By Rebecca Traister
Kamala Harris; Sally Yates; Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo: Getty Images
It must be galling for a man who has been so open about his disregard for women to find that the strongest pushback to his administration so far has come from a bunch of women who appear more than a little unimpressed by President Trump, his appointees, and his executive orders. On his first day in office, there was the Women’s March, the largest global political protest in America’s history, led by women of color. The march did many remarkable things, establishing a culture of protest and setting a determined, exuberant tone for the dozens of spontaneous demonstrations that have occurred since — many of which have also been populated and led by women.
But women’s leadership extends beyond the grass-roots revival. In Congress, where many Democrats began the new administration short a spine, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand emerged as the only senator to so far vote no on all but one of Trump’s picks (she voted for Nikki Haley for U.N. ambassador). In the House, California congresswoman Barbara Lee was among the first to announce that she was boycotting Trump’s inauguration. New York congresswoman Nydia Velázquez was early to John F. Kennedy Airport on Saturday where she demanded the release of refugees being held at the airport after Trump signed an executive order that prevented travelers with valid visas and green cards from entering the U.S. Velázquez, along with Gillibrand, Women’s March leaders Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, and New York City public advocate Tish James, was among those receiving the biggest cheers at Sunday’s anti-wall, anti-ban rally in Battery Park. And on Tuesday morning, California representative Maxine Waters is having a press conference about Trump’s ties to Russia.
As Dahlia Lithwick has pointed out, it was four women judges — Anne Donnelly in New York; Leonie Brinkema in Virginia; Allison Burroughs and Judith Dein in Boston — along with Thomas Zilly in Washington, who ordered the temporary stays of Trump’s ban. Many noted that among the lawyers who flocked to airports over the weekend to help detainees, the preponderance of them were female. The Atlantic’s Matt Ford tweeted on Sunday night after leaving Dulles, “Gender disparity was striking: probably 70 percent of lawyers volunteering there are young women.” He noted in his later story that many of the volunteer lawyers were also people of color.
On Monday afternoon, California’s Kamala Harris and Washington’s Patty Murray led a coalition of their fellow senators in opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban, writing a letter expressing “outrage” at Trump’s executive order, and noting that the order “and its haphazard implementation both run counter to our American values and the Constitution, as well as our national security and economic interests.” Executive action “that denies entry to refugees escaping violence and oppression with an explicit preference for people of one religion over another is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”
And of course on Monday night, interim Attorney General Sally Yates sent a letter to lawyers in the Justice Department noting that she was not “convinced that the executive order is lawful,” and that “consequently, for as long as I am the acting attorney general, the Department of Justice will not present arguments in defense of the executive order unless and until I become convinced that it is appropriate to do so.” Yates was not acting attorney general for long; Trump fired her by the end of the night, releasing a statement in which he claimed that she “has betrayed the Department of Justice” and called her “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
But Yates’s reputation is unlikely to be tied to any sense of weakness; rather, she has, in the span of a few short hours, become the symbol of righteous defiance of a leader whose team spent Monday defending the detention of 5-year-olds at airports.
Yes, there are men who’ve been doing their part to oppose Trump: Congressman John Lewis made news by questioning his legitimacy as president and settled in at the Atlanta airport in support of detainees on Saturday; New Jersey senator Cory Booker broke precedent to testify against Trump’s attorney general pick Jeff Sessions; Oregon senator Jeff Merkley promised on Monday to filibuster any Trump candidate for the Supreme Court who is not Merrick Garland; congressman Jerrold Nadler was right next to Velázquez at JFK; and the anonymous park ranger insurrectionists on social media are surely women and men. Yet it’s striking how many women have put themselves, or found themselves, on the front lines of this burgeoning political fight. In part, this is the result of having more women in public and political spaces where they used to be such distinct minorities — thanks to the kinds of social progress that Trump’s team seems to want to roll back.
Despite the strides, women remain minorities in the institutions where they are leading the fight against Trump. They make up less than 20 percent of Congress and 33 percent of state and federal judges, though as journalist Lisa Belkin pointed out on Monday, more than 60 percent of public interest lawyers are women. To suggest that women’s leadership is inherently more righteous than men’s is both essentialist and wrong, but the female will to resist is pretty poetic: Trump may have vanquished one powerful female foe in the election, but now a million more women have sprouted in her place.