Less has been said about her quip likening Sanders to an Uncle Tom, an epithet used mostly by African Americans to disparage other black people, especially those who hold or have access to power in institutions, who co-sign or remain silent in the face of racism.
“I’m never really sure what to call Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” Wolf began. “Like, what’s Uncle Tom but for white women who disappoint other white women?”
In the eyes of many feminists, Wolf could have been talking about any of the handful of women who have visible roles in the Trump administration, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, former communications director Hope Hicks, as well as Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and first lady Melania Trump.
They have defended the president against allegations of sexism and misogyny throughout his campaign and during his first 1 ½ years in office. Indeed, they often cite their very presence within the administration as proof that Trump respects women’s abilities.
White women have come in for sharp criticism since November 2016, when exit polls showed that a majority of them voted for Trump. But, as has been repeatedly noted, a majority of white women have voted for the Republican presidential nominee in all but two elections since 1952.
Wolf and her defenders said the comedian’s eye shadow joke was not a comment on Sanders’s appearance, but referred to criticism that she has given false or misleading information to reporters about Trump’s comments and actions.
Still, many political watchers were stunned that white women supported this particular Republican nominee. He had a long history of using misogynistic language when talking about women, including comments he made during the 2016 campaign about television host Megyn Kelly and Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. Also during the campaign, Trump was heard on the “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about kissing and grabbing women by their crotches without their consent, and several women came forward to accuse him of having sexually assaulted them. Currently, Trump is fending off allegations that he had a sexual relationship with adult-film actress Stormy Daniels a few months after his wife, Melania, gave birth to their son.
So in addition to their usual ideological differences with women on the right, many feminists are especially unforgiving of the women in Trump’s political sphere.
Nadia Brown, professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, thought Wolf’s Uncle Tom zinger was funny but missed the mark for another reason: “You can’t say a white woman is being an Uncle Tom if she’s doing what other white women are doing.”
“The idea that white women are liberal and have this affinity toward diversity and inclusion issues, that’s just not true,” Brown said. “It’s really Michelle Wolf who is out of step with what white women are doing.”
As Brown sees it, although white women are more often depicted as the face of the feminist movement than women of color, their political behavior suggests otherwise. In December, 63 percent of white women who voted in the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama backed Republican Roy Moore, despite numerous accusations that he had made unwanted sexual advances toward underage girls.
Black women not only turned out in record numbers in the Alabama contest, 98 percent of them voted for Democrat Doug Jones. In the presidential election, 96 percent of black women voters cast ballots for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“White women are not voting for women’s interests,” Brown said.
But the women who voted for Trump, and certainly the women who worked in his campaign and now in his administration, don’t believe the Democratic Party represents their interests. In interviews, during and after the election, some women, including his wife, Melania, agreed with him when he shrugged off his vulgar comments in the “Access Hollywood” tape as “locker room talk.” They also said that, despite their concerns about his behavior, they backed Trump because they trusted him to carry out a conservative economic and social agenda, including cutting taxes, dismantling the Affordable Care Act and restricting access to abortion.
Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College in Maryland, has studied and written about women on the political right, including their rejection of the notion of sexism as a systemic problem.
She said Wolf’s Uncle Tom joke would not have worked in the administrations of the two previous Republican presidents, George H.W. and George W. Bush because “both men, while advancing public policies that liberal women did not support (such as being pro-life on abortion), were not so overtly sexist and misogynistic in their rhetoric.
“For example, they didn’t spend much of their presidency calling for previous female opponents to be put to jail. Or campaigning on behalf of alleged pedophiles. Or having hush payments to former mistresses and porn stars come to light during their administrations,” Deckman said.
“So, to have the relatively few women officials in Trump’s White House defend him repeatedly, giving political cover to obviously false statements made by Trump, has really rubbed many women on the left the wrong way. In this era of #MeToo, it is really galling for many women to watch their behavior in standing up for him.”
Moreso than the Uncle Tom jab, Brown thought Wolf’s Aunt Lydia comparison was more apt.
“I have to say I’m a little star-struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” Wolf, referring to Sanders, said during her routine. The reference was to a main character in the novel and the Hulu series who enforces the theocratic regime’s program to subjugate women.
Brown said that Sanders, Conway and Ivanka Trump “get deployed to try to pacify or to explain to white women why patriarchy is a good thing.”
“There’s always going to be someone who has bought into the side of the powerful and those that uphold the status quo,” Brown said. “You know that old saying among black people, ‘All skin folk ain’t kinfolk.’ It’s the same way of thinking about women.”