A female VP doth not a good feminist make. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

January 11, 2021   5 mins

After a week of electoral mayhem that left five people dead, the U.S. Capitol trashed, and our collective memory forever seared with the indelible image of a shirtless man in a furry horned hat sitting on the Senate dais, this may seem an especially absurd moment to be writing critically about the man who will succeed Donald Trump. In truth, after four years of national embarrassment that culminated in a literal riot, most Americans are ready to welcome just about anyone into the Oval Office, as long as that person meets the sole qualification of being not-Trump. Even members of his own party are begging him to quit.

All of this is to say, a Joe Biden administration will be a marked improvement on the politics of the past four years precisely because it’ll be a return to business as usual — and because the 78-year-old Biden’s extra-long tenure in public life makes him an especially predictable president, even before he’s signed a single bill into law. Whatever he might do in office, he will certainly not surprise us! Indeed, he hasn’t yet: from his campaign promises to the scandal that briefly threatened to sink his candidacy back in the spring of 2020, the twists and turns of Biden’s path to the White House could be seen coming a mile off.

We know, too, all the ways in which a Biden presidency will be a negative — and they’re worth taking note of, before we’re put to sleep by the blissfully boring politics. For there is at least one policy issue on which Biden might well be worse, not better, than Trump —it’s precisely because Biden has long styled himself as a champion for women that we know how lacking his feminist credentials truly are.

Back in the 1990s, Biden was a tough-on-crime Democrat and a leading proponent of the legislation that would eventually become the Violence Against Women Act. His statements and positions then followed what would become a familiar pattern: what women needed was not liberation, but protection. Not rights or respect, but rules and regulations — for their own good, of course. And if one of these damsels in distress rejected the state’s attempts to save her? Well, then she was part of the problem.

Biden was an early advocate of no-drop prosecutions and mandatory arrests in domestic violence cases — policies that punish female victims who don’t go along with the state’s preferences vis-a-vis how to resolve such conflicts. That a woman might have good reasons for not wanting her partner arrested, or not wanting to be mired in the criminal justice system herself, was immaterial: those who refused to testify in domestic violence cases against their partners were subject to arrest or imprisonment. Sometimes, their children were, too.

Long after data had emerged to suggest that mandatory arrest policies made America’s domestic violence problem worse, not better — and that they diminished battered women’s trust in the system supposedly designed to help them — Biden continued to push them as a solution. When the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law in 1994, it cemented the role of the state as saviour — and the notion of women as too hapless and helpless to act in their own best interests.

Biden is proud of this legislation; he’s touted it repeatedly as an indicator of how good his presidency would be for women, how long he’s been fighting on their behalf. Of course, under the circumstances, it made for a persuasive contrast: who wouldn’t prefer a president who protects women over Mr. Grab-em-by-the-pussy? You could almost overlook the fact that Biden’s care for women seemed to always take the form of chivalrous head-patting, that it was insulting in its own way. As Barack Obama’s Vice President, Biden toured colleges around the country to promote the administration’s commitment to combatting campus assault. His vision of female empowerment always had a funny way of sounding a lot like benevolent sexism: “The greatest sin is the abuse of power,” he would tell the assembled crowds of students. “And the cardinal sin of them all is for a man to raise his hand to a woman.”

In practice, the result of all this state-sanctioned white-knighting is not the woman-saving panacea it claims to be. Since the passage of VAWA, countless victims have ended up unwittingly ensnared in the criminal justice system when they didn’t agree with the state’s desire to prosecute. And on campus, third-party reporting mandates mean that women are labelled victims whether they agree or not, forced to have their sex lives dissected by Title IX tribunals who are highly motivated to expel alleged offenders lest they lose federal funding. (One exasperated accuser told authorities, “I’m fine and wasn’t raped”; administrators disagreed, and expelled her boyfriend anyway.)

This morally panicked approach to campus sexual assault has made a mockery of both due process and women’s agency; the Obama-era strategy, with its focus on continual consent-seeking at every stage of intimacy, seem founded in the rather Victorian conviction that no woman ever really wants to have sex at all. And with Biden vowing to reinstate these policies — the rolling-back of which might have been the one good thing to come out of a Trump administration — women can expect more unwanted, “for your own good” intrusions into their private lives over the next four years.

All of this is complicated by Biden’s own woman problem, which once presented the greatest threat to his chances to occupy the White House. In March 2019, a report surfaced of the former Vice President’s extensive history of cheek-smooching, hair-sniffing, and other instances of inappropriate touching, calling into question whether he was really the right man to represent a Democratic Party trying to position itself as the anti-Trump. A year later, this same history worked against him when Tara Reade alleged that he had assaulted her while she was working in his office as a Senate aide.

On both occasions, it was Biden’s huggy paternalism that opened him up to controversy; but it was also this — that special brand of intimacy with a whiff of protective condescension — that ultimately saved him. In a world primed to conflate “inappropriate touching” with “sexual misconduct”, Biden’s behaviour was odd, but also oddly sexless, in a way that made it difficult to pinpoint as a violation. And while his accusers were all woman, he himself did not discriminate on the basis of sex; Biden would bestow a grandfatherly hug and forehead-kiss on anyone, of any persuasion, who he perceived as vulnerable and in need of comfort. Inappropriate? Come on, man! It’s a public service!

Between the raunchy anti-feminism of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement that positioned sexual misconduct as the only misconduct that matters, it is hard to make the argument that our next president will be bad for women — and indeed, this is not that argument. But Joe Biden’s brand of feminism ultimately does not do enough to grapple with the radical notion that women are people, with all the agency and complexity that this implies. Instead, his administration seems poised to continue protecting women, rather than respecting them, and failing to recognise that these two things are not always one and the same. Is he bad? No. Worse than Trump? Not by a long shot. But when it comes to women, his presidency should serve mostly as a reminder that we could, someday, do better.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.