When former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told The Washington Post that Trump’s past comments about women “would come back to haunt him. There are probably more ugly women in America than attractive women,” it instantly caught fire. Though Rendell promptly apologized, the implication, of course, was that Hillary Clinton, whom Rendell supports, was going to win on the strength of the mirror-shattering women of America.
The main problem is not that Rendell was calling potential Clinton voters ugly — although that did, in fact, sound bad. The larger issue is that, by saying women would be offended because Trump wouldn’t classify them as a “10,” Rendell had implicitly accepted the Trump worldview. That would be a system in which what men think of women’s looks defines them, including in women’s own minds, and in which, it follows, beauty is a women’s ultimate attainment. When was the last time you heard a public figure casually classify men on the basis of their attractiveness?
It’s why you hear Trump wax on so cringingly about his daughter Ivanka’s attractiveness: By all evidence, it’s the highest possible compliment he can imagine giving a woman.
In the scheme of things, Rendell’s spouting off was no particular outrage and will not likely change votes. But what was striking was how out of touch it sounded in a party positioning itself as a champion of “breaking barriers,” as Clinton has often put it. For a Democratic Party seeking to elect the first female president — which won its last presidential election on the strength of unmarried women, especially women of color, and which desperately hopes to siphon off white married women who often vote Republican — this was reading from an old playbook. Gone, mostly, is Democrats’ past anxiety at being the so-called “mommy party.”
The logic of the Clinton campaign is that the world has changed, and so has the Democratic Party, which is built on a coalition of black and brown voters and educated professionals — many of them women. This is the campaign in which Clinton has embraced feminism, not run from it in a sort of latent terror of how much she was demonized for it in the past. She has proposed plans for subsidized childcare and paid family leave that would help ease caregiving responsibilities for women, and called for more funding for Planned Parenthood and for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bans most Medicaid funding for abortion. This campaign is one in which some of her most powerful advocates are black women who, after facing the heartbreaking and brutal loss of their children to gun violence, often at the hands of the police, decided to use their voices in the political sphere. Nobody in their right mind could care how Donald Trump, or Ed Rendell for that matter, would rank those women.
The argument, instead, is that women are people who define themselves and their destinies, and who might bristle at men who see them as props — whether they look like models or not. Meanwhile, this week, Trump sought to counter any attacks on his own treatment of women by pointing out on Fox News that Bill Clinton was unfaithful and was even accused of rape, which Clinton has denied. Trump called Hillary Clinton an “enabler” of her husband’s infidelities. This was characteristically brazen from a man who has admitted to cheating on his wives, one of whom, Ivana Trump, accused him of rape in a deposition during their divorce proceedings. (Ivana has since issued a statement referring to the court filing as “some comments attributed to me from nearly 30 years ago at a time of very high tension during my divorce from Donald. The story is totally without merit.”)
The line may yet work with some voters to defuse Trump’s own documented and repeated misogyny. But there’s another way to look at it that maintains the contrast. Bill Clinton isn’t running; Hillary Clinton is. What is more nostalgically sexist than simply seeing a woman as an extension of her husband, and visiting his sins upon her?