The monsters are always men. They menace from the highest positions of power; they lurk in the shadows of our subconscious. At this time of reckoning ― thanks to movements like Me Too and Times Up, some of our cultural monsters are being revealed. But there is a reckoning that hasn’t yet happened and that’s with women, who use their bodies and social positions as wives and mothers to mediate how we handle the monsters of our society.
These intermediaries are all too often women ― white women ― of privilege, who are doing quite well under the patriarchy. It’s a neat trick ― enforcing a system that affords you an amount of privilege but also oppresses others just like you. And it’s one white women have been playing for years.
It was 53 percent of white women after all who voted for Donald Trump, a president who has publicly admitted to assaulting women. Women are in positions of power in his cabinet and it is his daughter Ivanka who provided much of the cover for his policies during the campaign. Her presence, for many Trump supporters, continues to soften his most aggressive and erratic positions.
This week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen became another female human shield for the Trump administration. Neilsen defended Trump’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy, which led to thousands of children being separated from their parents. A policy that has incited a national outcry ― and on Wednesday caused a rare backtrack by Trump to end the family separation edict. And yet, as Neilsen emerged as a central player in this drama, some media coverage persisted in portraying her as a sympathetic character within the administration.
It is often women, not men, who tell us we are being unfair and perhaps too ‘hysterical’ about the whole thing.
In other places too, women have been laying down their bodies and reputations to protect men from their actions ― Katie Roiphe, Daphne Merkin, the women who signed an open letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education in support of Junot Diaz, and so many others who quietly mediate the tone and tenor of the conversation, sending emails in support of the men who abuse power.
As the managing editor of the literary magazine The Rumpus, I’ve witnessed this pernicious arbitration. Recently our magazine has been running a series titled “ENOUGH” where women post stories of rape culture and harassment. The responses are overwhelmingly positive, but it is often women, not men, who tell us we are being unfair and perhaps too “hysterical” about the whole thing.
We forget women fought against suffrage. And even the “good feminists” of that era ignored Jim Crow and pushed for policies that hurt women of color. In her book, Mothers of Massive Resistance, Elizabeth Gillespie McRae points out that it was white women who played a key role in the crafting of white supremacist politics, using the purity of their bodies and their roles as women and mothers to justify the menace of their actions.
McRae writes, “In a Jim Crow nation, segregation’s female activists imbued women’s civic duties, womanhood, and motherhood with particular racist prescriptions. For many, being a good white mother or a good white woman meant teaching and reinforcing racial distance in their homes and in the larger public sphere.”
Growing up evangelical, my parents made me read Domestic Tranquility by F. Caroline Graglia, which argues that feminism just makes women more miserable, an argument that is still parroted today by conservative religious institutions. “All this ‘oppression’ cannot be so bad,” patriarchy says, “because that woman doesn’t think so.”
There are systems here that need to be reckoned with, of course. Patriarchy both shelters women as frail things in need of coverage and uses their bodies as human shields. It also abuses women and puts them in places where calling out abuse puts them in more danger. During the 2016 campaign, when I actively wrote against Trump, my marriage fell apart. I got a divorce. But I know many women who instead silenced their voices, just to get along.
There is a lot at stake in these situations ― jobs, family, marriage, money. But when we shore up patriarchy with our silence or, worse, actively support it with our bodies and status, we are actively destroying the lives of others.
This menace of white women has yet to be reckoned with and there is a reason why: criticize the hypocrisy of women and they hide behind their roles as wives and mothers. As if using one’s uterus has ever conferred innocence or empathy.
Recall the controversy after the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, after Michelle Wolf made jokes about Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The resulting backlash used Sanders’ status as a wife and mother to somehow make her a martyr at the feet of Wolf, who is neither.
We want problematic women to be the victims, even as they actively pursue policies and positions that destroy others. In a press briefing earlier this week, reporters appealed to Sanders’ status as a mother, the implication being that as a result she couldn’t possibly support the policy of child separation at the border.
It’s a pretty mythology we spin about women that their positions within the patriarchy as wife and mother somehow protects them and renders them blameless, even when they perpetuate a culture of abuse or an administration that is wholly corrupt.
And this Catch-22 doesn’t just happen at the highest positions of power. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that women who are young, white or mothers receive a more lenient sentence and lower bond than their male counterparts. This chivalry justice is welded unequally ― usually only for white women who fit conventional standards of attractiveness.
Writing in Jezebel in January, Stassa Edwards argued, “Such ideologies only offer comfort to an individual, well-to-do white women who were born with the ability to navigate power structures they inhabit, while leaving those very structures perfectly in place.”
It’s a muck of patriarchy and politics. Women are not the men they stand behind or in front of, and sacrificing them as martyrs for the crimes of men is not helpful. But there is a complicity that has yet to be grappled with. The women of the Trump administration, and those 53 percent of white women who voted for him, are aiding and abetting policies that are destroying lives. There is nowhere to turn.
Ivanka Tump, Melania Trump, Conway, Sanders and Nielsen are complicit. They are no innocent mothers, whose uterus provides protection for their involvement. They actively benefit and stand for a system that also demeans and destroys.
In her new book Any Man, which imagines an America menaced by a female serial rapist, Amber Tamblyn flips this script and suggests a way out of this tangle of systems and women, culpability and victimhood. Or, if not a way out, a flicker of light pointing us to the end of the tunnel.
Tamblyn’s villain isn’t a victim. She is no slighted Aileen Wuornos, no abused Casey Anthony. She is no rehabbed Wicked Witch of the West or slighted Evil Queen from Snow White. Instead, Maude, the rapist, is offered a narrative arc few women (real or imagined) are offered, to let their actions stand for themselves and themselves alone.
What is unique to the narrative is not that a woman is capable of evil. Women of color, poor women, fat women, trans women, queen women, ugly women, single mothers ― they are all made into monsters by the mythologies that shore up the privilege of middle-class white women. What is unique about Tamblyn’s book is that in the story a woman is allowed to be evil, independent of her cultural baggages. There is no victimhood storyline for Maude. No “but she’s a wife and a mother” defense.
She is a monster, pure and simple.
By seeing the world we live in upside down, we are better able to see who we are and how we fit into these structures. And in doing so, come to terms with both the pernicious systems that silence and abuse us all and our roles in enabling them.
Lyz Lenz is the managing editor of The Rumpus and the author of the forthcoming book “God Land” from Indiana University Press.