Jason and Sarah mansplain mansplaining. — Written by Sarah Cooper and Jason Kyle
Sorry, Ted Yoho. Having daughters doesn’t get you a sexism free pass.
Brett Kavanaugh invoked it. Mitch McConnell used it too. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have each talked about it, and this week, Representative Ted Yoho joined their ranks: he, too, is now a member of the having-a-daughter-makes-me-an-ally-to-women — or at the very least, should-excuse-my-bad-behavior — club.
“Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of language,” Representative Yoho said in a speech on the House floor this week, denying that he called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Congresswoman from New York, a “fucking bitch” after a confrontation on the steps of the Capitol.
Mr. Yoho later expressed regret for the “abrupt manner of the conversation,” in which he told Ms. Ocasio-Cortez that her statements about poverty and crime in New York City were “disgusting.” But, he noted, “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.”
On Thursday, in a speech on the House floor that has since gone viral — in which she read the vulgarity into the Congressional record — Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said, “I am someone’s daughter too.” She said she’d planned to ignore the insults — it’s “just another day” as a woman, she said — but changed her mind after Mr. Yoho decided to bring his wife and daughters into the fray.
Our culture is full of platitudes about fathers and daughters: the Hallmark card, the weeping dad at the wedding. But invoking daughters and wives to deflect criticism is a particular kind of political trope — and one that’s been used throughout history to “excuse a host of bad behavior,” said the historian Barbara Berg.
The love a man has for the female members of his family, particularly his offspring, is presumed to have special power — to humanize the other half of the population, to allow him to imagine the world his daughter will inhabit. Sometimes, in fact, this happens. Other times, the Daughter Excuse comes across mostly as cynical ploy.
“As if familial affiliation alone equals enlightened attitudes towards women,” said Susan Douglas, a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan. “It’s like claiming ‘I have a Black friend‚’ as if that makes you anti-racist.”
There is social science that’s shown there is something to being the father of a daughter.
In a study called “The First-Daughter Effect,” Elizabeth Sharrow, an associate professor of public policy and history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her colleagues, determined that fathering daughters — and firstborn daughters, in particular — indeed played a role in making men’s attitudes toward gender equality more progressive, particularly when it came to policies like equal pay or sexual harassment protocols. The researchers also determined that those dads of firstborn daughters were, in 2016, more likely to support Hillary Clinton or a fictional female congressional candidate delivering a similar pitch.
“Our argument is not that it is genetics or biology, but that it is proximity,” said Dr. Sharrow. In other words: The daughters help the fathers see the problems they may have previously dismissed.
Or Dick Cheney, whose views on same-sex marriage shifted earlier than many might have expected because of his daughter, who is gay.
Daughters influencing fathers’ views for the better is far different from fathers using their daughters as “shields and excuses for poor behavior,” as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez described Mr. Yoho in her speech.
It’s also different from fathers using them as “props,” as Dr. Berg puts it, to emphasize their alignment with women’s causes — or, by contrast, their disgust over behaviors perceived to be in opposition to them.
Consider Justice Kavanaugh, who — during his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about allegations of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford — spoke repeatedly of his daughters (as well as his wife and mother) and noted that coaching his daughter’s basketball team was what he loved “more than anything I’ve ever done in my whole life” — as if loving coaching and allegedly treating women badly as a teenager are mutually exclusive.
“Men have often pointed to their relationships with and love for some women — especially wives and daughters — to combat claims that they have mistreated other women,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “We have seen this both inside and outside of politics, especially when men are subject to accusations of sexual harassment and assault.”
In the wake of the 2016 reports on comments made by Donald Trump on the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, a host of fathers-of-daughters came out to condemn the behavior. Mr. McConnell noted that “as the father of three daughters” he believed that Mr. Trump “needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere,” while Mitt Romney said that the comments “demean our wives and daughters.” (It is perhaps worth noting that Mr. Trump, too, has daughters.)
Similarly, in response to revelations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, both Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who had worked with the disgraced Hollywood producer, expressed their disgust on behalf of their female offspring. We “need to do better at protecting our friends, sisters, co-workers and daughters,” Mr. Affleck said on Twitter, while Mr. Damon explained that “as the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night.”
Women, too, have at times invoked men’s daughters — and other female relatives — in trying to appeal to some men. When asked about Mr. Yoho’s behavior, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “What’s so funny is, you’d say to them, ‘Do you not have a daughter? Do you not have a mother? Do you not have a sister? Do you not have a wife? What makes you think that you can be so’ — and this is the word I use for them — ‘condescending, in addition to being disrespectful?’”
The caveat, of course, is the qualification. “Qualifying your outrage against misogyny as due to your role as a father or husband implies that, absent those roles, you would be either unaware of or unconcerned,” said Dr. Dittmar.
Or as Ms. Ocasio-Cortez put it: “Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” Why should daughters still have to be a prerequisite to respect?
This spring I taught a seminar (via Zoom, of course) at the University of Chicago on the art of political persuasion. We read Lincoln, Pericles, King, Orwell, Havel and Churchill, among other great practitioners of the art. We ended with a study of Donald Trump’s tweets, as part of a class on demagogy.
If the closing subject was depressing, at least the timing was appropriate.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented national catastrophe. The catastrophe is not the pandemic, or an economic depression, or killer cops, or looted cities, or racial inequities. These are all too precedented. What’s unprecedented is that never before have we been led by a man who so completely inverts the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
With malice toward all; with charity for none: eight words that encapsulate everything this president is, does and stands for.
What does one learn when reading great political speeches and writings? That well-chosen words are the way by which past deeds acquire meaning and future deeds acquire purpose. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” are the only false notes in the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg is etched in national memory less for its military significance than because Lincoln reinvented the goals of the Civil War in that speech — and, in doing so, reimagined the possibilities of America.
Political writing doesn’t just provide meaning and purpose. It also offers determination, hope and instruction.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” written at one of the grimmer moments of Communist tyranny, Václav Havel laid out why the system was so much weaker, and the individual so much stronger, than either side knew. In his “Fight on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, Winston Churchill told Britons of “a victory inside this deliverance” — a reason, however remote, for resolve and optimism. In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., explained why patience was no answer to injustice: “When you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
In a word, great political writing aims to elevate. What, by contrast, does one learn by studying Trump’s utterances?
The purpose of Trump’s presidency is to debase, first by debasing the currency of speech. It’s why he refuses to hire reasonably competent speechwriters to craft reasonably competent speeches. It’s why his communication team has been filled by people like Dan Scavino and Stephanie Grisham and Sarah Sanders.
And it’s why Twitter is his preferred medium of communication. It is speech designed for provocations and put-downs; for making supporters feel smug; for making opponents seethe; for reducing national discourse to the level of grunts and counter-grunts.
That’s a level that suits Trump because it’s the level at which he excels. Anyone who studies Trump’s tweets carefully must come away impressed by the way he has mastered the demagogic arts. He doesn’t lead his base, as most politicians do. He personifies it. He speaks to his followers as if he were them. He cultivates their resentments, demonizes their opponents, validates their hatreds. He glorifies himself so they may bask in the reflection.
Whatever this has achieved for him, or them, it’s a calamity for us. At a moment when disease has left more than 100,000 American families bereft, we have a president incapable of expressing the nation’s heartbreak. At a moment of the most bitter racial grief since the 1960s, we have a president who has bankrupted the moral capital of the office he holds.
And at a moment when many Americans, particularly conservatives, are aghast at the outbursts of looting and rioting that have come in the wake of peaceful protests, we have a president who wants to replace rule of law with rule by the gun. If Trump now faces a revolt by the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership (both current and former) against his desire to deploy active-duty troops in American cities, it’s because his words continue to drain whatever is left of his credibility as commander in chief.
I write this as someone who doesn’t lay every national problem at Trump’s feet and tries to give him credit when I think it’s due.
Trump is no more responsible for the policing in Minneapolis than Barack Obama was responsible for policing in Ferguson. I doubt the pandemic would have been handled much better by a Hillary Clinton administration, especially considering the catastrophic errors of judgment by people like Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo. And our economic woes are largely the result of a lockdown strategy most avidly embraced by the president’s critics.
But the point here isn’t that Trump is responsible for the nation’s wounds. It’s that he is the reason some of those wounds have festered and why none of them can heal, at least for as long as he remains in office. Until we have a president who can say, as Lincoln did in his first inaugural, “We are not enemies, but friends” — and be believed in the bargain — our national agony will only grow worse.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.