Kellyanne Conway is unquestionably a strong, confident, and highly accomplished woman. She is the first woman to manage a successful Presidential campaign and is now Counselor to the President of the United States. She is also a highly polarizing figure. On the one hand, she is regarded as “the new hero of the post feminism era”; a woman who “has exposed the hypocrisy of a [leftist] crusade more concerned about political ideology than with supporting strong women in positions of influence.” On the other hand, she has been called “a professional con artist [who] pollute[s] the airways with one flagrant lie after another.” Not surprisingly, her promotion of “alternative facts,” allegation of a “Bowling Green Massacre” (when there was no such thing), and advice to TV viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” are viewed by many as proof she lacks any credibility. At the same time, her strong pro-life stance – “Stand Up, Stand Tall, Stand Together on behalf of babies in the womb” – and her full-throated attack on the media – “I ripped them a new one” – have made her a champion for many others. Likewise, her statement that “my favorite label is Mommy” is viewed by many on the left as disingenuous, but as a rousing reaffirmation of traditional values by many others on the right.
There is no escaping that Conway is a highly controversial public figure, and as such is fair game for vigorous criticism. But the fact she is a woman ought to be irrelevant in that criticism. Attacking Conway as a woman because she is a woman should have no place in civil public discourse; but such attacks have now become commonplace. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was subjected to a barrage of sexist, misogynistic comments from the right; and now Conway is being subjected to much the same from the left.
On March 5, 2017, The New York Times reported, “Misogyny… remains a bipartisan exercise… [I]t’s striking how often [criticism] is expressed using the same sexist things from women as well as men.” According to The Times, Conway was said to look in her inaugural day outfit like “a night terror of an android majorette;” she is often compared to the witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” who was smashed under Dorothy’s house; she was said to be in a “familiar position” in the Oval Office when she was sitting on her knees on a couch; and she is frequently accused of using her “femininity to control men” and hence is “a slut.”
But The Times hardly noted all of the sexist attacks on Conway. She has been called “sewer rat Barbie,” said to look “eerily like the troll meme face” and as “what would happen if Skeletor went on Extreme Makeover,” and said she can’t be trusted because “she couldn’t … place trust in a comb before appearing on national television.” Even the author of an otherwise substantive article about her in The Atlantic couldn’t resist calling attention to Conway “winking with one mascara-clotted blue eye.”
Why do people—women as well as men—find it acceptable to criticize women in the public spotlight in terms of their appearance, sexuality, and personal grooming? And why are these attacks only leveled against women who are obviously strong, competitive, and successful? The simple answer is gender bias: precisely because of their success, these women are regarded by many as unpleasant, calculating, devious, untrustworthy, and unlikable. Let’s explore the operation of this phenomenon a bit farther by calling attention to the sexist attacks on three other strong women. Warren Buffett, of all people, said Elizabeth Warren “would do better if she were less angry….” When Angela Merkel attended the opening of Norway’s new Opera House in a low-cut black dress, the Daily Mail ran her photo beneath the headline, “Merkel’s Weapons of Mass Distraction,” while on-line, her appearance was characterized as “Deutschland Boober Alles.” And Donald Trump attacked his primary opponent, Carly Fiorina, by saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next President?”
We are not fans of Conway’s politics, but her mascara, posture, clothing, and other physical attributes are irrelevant in this regard. Indeed, the misogynistic attacks on Conway say more about our culture’s pervasive bias against strong, successful women than they do about her. If Conway is to be criticized, then the only appropriate—and effective—way to do so is in terms of the substance of her comments, advice, and actions. And we know of no more powerful criticism of this sort than that of Patricia McGuire, the President of Catholic Trinity Washington University, Conway’s alma mater.
“Presidential Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, Trinity Class of 1989, has played a large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump Administration’s war on immigrants among many other issues …. Ms. Conway has been part of a team that thinks nothing of shaping and spreading a skein of lies as a means to secure power.”