Sitting in our room, we were furious. The back and forth of American politics drooped low and nasty. And then “grab them by the p***y” came along and marked the newest depravity from a candidate for the nation’s highest office. Weeks have passed since then, but we are still furious. For a brief moment, the comment seemed to truncate the Trump campaign, inciting a bipartisan public media execution. Why did the reaction to this overt display of misogyny seem to overpower the reaction to the rest of his hateful words? Are we not desensitized enough at this point in the election?
The answer lies in the rhetoric of both Republican and Democratic politicians who reacted to this particular comment. These politicians lament the state of politics, the state of America and Trump’s actions, and they use the language of “our mothers and daughters” to do so. This is the core of the problem. Plenty of people have called out the establishment for highlighting that women are human first, daughters next. But why do politicians feel the need to define women by their relationships to men? Are women not human until they are your mother? Your sister? Your daughter? Does a woman only matter if she’s “yours”?
This is bigger than Trump. It’s bigger than the last few years. It’s bigger, even, than the GOP’s underlying revulsion to women in power. Women’s rights are not a “modern” concept. But this tendency to define women as “mothers and daughters” — rather than as people with human rights — stems from a long history of U.S. religious and classical prudence. Trump’s comments aren’t new, of course — there have been taverns since the beginning of time. What’s more significant is the backlash: when and how people choose to respond. Why did we only get this reaction when Trump targeted white women? Why not Muslims, or Latin American immigrants? Or, indeed, everyone else? What is this American paranoia with violating the white female body all about?
These comments are a modern iteration of “Republican Motherhood,” a homesteading American principle that casts American mothers as active players in the nation’s adolescence. White women were educated solely to stand as moral paragons of virtue for the men in their families. Their good conduct and civic piety would act as an example and rudder for the men they would marry and mother. Their virtue was for their men, rather than for themselves. American mothers — that is, white women with leisure and privilege — were tasked with raising their white sons according to republican ideals rooted in both Protestant purity and Greco-Roman democracy.
But what about those who don’t fit that description? What about white women who choose to not pursue motherhood and thus threaten the white patriarchal family unit? What about women of color, who are excluded from the narrative of a “traditional American family,” and have suffered untold violence throughout American history? Only white women have the privilege to choose to shoulder or reject this narrative of Republican Motherhood, engendering an exclusive and predominantly white feminist movement. Although white women are presented with choices that women of color cannot access, the white patriarchy sexualizes and therefore relegates any woman who does not align with this very narrow homemaker archetype to a disenfranchised outsider status. Why do we need this language of family relations to collectively empathize with sexual assault?
Of course, it’s natural to couch abstract issues in emotional terms. We talk about “our sons” when we talk about the military. We talk about “our grandfathers” when we talk about social security. We talk about “little league championships” when we talk about the dying middle class. These are the pictures our media and our politicians use to explain the complicated gears driving the U.S. onward; emotional manipulation in politics is nothing new.
But the language of “mothers and daughters” is fundamentally different. In this vernacular, we inherently solidify the place of Republican Motherhood in the twenty-first century. This phrasing conceals the continued existence of the very social structures that oppress and distract from true strides forward in gender equality.
There’s no discussion of women as humans outside of being “mothers and daughters,” whereas there is a discussion of personhood when we talk about American men. This is not a tool to allow mainstream Americans to empathize; it’s a tool to fundamentally devalue women as humans. Referencing women as only “mothers and daughters” allows for superficial validation and little fundamental change. It’s fundamentally unacceptable.
Siduri Beckman and Casey Odesser are freshmen in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .