NAFTA negotiations could make sexual violence America’s top export
Criticism of Melania Trump shows a lot about the #MeToo movement
Melania Trump has been first lady of the United States for nearly a year and political observers still do not know what to make of her. The first lady has played a visible yet quiet role, a combination that my research shows is rare for modern first ladies, who often use their public platform to advocate for presidential policy.
Our struggle to evaluate Mrs. Trump and her time in office reflects the unfinished business of the women's movement we are currently navigating. While we have made strides in the identification and condemnation of the abusive behavior of men, we still hold women accountable for it.
Few events better exemplify this hypocrisy than elite criticism of the first lady's cyber-bullying initiative. The irony of Mrs. Trump's chosen project given her cyberbully husband is obvious. President Trump regularly uses Twitter to lambaste his opponents and make disparaging remarks about women.
What appears to be lost on Mrs. Trump's critics is the implication of her choice. Mrs. Trump opted to pursue an issue that is arguably the least convenient for her husband's administration. She is acting independently of her husband and his best interests, rather than sacrificing her own interests for the good of the administration.
It is time we stop holding women accountable for the mistakes of their male counterparts. While the actions of past first ladies have in some ways exemplified the expanded power of women in society, propelling presidential wives into previously male-dominated policy discussions - take Laura Bush's work in Afghanistan, for example, or Michelle Obama's push for healthcare reform - the act of mobilizing a first lady's popularity to help her husband's administration reinforces gender norms as much as it challenges them.
We see the first lady as an extension of the president and look to her to save his face. Yet rather than treating Mrs. Trump as an individual and acknowledging the flexibility afforded by her unofficial role, media elites have attacked her for not choosing a project that is a better fit for her husband's agenda.
Following the president's cruel Twitter rampage last June against MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski (who has herself characterized Mrs. Trump's platform "a joke" and "the saddest thing I've ever seen"), CNN's Jake Tapper wasted no time in taking a subtle jab at the first lady. "This reminds me: how is @FLOTUS's campaign against cyberbullying going?" Tapper tweeted. Meghan McCain also brought up the first lady's cyberbullying platform that day, calling the combination of Trump's tweets and the first lady's initiative hypocritical on Fox News.
Elites have held Mrs. Trump accountable for her husband's sexist behavior in particular. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Meryl Streep redirected a question about her own silence on the issue of sexual harassment to the first lady. "I don't want to hear about the silence of me," Streep said. "I want to hear about the silence of Melania Trump. I want to hear from her. She has so much that's valuable to say. And so does Ivanka."
Like Melania Trump, Hillary Clinton was repeatedly asked about the women who accused her husband of sexual impropriety on the presidential campaign trail in 1992. Donald Trump made Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct an issue of the 2016 campaign, threatening to host Gennifer Flowers at a presidential debate before holding a press conference with four Clinton accusers.
The victimization of women in these instances is threefold. In addition to dealing with the pain caused by accusations of sexual misconduct in a marriage, women often bear the burden of defending their partners when it occurs. Women are then ridiculed if they decide to stay in the relationship, if their explanations are not satisfying to the public, or even if they leave the relationship because of a one-time offense.
And it is not just presidential wives that deal with double standards when it comes to explaining away the bad behavior of men. The women who work in the Trump administration have been singled out over the president's misconduct.
"There is this strange silence from the women around him, women who were supposed to be moderating forces," said MSNBC host Joe Scarborough recently. "So the question is... Who is the first woman that works for Donald Trump that steps forward and says 'enough'? Who is the first woman that says 'I just can't continue working here?'"
It may be fair to hold official White House staff members to a tougher standard than members of the president's family, even when the question is one of the president's poor personal conduct. But the notion that the women working in Trump's White House should be more outraged about the president's behavior than their male colleagues, and moreover, that women should be the first to resign, is absurd.
Everyone should be outraged in the face of sexism. The women of the Trump administration should not be expected to leave their jobs in a show of solidarity while the male staffers remain in positions of power and influence.
Ours is a society that upholds individual responsibility. Surely we can do much better than burdening women with the responsibility of overhauling the very system that oppresses them. Men who misbehave must be made to answer for their own misbehavior.
Lauren A. Wright, Ph.D., is a lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University and the author of "On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today." You can follow her on Twitter @DrLaurenAWright.