You know what? This isn’t hyperbole or exaggerated. It’s a four-alarm fire. I know, I know, such claims are often viewed by those on the Right as something bordering on hysteria, but at times like this there’s just no sugarcoating it. Statements like this one last week from South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham are genuinely terrifying:
“You know what I like about Judge Barrett? She’s got everything. She’s not just wicked smart, she’s incredibly good. She embraces her faith. I want every young woman to know there’s a place for you in America if you are pro-life, if you embrace your religion, and you follow traditional family structure. That you can go anywhere, young lady.”
I have a daughter. She’s in middle school. This statement is terrifying. What Graham straight up said was that there is no place in America for girls like my daughter, a pro-choice atheist who believes that family should not be defined by either tradition or structure. Graham flat out declared was that unless girls like my daughter change their views, preferences, choices, and ideas to become the politically conservative Christian wives and mothers he wants them to be, they has no place in this country.
It terrifies me that we live in a world where men still think like that. It’s not that I expected any different from Graham, but the bluntness of this statement—and his willingness to say it out loud—imbue it with an added level of terror. I think of all of the queer people I know, and all of the girls I know who have minds of their own. I think of all of the outspoken pro-choice women, and single women, and women in egalitarian marriages, and women who choose not to have children, and nonbinary people.
Anyone who claims that Republicans are not sexist because they put a woman on the Supreme Court—so clearly, the claim goes, they can’t think women’s place is in the kitchen—needs to be shown this quote. Republicans are willing and ready to elevate women who do exactly as they want them to do. Women who marry a man, have children, and stay married; women who hold a rigid set of political views which starts with opposing abortion; women who are adequately religious, and who adopt the right kind of religion (I do not think Senator Graham was talking about witches).
Men like Graham don’t actually care about women. Why? Because the moment a woman turns out to be her own person, with her own motivations, interests, ideas, desires, and beliefs, she ceases to be of interest. She no longer has a place in this country! A woman is only a person who matter if she performs a specific type of femininity; a woman is only valuable if she adheres to a specific type of conservative, Christian womanhood. It’s that bad.
As glaring as Graham’s comments sound in the progressive context I inhabit, his words are also painfully familiar. I grew up in a conservative evangelical community where I was told that my role as a woman was to be a wife and mother. I had political ambitions—and well I should, given that I was taught that I and my friends were being homeschooled in order to “retake” America for Christ. But I was also taught that women’s position in the traditional family structure Graham references was a primarily domestic, caregiving one. I determined that I would marry someone with political ambitions and support his campaign, as befitted the role of a good Christian woman.
I have a very, very strong memory of sitting in the dining hall at the arch-conservative World Journalism Institute as a teen only to have a male instructor only a few years older than I tell me that women were not to submit to and obey all men: they were only to submit to and obey their husbands. He said it as though his words were some sort of liberatory gift. And the sad thing is, that is how I took his comments! Because compared to all of the messages I was getting about women’s role in society and their relationship to men, the idea that I most only submit to my own husband felt freeing!
Anyone claiming that conservatives can’t be sexist because they appointed a woman to the Supreme Court needs to be reminded that conservatives generally believe that women must submit to and obey their husbands, and not all men. Thus if Amy Coney Barrett’s husband is okay with being a judge—if, in his view, her being a judge does not get in the way of her fulfilling her role as dutiful wife and mother—this acceptable within a traditional family structure.
This is not the same thing as believing in women’s rights.
In this framework—in Graham’s framework—women exist primarily in their relation to the men in their lives. To use Graham’s words: do they “follow a traditional family structure”? Do they have a husband that they properly reverence and obey—a husband who is responsible for them, a husband who ensures that they fulfill their responsibilities in marriage and in the home? Well and good then. She is properly married and has a husband who is responsible for her.
Such ideas should have no place in our nation today. Women should not need to fulfill men’s ideas of proper womanhood to be allowed to ascend to positions of power. Women should be viewed as people in their own rights, independent of their place (or lack thereof) in any traditional family unity (whatever exactly that means). And yet, here these ideas are nonetheless, and coming from the mouths of some of the most powerful people in our nation.
Women aren’t the only group Graham has said are only welcome if they live by his rules and adhere to his political beliefs. Graham said the same of Black people, immigrants, and other minorities during a debate with his Black Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.
Here, have a look:
“Do I believe our cops are systemically racist? No. Do I believe South Carolina is a racist state? No. Let me tell you why. To young people out there, young people of color, young immigrants, this is a great state, but one thing I can say without any doubt, you can be an African American and go to the Senate but you just have to share our values. If you’re a young, African American or an immigrant, you can go anywhere in this state, you just need to be conservative, not liberal.”
This is not how life in a democracy works. At least, it’s not how it’s supposed to work. And yes: telling people of color that they can “go anywhere,” but only if they are conservative, is racist. Lindsey Graham wants to live in a world where women go to church and marry, raise children, and obey their husbands, a world where Black people stay in their places—a world where it is acceptable for powerful white men to tell Black people what to think and what to believe.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. We live in a world where women are present in a variety of public spheres, a world where a woman is the vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket—a world where queer people’s rights are accepted by a growing percentage of the population. But Graham is not alone in his opinions, and as Trump’s supporters show themselves increasingly aggressive and the Republicans blatantly work to toss out ballots, I find myself worried about our future—and thinking about my own past, and the world it was meant to prepare me for.
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