Has the Republican Feminist Awakening Begun?

A testy exchange between Newt Gingrich and Megyn Kelly was the GOP gender war in miniature.

Tuesday night on Fox News, host Megyn Kelly drove Donald Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich into a contemptuous, finger-jabbing rage by insisting that Trump’s alleged history of sexual predation is a story worth covering. Gingrich, the thrice-married co-author of a novel featuring a “pouting sex kitten” Nazi spy, sneered at his uppity female interlocutor: “You are fascinated by sex and you don’t care about public policy.” Then, like a man barking orders in bed, he demanded that Kelly repeat his words about Bill Clinton: “I want to hear you use the words, ‘Bill Clinton, sexual predator.’ Say, ‘Bill Clinton, sexual predator.’ ” The segment ended with Kelly telling Gingrich, “You can take your anger issues and spend some time working on them.”

Wednesday, speaking from his new hotel in Washington, D.C., Trump took time out from his discussion of Obamacare to praise Gingrich’s performance. “Congratulations, Newt, on last night,” he said. “That was an amazing interview. We don’t play games, right, Newt?”

The Gingrich-Kelly faceoff was the latest twist in Trump’s long-standing feud with the Fox anchor. But it was also an important moment in one of the more interesting subplots in this election—the dawning realization by at least some conservative women that many of the men in their movement are not on their side. Earlier on Wednesday, Amanda Carpenter, former communications director to Ted Cruz, wrote in the Washington Post about her deep disappointment with the Trump-supporting men in her party: “I want to ask the men leading the GOP some questions. Why didn’t you defend women from this raging sexist especially after so many Republican women—for so many years—eagerly defended the party from charges of sexism? You must make us out for fools.” After the Gingrich-Kelly faceoff, she tweeted, “Looks like Newt Gingrich just proved my point again.” Former Mitt Romney staffer Katie Packer added that men like Gingrich “are a big reason the GOP has lost women.”

It will be interesting to see whether the sudden apprehension of Republican misogyny leads to a feminist awakening among women on the right. Until now, one major distinction between conservative and liberal women has been that conservative women rarely see their interests as being separate from or opposed to the interests of men. “Conservatives don’t usually engage in identity politics,” wrote Luma Simms in a Federalist piece headlined, “In Supporting Trump, Conservative Men Abandon Conservative Women.” “Conservative women don’t ask for special privileges, nor for the most part do they draw attention to themselves as women. Because we believe we should be judged on our merits, rarely will you find a conservative woman playing the woman card.”

Simms is no feminist, at least in any way that most feminists would recognize. She sees women primarily as defenders of home and hearth. But the realization that women can’t trust men to look out for them can be a first step in a feminist awakening. Second-wave feminism, after all, was born when left-wing women realized that their male peers didn’t have their backs. As Ellen Willis wrote in 1969, “[M]en have tended to dismiss the woman’s movement as ‘just chicks with personal hangups,’ to insist that men and women are equally oppressed, though maybe in different ways, or to minimize the extent and significance of male chauvinism (‘just a failure of communication’). All around me I see men who consider themselves dedicated revolutionaries, yet exploit their wives and girl friends shamefully without ever noticing a contradiction.”

Now right-wing women are waking up to the shameful contradictions between the rhetoric and action of the men they once considered comrades. We don’t yet know how that will transform politics, only that it will. Feminists have long bemoaned the fact women, by and large, don’t see themselves as a distinct class. Thanks to Trump, that could be starting to change.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.