As Women’s History Month draws to an end, first lady Melania Trump proclaimed at a Wednesday award ceremony that “wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them.” Soon after, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said at a briefing that the “president made women’s empowerment a priority throughout the campaign.” And later in the afternoon, President Trump attended a women’s empowerment panel and jokingly asked whether anyone had heard of Susan B. Anthony.
It was a discordant series of remarks given Trump’s history of controversial comments about and allegations of mistreatment of women over the years. This is a president who bragged during a conversation with an “Access Hollywood” host that he could grab women without their permission, who allegedly burst into the dressing rooms of beauty pageant contestants and who was accused by 11 women before the election of inappropriately touching or kissing them.
Trump — who lagged Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton badly among female voters in November — has leaned heavily on men for his top Cabinet and administration posts. As he signed legislation rolling back environmental protections this week, Trump was surrounded by at least 16 men, including Cabinet members, coal executives and coal miners.
That history has cast a shadow of sorts over the administration’s commemorations of women’s accomplishments over the past month, particularly events involving the president or the White House. The juxtaposition has also inspired widespread jeering on the left, where many view Trump’s past and his policy agenda as out of step with women’s interests.
During the “Day Without a Woman” strike on March 8, comedian and late-night host Samantha Bee — a vocal Trump critic — tweeted a photo of Trump sitting in the Oval Office surrounded by 12 men with the message: “The Trump WH is so feminist, EVERY day is Day Without a Woman.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a spokeswoman for the president, rolls her eyes at such criticisms, asking why there are not tweets and articles about events where the president is surrounded by only women. She pointed to a White House panel Wednesday afternoon that brought together more than 200 women and girls, including Sanders and her young daughter.
Sanders said that for decades, Trump has given women positions of power in his businesses and, now in the White House, frequently asks the women on his staff what they think.
“I’ve spent a pretty good deal of time around him, and he has been nothing but respectful and deferential,” Sanders said.
Trump has included a number of women in senior positions, including the formal announcement Wednesday that his eldest daughter, Ivanka, will hold an unpaid job as assistant to the president. Ivanka Trump already has a West Wing office and is expected to focus on issues related to women, especially those in the workplace.
On March 1, Trump signed a proclamation designating the month as a time to honor “celebrated women pioneers and leaders in our history, as well as those unsung women heroes of our daily lives.”
“I have tremendous respect for women and the many roles they serve that are vital to the fabric of our society and our economy,” Trump tweeted a week later, on the same day when many women skipped work in protests. “On International Women’s Day, join me in honoring the critical role of women here in America & around the world.”
Throughout the month, the White House has invited groups of women to meet with the president to discuss helping small-business owners and health care. These events nearly always feature Ivanka Trump, who along with her husband, Jared Kushner, is among his closest advisers.
Melania Trump has also been involved during the month and was the keynote speaker at the State Department’s International Women of Courage event Wednesday that honored women from Bangladesh, Botswana, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen.
“The time for empowering women around the world is now,” Trump said in her remarks. “For wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them. However, wherever women are empowered, towns and villages, schools and economies are empowered, and together we are all made stronger with them.”
Spicer repeated the quote at his daily media briefing and gave the first question of the afternoon to April Ryan, the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. A day before, Spicer had grown frustrated with a question that Ryan had asked and at one point told her: “Please, stop shaking your head again.”
The comment angered many women who found Spicer’s comment patronizing, including Clinton, who brought it up during a speech at the Professional BusinessWomen of California conference in San Francisco.
“Too many women, especially women of color, have had a lifetime of practice taking precisely these kinds of indignities in stride,” Clinton said. “But why should we have to? And any woman who thinks this couldn’t be directed at her is living in a dream world.”
Spicer defended Trump’s record on women during the briefing.
“The president made women’s empowerment a priority throughout the campaign, speaking out on affordable child care and paid family leave, investing in women’s health, and the barriers faced by female entrepreneurs and business owners,” Spicer said.
Soon after, Emily’s List — which supports Democratic women running for office who favor abortion rights — emailed reporters with the subject line “Nice try, Sean.” The email included links to articles about Trump’s campaign paying women less than men, Trump suggesting he backed punishment for women who have abortions, Trump’s attacks on a former beauty pageant contestant and his taped comments to “Access Hollywood” in 2005.
At the Wednesday afternoon panel, Vice President Pence said that “this is a president who has advanced the interests of women.”
As Trump addressed the group, he marveled at how his wife’s “poll numbers went through the roof last year” and recognized the women serving in his administration, strong female leaders throughout history and some of the women he had met over the past month.
“So as a man, I stand before you as president, but if I weren’t president, I wouldn’t be happy to hear that statement — that would be a very scary statement to me because there’s no way we can compete with you,” Trump said. “So I would not be happy. Just wouldn’t be happy.”