The Contrast Between Biden And Trump On Full Display At The State Of The Union Speech

Heather Cox Richardson

Last night, Republicans and Democrats offered very different visions of the roles and rights of women in American society. 

In the State of the Union address, President Joe Biden thanked Vice President Kamala Harris “for being an incredible leader defending reproductive freedom and so much more.” Biden condemned “state laws banning the freedom to choose, criminalizing doctors, forcing survivors of rape and incest to leave their states to get the treatment they need,” and he called out Republicans “promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom.”

Biden quoted back to the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court, sitting in front of him in the chamber, their words when in June 2022 they overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wadedecision that recognized the constitutional right to abortion.

The justices wrote: “Women are not without electoral or political power.” 

Biden responded: “You’re about to realize just how much you were right about that.” “Clearly, those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women. But they found out. When reproductive freedom was on the ballot, we won in 2022 and 2023. And we’ll win again in 2024.” Biden promised to restore Roe v. Wade if Americans elect a Congress that supports the right to choose.

Senator Katie Britt (R-AL) gave the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address. Sitting in a kitchen rather than in a setting that reflected her position in one of the nation’s highest elected offices, Britt conspicuously wore a necklace with a cross and spoke in a breathy, childlike voice as she wavered between smiles and the suggestion she was on the verge of tears. 

“What the hell am I watching right now?” an unnamed Trump advisor asked Nikki McCann Ramirez and Asawin Suebsaeng of Rolling Stone.

Britt’s performance was the logical outcome of right-wing demonization of women’s rights advocates since the 1960s. That popular demonization began soon after women calling for “liberation” from the strict gender roles of the post–World War II years protested the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The protesters tossed items related to women’s roles as homemakers and sex symbols—bras, girdles, pots and pans, and Playboy magazines—into a trash can. That act so horrified traditionalists that a journalist likened the women to young men burning their draft cards, starting the myth that the protesting women had burned their bras. 

Two years later, with his popularity dropping before the 1972 election, President Richard Nixon wooed Catholic Democrats by abandoning his support for abortion rights. The following March, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, declaring that “[e]quality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” and sent it off to the states for ratification. 

Advocates of traditional gender roles used abortion as a proxy to attack women’s rights in general. Railing against the Equal Rights Amendment in her first statement on abortion in 1972, activist Phyllis Schlafly did not mention fetuses, but instead attacked “women’s lib”—the women’s liberation movement—which she claimed was “a total assault on the role of the American woman as wife and mother, and on the family as the basic unit of society.” 

The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, including women in the ranks of marginalized Americans whose civil rights were protected by the federal government. Since the 1950s, opponents of such federal protection for Black and Brown Americans had tied such federal action to communism because it meant the government used tax dollars for the benefit of specific groups. In their minds, this amounted to a redistribution of wealth from hardworking taxpayers to undeserving special interests. 

The cultural backlash to the idea of women’s equality strengthened. In 1974 the television show Little House on the Prairie, based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, began its nine-year run. It portrayed western women as wives and mothers cared for by menfolk, complementing the image of the cowboy individualist championed by the antigovernment right wing. 

As historian Peggy O’Donnell noted in Jezebel in 2019, prairie dresses, with their image of “traditional” femininity and motherhood, the female version of cowboy clothing, became fashionable, even as the era’s popular televangelists railed against feminists. 

Constantly evoking the image of the western cowboy, Ronald Reagan won the White House. Four years later, sociologist Kristin Luker discovered that “pro-life” activists believed that selfish “pro-choice” women were denigrating the roles of wife and mother and were demanding rights they didn’t need or deserve.

Increasingly, Republicans portrayed women who demanded equality as a special interest made up of feminist scolds who wanted federal support they did not deserve. In 1984, when Democratic presidential candidate Walter “Fritz” Mondale tapped the very well qualified Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York as his running mate, opponents circulated fake campaign buttons backing “Fritz and Tits,” and even 60 percent of Democrats thought Ferraro was there only because Mondale was under pressure from women’s groups who wanted special legislation. 

Powerful women either fell out of public view or were pilloried for intruding on a man’s world as those opposing women’s equality portrayed women either as wives and mothers, who looked to their husbands for financial security and safety, or as sex objects available for men’s pleasure. 

By 1988, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh had begun to demonize women’s rights advocates as “feminazis” for whom “the most important thing in life is ensuring that as many abortions as possible occur.” After the 1993 siege of the headquarters of a religious cult near Waco, Texas, that left 76 people dead and inspired the rise of right-wing militias to resist the federal government, Limbaugh emphasized that the attorney general who ordered the operation was the first female attorney general: Janet Reno.

Such rhetoric turned out Republican voters, especially the white evangelical base, and after it launched in 1996, the Fox News Channel (FNC) reinforced the idea that individualist men should be running society. Most FNC personalities were older men; the network’s female personalities were young, beautiful, and deferential. (FNC chair and chief executive officer Roger Ailes resigned in 2016 after accounts emerged of alleged sexual harassment.) 

By 2016 the competing ideologies concerning the role of women in American society were encapsulated by the contest between Donald Trump and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton was highly educated and extremely well qualified. She advocated protecting the rights of women and minorities and warned that Trump would pack the Supreme Court with extremists who would undermine abortion rights. She provided detailed policy papers. 

Trump, in turn, bragged of sexual assault and called for Clinton to be arrested: “Lock her up!” became the call and response at his rallies. Ending access to abortion had become the rallying cry for the evangelicals who supported Trump, and he promised to end those rights, even flirting with the idea of criminal punishments for women seeking abortions. Far from being disqualifying, Trump’s denigration of women embodied the sort of traditional gender roles fundamentalists embraced.

Once in office, Trump nominated and the Republican-dominated Senate confirmed three radical Supreme Court justices who in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade, taking away the recognition of a constitutional right Americans had enjoyed for almost 50 years. 

When Britt delivered the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union from a kitchen, wearing a cross and using a submissive speaking style, she represented the outcome of the longstanding opposition to women’s equal rights in the United States.

The Democrats’ position last night was a sharp contrast. Biden stood in front of the nation’s first female vice president as he denounced the Republican assault on women’s rights. He warned the country: “America cannot go back.”

Perfect timing for today’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

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