How Conservatism Failed Its Women

Woman standing in a crowd at a Trump rally holds her hand over her heart, looking emotional
A Trump campaign rally in Phoenix on Oct. 29, 2016. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

My politics are progressive now, but I was raised conservative among conservatives. A lot of the people my family spent time with were hardcore right-wingers, some of them John Birch Society members (or sympathetic ex-members—when the JBS became too racist toward Hispanics, which many of us were, some broke off but otherwise hewed closely to its principles). In California, extreme conservatism made me something of an outsider. It often seemed to me that the liberal milieu in which I lived misjudged us—stereotyped us as believing things I did not think we believed. Or accused us of hypocrisies I did not think we harbored. The conservatives I grew up around were charitable and generous—they welcomed strangers to their social gatherings with open arms. They were ideological in ways I found stringent and uncompromising, certainly, but admirable for all that. Their beliefs seemed sincere and foundational. They required (at least in theory) self-discipline and sacrifice. The men made mean jokes and were unquestionably sexist, and yes, I was tasked with politely pretending to find them funny when they weren’t. (“Impeach Clinton and her husband” was the height of comedy.) They were homophobic and attached to displays of national power. But their principled commitments seemed sincere, and they appeared to live in accordance with them. They supported their families. They weren’t wealthy, just averse to government interference. And their revulsion toward Bill Clinton’s sexual conduct, to take one example, seemed visceral, not partisan. I found their anger and their authority a little bit scary, even if some respected me for being smart (for a girl).

And as far as I could tell, the women took a lot of pride in the position they occupied, even if it was structurally subordinate, and even if some were clearly smarter and more capable than their partners. I could not reconcile this—the notion of assenting to a false inferiority seemed slightly dishonest to me—but it was clear to me that they could and I respected that. They cooked and fed improbable numbers of people with good humor and endless patience. Many of them worked, but work wasn’t the point. All in all, these were people who believed in things and spent a lot of time at activist gatherings that mixed fun with a smattering of outsider pride.

But the older I got, the more I heard. A couple of the women I looked up to and loved turned out to be abused by their husbands. I heard one advise another to deal with it by crying in the closet. (I also watched one woman help another get out of her abusive marriage to a man with many guns—she made it, but she was not seen in the group again. The cost of leaving seemed to be extremely high. He remained.) As an adolescent, I became conscious of a slight but definite creepiness some married men expressed toward me and the other girls my age. In time I would hear this wasn’t unusual, and that when it happened, the women they targeted tended to lose out: When one married man was found to have groped another woman in the group (she rejected him), his wife defended him and called the other woman a liar and worse. She stopped coming. He stayed. Women kept disappearing from the circle. I missed them. Whatever sexual degeneracy the men vituperated against in others was somehow defined out of their own conduct, unpoliced. They joked and debated and sometimes shot at targets outside while the women cleaned up, and the fantasy of male protection started to seem increasingly unstable: When it became known in the group that a woman had said she was raped, she was neither treated well nor universally believed. And so, too, predictably, we saw her less.

The rules were acquiring a certain vaguely authoritarian arbitrariness, in short, which I can best explain with a story: One abusive husband wanted to show off his son’s obedience to the assembled company. I had spent a lot of time with the little boy; his eyes were watchful and it was virtually impossible to get him to talk. The topic had been responsible gun ownership, and the father told us all he had taught the boy not to touch his weapons under any circumstance. He put his revolver on the coffee table to show us how well he’d trained his son. “Bring that gun to me,” he kept saying to the boy, who, confused and fearful, finally obeyed. The man’s face fell; he was humiliated and angry. The boy would be punished.

These were people I loved. They were practically family, and there’s a lot of joy and beauty in my memories. I was treated kindly. The kids I grew up with are dear to me still, though we don’t see one another much anymore. And sometimes it seemed like the system worked: The men were slightly pampered would-be warriors upholding standards a decadent culture had let lapse while the women cleaned and cooked for them, and the women liked that the men acted like and considered themselves providers and protectors. In practice, that protection rarely materialized: Whenever the men did something damaging or disruptive, they stayed and the women left. In practice, what I witnessed repeatedly was how the women protected the men against consequences, even social ones. I did not know how to fit into this innocently—or whether I could opt out. Once, when I was 7 or so, one of the men (who was white) used me to humiliate his errant Hispanic nephew on whom I had a silly crush. The boy, some five or six years older than me, had trouble reading, so I was instructed to read a passage from his book in front of him. The objective was clearly to shame the boy. I did it, vaguely understanding that my being a girl was an unspoken factor redoubling his shame. I read as fast and as well as I could. I was trying to escape my own small share of humiliation by proving that girls were smart, but that was the wrong quest just then and I couldn’t figure out how to pivot. I sided with the man against the boy and against myself. I will always regret this. I don’t know whether that particular incident marked the boy, but he eventually disappeared too.

There were many such attempts to harden boys (and to soften girls), and it was clear that people were unconsciously carried along by—and consciously making trades to preserve—a way of living that prized authority and punished weakness. Not surprisingly, I didn’t want to be the weaker sort, and I resented my own femaleness. The men seemed to have more power and less stress. I wanted to rise to their challenge, live up to their stringent definitions of freedom, share in their fun, participate in their anger. I never did, of course. My place was with the women whom I loved but whose conversation seemed, by comparison, more constrained—gossipy and sometimes parochial in its adherence to punishing social standards.

Then came a shock: After one beloved matriarch’s genial but dominating husband died, she became far more easygoing and philosophical and—to my surprise—liberal. Abortion came up in conversation, and she stunned me by gingerly approving of it; being pro-life at the time, I found myself in the bizarre position of arguing against a person whose positions I had found formative. I see now that she hadn’t felt at liberty to express the full range of her convictions while her husband was alive. I spent the final years of her life getting to know the real her in puzzled gulps. And realizing that the earlier framework I thought I’d been taught by her was treacherous—beliefs cannot be borrowed or inherited, even from people you love. Or maybe: What women say they believe changes once the men who need them to believe those things die.

What happened next is no secret since you’re reading this. I acquired different ideas, tested them out, found them persuasive, and drifted away. It was painful at first; being an outsider to outsiders doesn’t help you belong anywhere much. But even as recently as five years ago, when Donald Trump was leading early GOP primary polling, if you had asked me, I would still have said that the people I grew up with, and who mean a great deal to me, felt everything they said they believed in. I would have defended their values as real and from the heart despite notable (but perhaps human?) hypocrisies. Because I saw how they reacted to the Clinton scandal, I wouldn’t have guessed that a single one would support Donald Trump—a former Democrat! An immoral playboy! A corrupt con artist!—especially after the Access Hollywood tape. But most of them did. And still do.

I am not proud to admit how unprepared I was for this revelation. Naïveté is embarrassing to confess to, but there it is. Five years ago, I still thought ultraconservative men did sincerely want to protect the women in their lives, however frequently they failed, from threats including those posed by bad and predatory men. Trump proved otherwise, and I find myself disgusted by that violation of the bargain all those women actually did honor. I’d witnessed so much stern political fanaticism, and it had come with an extremely high price tag—for women. The protection the men offered was theoretical, but the sacrifices the women made to sustain the ultraconservative American dream were real, and included assenting to a lower-power status in exchange for an idealistic, family-first vision of protection and respect. In practice, it frequently required jettisoning their own close friends in order to mask male misconduct. Yes, this was a trade I avoided: The nebulous benefits of gun-toting chivalry were not, in my view, worth the constant, everyday sacrifices it exacted from its female beneficiaries. I am nevertheless chilled on behalf of the women I knew to find that there was no substance to it at all. Their financial and social subjugation in this grand patriarchal bargain between the sexes was quite real, but the political framework that made it necessary was fake—for the men, it turned out to be little more than a pretext, or a binding agent, or a game. The contract was no contract at all but a rule they could make and break on a whim, and at their pleasure.

Republicans had to normalize Trump, and they did it so easily it barely registered, even if it meant denigrating men in general by redefining him as typical and writing women out of the ability to testify altogether. Any woman who came forward to talk about Trump’s treatment of her was immediately labeled a bad actor trying to take a good man down. What Republicans floated in 2016 was a country that would be a safe space for men in which women—and children—would not get in their way. The party of personal responsibility offered up a new, more accurate version of its social contract, one that conferred great power on men with no responsibility at all.

The politics of sex are the politics of power. The majority of white men who still support Trump and the women who remain loyal are supporting a vision of power expressed as wealth and impunity—where his lies and corruption are a feature, not a bug. This may also underpin the growing male support for Trump in Black and Hispanic communities. It conceives of power as a limited resource that needs to be not just hoarded but abused. The power to be arbitrary—unconstrained by rules, but free to punish and enforce them on others—is seductive.

A lot of women have turned against Trump. I don’t know if conservative women, for whom the promise of protection must matter in order to make wifely obedience worthwhile, are reevaluating some of the bargains they made in light of how baldly their men have sided against them. (There have been several memorable anecdotes during this election cycle about women not wanting their husbands to know they are voting Democratic. And men advising one another to “make sure your wife votes exactly as you do.”) But for people like me, who drifted uneasily away, sometimes wondering if we’d been wrong to do so, or overshot, or missed something crucial about the holy bargain of “submitting” to a man in exchange for his sacred protection, seeing Trump as the purest expression of that patriarchal ideal—unfettered by ethics, enlivened by cruelty—has been clarifying.