Matt Gaetz’s ugly new rant just exposed a misogynist’s worst fear

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is strongly in contention to be the worst person serving in Congress, recently shared his thoughts about women who advocate for abortion access to a crowd of 5,000 young conservatives at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Tampa.

“Have you watched these pro-abortion, pro-murder rallies?” Gaetz, who is under investigation of allegations of sex trafficking of a minor and has denied any wrongdoing, asked the crowd. “The people are just disgusting. But why is it that the women with the least likelihood of getting pregnant are the ones most worried about having abortions? Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.”

Of course, Gaetz didn’t stop there.

“They’re, like, 5’2,” 350 pounds, and they’re like, ‘Give me my abortion or I’ll get up and march and protest,’” Gaetz continued. “I’m thinking, march? You look like you got ankles weaker than the legal reasoning behind Roe v. Wade. A few of ’em need to get up and march. They need to get up and march for, like, an hour a day, swing those arms, get the blood pumping, maybe mix in a salad.”

Gaetz’s overarching point can be boiled down as follows: Women who want human rights are too fat and ugly to deserve them.

These comments are repugnant to the point of absurdity. But what does feel significant about Gaetz’s rant, which was met with applause and cheers from the crowd, is how deeply unoriginal it was. He isn’t the first to use overt misogyny as a right-wing rallying cry and recruitment tool, and surely he won’t be the last.

Gaetz’s overarching point can be boiled down as follows: Women who want human rights are too fat and ugly to deserve them.

Obviously, people across the spectrums of body types, socioeconomic backgrounds, gender identities and political identities can and do get pregnant and therefore may need access to abortion care. Gaetz’s remarks are meant to conjure the image of a feminist bogeywoman out to destabilize the patriarchal power structures that men (especially on the right) feel entitled to access, a woman whom the 5,000 young people in his audience, and the many more on the internet, could identify as a common enemy and rally against.

Men trying to preserve the status quo (or, in the case of abortion rights, working to undo decades of legislative and legal progress) have long invoked the alleged grotesqueness of women’s bodies to entrench their political power and energize their base. During the early 20th century, when the suffragist movement was gaining steam in England and the U.S., anti-women’s suffrage propaganda frequently pointed to the supposed unattractiveness of women who wanted the right to vote. A striking postcard from 1909 shows a group of bucktoothed, red-nosed women gathered at a Votes for Women meeting underneath signs that say “Down With Man!” and “Husbands For Old Maids!” The caption? “At the suffragette meetings you can hear some plain things — and see them too!”

Another postcard, depicting the “origin and development of a suffragette,” is divided into four quadrants. At 15, when she is “a little pet,” the girl has blond ringlets and cradles a baby. At 20, her femininity is still preserved and she is ready to seek out male approval — she’s “a little coquette.” At 40, her hair has turned black, her nose has reddened and turned down, and her face is full of anxiety. Obviously, this woman is “not married yet.” At 50, when she becomes “a suffragette,” she has lost her mind, her looks and her hair color — and she has acquired an ax. This sequence of events was (and is!) alluring to men who oppose progressive political movements led by women, specifically because it ascribes so much power to the men who have rejected this “little pet”-turned-suffragette.

The women depicted in these postcards are “grotesque, the implication being that their ugliness and their ideology are interrelated,” wrote Kenneth Florey, the author of “American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog.” “Normal women marry and settle into ‘traditional’ roles; the suffragette is not normal, she is a genderless creature whose beliefs and appearance set her outside the general order. But she is frightening and dangerous at times.”

After all, who could be more threatening to the sensibilities of conservative, straight, cisgender men than women who don’t exist solely as objects for their personal pleasure?

Who could be more threatening to the sensibilities of conservative, straight, cisgender men than women who don’t exist solely as objects for their personal pleasure?

This ideology carries through to the modern conservative and alt-right movement, most obviously reflected in the way former President Donald Trump used misogynistic dog whistles (more like bullhorns) to deflect the dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct against him. After Jessica Leeds, who alleged that Trump groped her on an airplane in 1980, appeared on CNN in 2016 to discuss the allegations, Trump went after her looks. “When you looked at that horrible woman last night,” he told his supporters at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, “you said, ‘I don’t think so, I don’t think so.’” Subsequently, he told his supporters to visit the Facebook page of another accuser, Natasha Stoynoff, presumably to assess her looks and conclude that she simply isn’t hot enough to be violated: “Check out her Facebook page,” said Trump. “You’ll understand.”

Sexual misconduct and abuse are about power more than sexual desire. But calling these women ugly and sexually undesirable worked on two levels, allowing Trump to dispute their stories while simultaneously winking at his supporters and their cultural grievances. The women became symbols more than humans, barriers standing in the way of the American vision (white, heterosexual, Christian, fundamentally unequal) that the MAGA crowd wished to further entrench.

This is also why diminishing women who ask for more than they have historically been given — more power, more decision-making, more cultural support, more health care, more humanity — is a tactic that cuts across time periods and political contexts. Anti-feminism is a simple way to tie together disparate groups of men (and the women adjacent to them) who all see the world changing in ways that feel uncomfortable and destabilizing. Whether you’re looking at white nationalists or mass shooters or internet incels — and they often overlap — the constant hum of misogyny is a predictable motivator.

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As Rachel Guy writes in her academic analysis of the online “manosphere,” misogyny can provide a central tenet around which angry groups can coalesce, becoming the “central conspiracy theory” that “serves as a foundational national myth, binding members together against outsiders and in support of a noble common cause.”

Which brings us back to Matt Gaetz — a hacky politician who cribs his lines from fools who have come before him. His ideas have little merit, so he reaches for what he can. And what he can reach for is misogyny, the idea that there are good women who marry men and submissively focus on domestic labor and accept a society that prizes forced birth and fundamental gender-based inequality and that there are bad women who ghoulishly dare to want better for themselves and the society they are part of.

To support abortion rights is to acknowledge that women and other people with uteruses have and are entitled to full humanity — that they have hopes and dreams and desires and needs that operate separately from their ability to do the intensive, painful, expensive labor of human reproduction. To deny these rights is to deny that humanity. And to deny humanity requires dehumanization. The magical thinking of Matt Gaetz and his ilk simply make that (red) pill easier to swallow.