Elaine Chao became a feminist icon for many conservatives Tuesday evening, all for saying seven words that have little to do with feminism: “Why don’t you leave my husband alone?”

The transportation secretary was defending Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., her spouse of 25 years, against a small group of young men at Georgetown University in Washington who approached the couple as they exited an event.

“Why are you separating families?” they demanded. McConnell scurried into a waiting car, but Chao chose fight over flight, criticizing the protesters for targeting her husband – not her, but her husband – because “he’s not the president.” The response was a case study in benign sexism.

Chao’s fire and ire delighted supporters of President Trump’s immigration policy, and Republicans more generally.

“Seeing men try (and obviously fail) to physically intimidate Elaine Chao is really something. By the way … my money is on her,” Matt Whitlock, the communications director for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, said in a Twitter post.

NRA TV even entered the social media fray with this tweet: “This is how the violent left treats Sec. Elaine Chao. An immigrant. The first Asian America woman and the first Chinese America to serve as a Cabinet member in American history. Don’t be fooled.”

Unfortunately, many had been fooled already. Conservative spin doctors were capitalizing on Chao’s background and gender to puff up their own points, when elevating women of color has hardly been a platform or policy plank for them before. Their audience was eating it up.

They were also missing the more salient point: Chao is a Cabinet official. McConnell’s obstructionism has contributed to the Republican Party’s democratic decline, and Congress’ inaction on immigration has contributed to this crisis specifically. But Chao, who serves Trump, is complicit in the abhorrent agenda that moved these protesters to demonstrate.

And yet this week, Chao wasn’t earning credit for defending herself against these charges. She was earning credit for defending her husband against them instead, and leaving herself out of the conversation entirely.

The group accosting Chao and McConnell made a similar mistake. Surely they knew who Chao was; in a tweet sharing the footage of the face-off, one member of the group tagged her professional Twitter account. But as Chao argued with them, one said, multiple times, “I’m not trying to disrespect you” – as if he owed her the deference due a member of the more delicate sex. “But why is he separating families?” the young man continued. “How does he sleep at night?” another shouted.

“He,” “he,” “he.”

Chao’s personal story, which conservatives hijacked to play the same identity politics they purport to disdain, makes the reaction from partisans on both sides stand out even more starkly. Chao is an immigrant born in Taiwan. She, her sisters and her mother came to the United States on a cargo ship in 1961. This renders her refusal to speak out against the separation of families all the more alarming – and her hypocrisy all the more worth confronting.

“I stand by my man – both of them,” Chao said last August when her boss and her husband were clashing over health care. Apparently, that’s still true. But whether or not she owns up to it, Chao stands alone, too, and the right response for anyone who actually cares about equality is to treat her that way.

 

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