Where’s the sexism?

This may as well be a parlor game for the modern age: You catch a whiff of something anti-woman in the air, but you can’t tell which corner of the room it’s coming from. Putting gender front and center can sometimes root out bigotry in our society — or it can invite more.

Look at today’s battle between Republican Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.). An intraparty power struggle consumes the GOP as it moves toward a dismal new orthodoxy — you can’t lead if you don’t lie. While Rep. John A. Boehner’s resignation as House speaker in 2015 under threat of a hyper-conservative coup was treated as a matter of ideology, this battle is all that and more.

Yes, Cheney’s exile will signal her party’s complete capitulation to Donald Trump’s myth of a rigged election. Yet ask around, and you’ll hear that her likely replacement by Stefanik means it also signals something more: A gender thing.

“I think it’s sad to be used by the guys in a way like, ‘OK, we get a skirt to replace a skirt,’" former representative Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) told Politico. She told the Hill, “Woe to the woman who’s going to be the handmaiden to what is basically a male assault.”

Meghan McCain took that stridency and doubled it. “So go ahead — go ahead in this sausage-fest of MAGA up on Capitol Hill,” she said. “Pull her out and put another woman in who will do and say anything you want for President Trump.”

Both parties deploy gender to score points, of course. On the other side of the aisle, Nancy Pelosi’s team produced a mock ad lifting comments from the Republican leadership and flock about what the GOP is now looking for in a Cheney replacement: “Help Wanted — Non-Threatening Female.”

So, if the GOP wants to swap, as Comstock put it, skirt-for-skirt, how bad is that? Better, maybe, than relegating the few women you have to the sidelines. After all, one woman’s tokenism is another’s representation. Only last month, it was progressives who were oohing and aahing over Pelosi and Vice President Harris standing behind President Biden during his address to a joint session of Congress.

At worst, though, the aim of appealing to credulous suburban security moms reeks of cynicism. It’s also insulting, especially when insisting on a female frontman for the GOP obscures an aggressively anti-female agenda. The fact that Stefanik (who in 2014 had been the youngest woman ever elected to Congress) was the obvious choice speaks to the party’s shallow reservoir of ladies.

Something also feels queasy about the broadsides against Stefanik for unseating another of her sex when, the thinking goes, “women should support women.” Sure, this takeover hardly screams sisterhood. Yet the idea that girls should help girls purely because they’re girls — regardless of whether the subject at hand has anything to do with girldom — spells trouble. Men, after all, aren’t expected to help men even when they are doing very bad things.

Cheney’s stand against the GOP’s corruption deserves credit not because she’s female but because she’s right. Similarly, her support for all sorts of damaging right-wing policies deserves criticism by people of all chromosomal makeups.

Our 21st-century hang-ups over gender leave us unsure where to look. The so-called catfight went out of fashion earlier this century, but the voyeuristic desire to see a woman brawl with a woman lingers somewhere in our collective consciousness. Some, in other words, may be searching for claws to come out where there are none to be found. Cheney, as the vote drew nearer, seemed not to want to fight at all.

Others steer clear of mentioning gender — even though Republicans have admitted they need another woman, and even though Stefanik earned her stature in part by running a PAC last cycle that propelled more than a dozen GOP women to Capitol Hill. That may be because of how our history of harping on gender where it’s irrelevant has done little to effect equality. Or perhaps they are worried this lightning rod of a topic will suck all the energy away from the much bigger problem here: the collapse of our political system.

The Republican Party is hurtling toward a future premised on a venomous myth. This future may also be a world in which, hand in hand with the unprincipled men around them and without reference to any other body parts, women can be saboteurs of democracy, too.

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