Donald Trump and the ‘Ideal Woman’

A psychology professor looks at the U.S. Republican presidential contender’s views on gender and more.

Jeff Bottari / AP

A lot of women don’t like Donald Trump. It is less clear exactly what Trump thinks of women.

The New York Times caused debate over the weekend with a report detailing interactions between Trump and a variety of women. The story notes that Trump elevated some women to powerful positions in the world of business, even when doing so was unheard of at the time. But it leaves the unmistakable impression that he often overstepped boundaries of appropriate behavior.

The report has quickly become the subject of controversy. Trump took to Twitter to repeatedly denounce the article, calling it “false, malicious, and libelous.” One of the women featured prominently says the Times mischaracterized her story, putting a distorted, negative spin on an encounter she had with Trump. (The Times has defended its reporting, saying reporters quoted her “fairly, accurately, and at length.”)

I spoke with Alice Eagly—a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who has done research into gender roles and stereotypes—about Trump’s views of women and the report. A transcript, edited for clarity and length, appears below.

Clare Foran: In a recent interview with The New York Times, Donald Trump describes his mother as an “ideal woman.” What are the implications of framing gender like that, as though there were a right way, or a wrong way, or an ideal way, to be a woman?

Alice Eagly: If it is socially consensual, that is, if people tend to agree on the notion of an ideal woman, then it matters because it affects behavior. The concept of an “ideal woman” can have certain contours that shape the behavior of girls and their goals about education or careers. Not everyone would necessarily accept a particular cultural definition of what an ideal woman is, but it can be powerful if it’s widely shared.

Foran: Do most people believe there are ideal ways, and not so ideal ways, of living up to gender expectations? If so, what are the consequences?

Eagly: Trump may be making a particularly strong statement when he says his mother was an “ideal woman,” but virtually everyone has expectations of acceptable behavior for men and women. There is a shared set of cultural norms that can change over time, and of course they matter. For example, women are supposed to be, above all, nice. We’re supposed to be modest. Men get to be more assertive and confident. If we women do things that are not considered acceptable, such as acting very tough and demanding in the workplace, we might be disliked or even ostracized. It cuts both ways. Men can be sanctioned for being overly nice, for example. If a man is considered extremely nice, accommodating, and sweet, people may like him, but he may not get promoted at work.

These expectations can lead to negative consequences for individuals who step outside of prescribed gender roles, but it is not inherently bad to have social norms. Social norms are an inevitable part of social life and are the glue that holds a society together. And Trump certainly isn’t the only politician expressing ideas about gender norms. Look at Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, who announced recently that he would have a gender-balanced cabinet. When asked why, he said “because it’s 2015.” He didn’t literally say an ideal woman is a career woman, but that’s an example of a politician nevertheless articulating, and acting on, a different notion of gender expectations. In Trudeau’s case, however, the ideal conforms more closely to a 21st century idea of what women should aspire to achieve.

Foran: How much currency is Trump’s articulated concept of an ideal woman likely to have in light of dominant conceptions of gender roles in the 21st century?

Eagly: In the New York Times interview, Trump described his mother as having a homemaker role and being very compliant to the father’s schedule. That was a cultural ideal that was more resonant in the 1950s. The ideal division of labor then was that the man goes out and does exciting things in his career and the woman stays back home to facilitate his work and to have children and care for them.

The housewife notion is no longer a very powerful cultural ideal because most people don’t live it out. Most families can’t afford to have a woman at home all the time because of the financial pressures that families face. Wages are so low for the majority of American men that they need a wife who works for pay too if they want anything approaching a middle class lifestyle. So it is typical now for both partners to be employed, although if anybody works part-time it’s usually the woman. People tend to adjust to the realities of these kinds of economic pressures, to do what they have to do, and then see that pattern as a good thing. The prevailing division of labor influences expectations about gender roles for men and women.

Of course, anything that Trump says will carry weight because it’s widely publicized. It might influence others to advocate that the ideal woman now is the same as the ideal woman of the 1950s with the traditional division of labor. But since that is no longer the most common family form, such views might also activate people against him. I would say that Donald Trump’s views on women’s ideal roles are not shared by most people.

On the other hand, Trump appears to believe that women often work harder and that they can be valuable in the workplace. As far as what people think in general about women in the modern era in the U.S., they don’t think of women as less intelligent than men. So Trump seems to align with the public there. But it also appears that the number one criterion on which he evaluates a woman is her looks. And then, by the way, they can also be intelligent, and hardworking. That seems to be the hierarchy.

Foran: Trump has made statements recently like, “All of the men, we're petrified to speak to women anymore," and “the women get it better than we do.” His remarks suggest that men are losing ground to women. Is there reason to believe that kind of message might be more resonant now as a result of changing gender expectations?

Eagly: There is gender anxiety because we have seen an erosion of good factory jobs that has impacted mainly the white working-class men whose fathers held such jobs, while at the same time women’s participation in the workforce has increased.

If we think about the 1950s, men had much more power than women. Women have hardly become equal to men in society, but there certainly has been a big gain. So if men see their situation as declining, they could believe it is due to the rise of women’s status in society. That threatens what used to be the typical power relation.

Foran: The Times report notes that Trump has promoted some women to powerful positions in the workplace. How significant do you think that is?

Eagly: Sometimes organizations do such things very symbolically. What ultimately matters is whether women are being promoted as fast as men across all of his organizations, or whether it is just a matter of elevating a few women. The gender equity across all of his companies is what is most important.

Foran: Do you think there’s a danger in saying that women should react to ideas about gender in a certain way? The article, for example, describes an event where Trump asked a woman to put on a swimsuit, then said she was “a stunning Trump girl.” The article described the interaction as debasing, but the woman who detailed the encounter has pushed back against the characterization, saying she was flattered and that what happened was not demeaning.

Is it harmful to say that certain kinds of encounters between men and women should be considered demeaning?

Eagly: I think that today most women would resent being evaluated by their looks and labeled as a “Trump girl,” as if a woman were his possession, but for her that may not have been the case. It may have been an affirmation of what she felt she was offering the world—that is, her beauty. But to be valued only on the basis of your body does not comport with modern notions of valued womanhood, and it isn’t wrong for us to have and express ideas about what’s acceptable behavior in relation to women. We are not just individuals. We are people living in a society, and those norms are part of what makes society cohesive. When we see behavior that is clearly outside of the current norms, we don’t say, “Isn’t that wonderful?”

Foran: But what about people who don’t agree with those norms?

Eagly: Of course there’s a great diversity of views in the United States. There will be some Americans who won’t agree with prevailing ideas about gender. But when we look at trends as a whole, there has been a big shift over time toward endorsing gender equality. Men were always less favorable to that idea than women, but men and women have both shifted, though there is still more commitment among women to gender equality.

Not everyone agrees, but nevertheless there are still majority views and a broad social consensus. To revert to a 1950s view of gender roles, with male breadwinners and female homemakers, our entire social and economic structure would have to change. In particular, we would have to regain those high-paying working class jobs for men that have been lost, and that’s not about to happen. We would have to have a radically different world to be able to live as people lived in the 1950s.