ROME—Of the many images that will come to define President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip abroad, the most memorable might be Melania Trump slapping her husband’s hand away. But the most significant will surely be those moments when the women of Trump’s inner circle were shut out due to accepted protocol that underscores the fact women are not equal in many parts of the world.
In Rome, there was that awkward moment Wednesday morning when the first lady stood rather uncomfortably dressed in black with her dark mantilla veil on her head in the grandiose corridor of the Apostolic Palace as her husband met with Pope Francis for 29 minutes behind closed doors. She eventually got to go in, but the first thing the pope asked her was, “What do you feed him? Potizza?” He was referring to a doughy delicacy from her native Slovenia (not pizza, as widely reported) while at the same time implying that if POTUS is portly, that’s her fault as his wife. “Yes," she replied, smiling.
In Israel, who can forget the image of first daughter Ivanka praying alone in the cordoned off section of the plaza in front of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Female reporters traveling with the president there were also separated from their male colleagues.
In Saudi Arabia, where women can’t vote, can’t drive, and live under the guardianship of men, neither the first lady nor the first daughter wore head scarves, but they were so obviously just window dressing to the event. While much attention was paid to their choice not to wear a headscarf as a political statement, it must be noted that the precedent was set long ago by other first ladies like Michelle Obama as well as world leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel.
Saudi media played up the presence of the fashionable Americans, implying that Saudi men, too, appreciate a woman’s looks. Melania was the talk of the town in her bespoke dresses and jumpsuits and Ivanka was praised for giving a talk on gender equality to a crowd of women for whom that is at best a theoretical construct.
Feminist writer Anushay Hossain summed it up nicely in an op-ed for CNN: “The headscarf should be the least of the Trump family’s worries,” she writes. “Because the Saudi press have embraced Melania (and to a related but lesser extent, Ivanka) for basically doing for the kingdom what they do for Donald Trump: provide the perfect cover for misogyny and tyranny by being beautiful, poised, and often silent.”
One might ask if perhaps the president likes what he saw in these capitals of inequality. After all, his administration clearly lacks gender diversity and his recent budget shows that women’s issues are not a priority. Not only has he signed legislation that strips funding for organizations that provide abortions, his replacement of the Affordable Care Act penalizes women in unthinkable ways, including stripping valuable maternity benefits and essentially turning owning a set of ovaries into a pre-existing condition.
If he does take a page from any of the three regions he has visited so far, we might see not just a wall between Mexico and the United States, but perhaps new barriers in public places where men and women gather, as he saw in Jerusalem. He could start with the National Mall in Washington, DC, the the site of the Women's March the day after his inauguration.
And if he liked the way the pope does things, we might also see even fewer women in positions of power, as he witnessed in Vatican City. He did seem at ease during the procession through the majestic corridors of the Apostolic Palace, where he was surrounded only by old white men.
And who knows, perhaps he will introduce male guardianship over women, as he saw in Saudi Arabia. When it comes to women’s reproductive rights, he already has.
To be fair, the Trump administration is still in its infancy, so growing pains like obvious missteps and blind spots on gender equality can be expected—though, we hope, never accepted.