision to resign last month, United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley also happily led the U.S. in enacting Trump’s anti-woman agenda on the global stage—leading the nation to become one of the most regressive in the U.N.

It isn’t just the president who effectively employs this approach to misogynist policy-making. Groups like the Independent Women’s Forum, using funds procured from donors like the notorious Koch brothers, help amplify the messages of male politicians intending to integrate sexism into legislation and public policy. While 71 percent of the hundreds of proposed restrictions on abortion access in state legislatures in 2017 were proposed by men, 25 percent were proposed by women.

The goal of these parties unites them: to make dangerous, radically anti-women and deeply unpopular policies seem digestible, normal and even satisfying to women. In delivering its most vile and misogynistic policies through women mouthpieces, the Trump administration and its peers portray the vast majority of outraged and frankly terrified women across the country rising up and forming the resistance as merely hysterical feminists feigning victimization.

The tokenization of women in the Trump administration, women in the Republican Party, and, certainly, women who are close to alleged sexual abusers, is all part of a coordinated strategy of gaslighting women. The goal is to portray feminists as—and certainly make us feel—crazy, by weaponizing the approval and contentedness of certain women with more privilege. But whether it’s men or women at the helm, it’s still a war on women. And no matter who announces or defends the deeply offensive policies emerging from our national leaders in this moment, feminists won’t fall for this attempt at manipulation.


Kylie Cheung writes about reproductive and survivor justice, and is the author of Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy, available Aug. 15.