One of the few reasonably accurate things the late misogynist Rush Limbaugh ever said about women was that “feminism was established so that unattractive women could have easier access to the mainstream of society.” To the extent that’s true, it’s a good thing — but for Limbaugh, it was a baaaad thing.
It’s a variation on an undead sexist cliche I covered a long time ago: women don’t need political power or equality because their looks give them all the power. Sexy secretaries, for instance, really control their bosses.
Of course that doesn’t work well for women who aren’t hot or choose not to dress sexy. And one of feminism’s principles is indeed that unattractive women should be able to find access to jobs and other parts of mainstream society based on their skills, not their looks. You know, the same way men such as Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich and yes, Rush Limbaugh have done since forever. Being physically unattractive has never been a dealbreaker for an ambitious man.
Of course, Limbaugh didn’t think attractive women should have the same access to the mainstream that he did either. But for rightwingers (and a lot of others, alas), it’s perfectly acceptable to judge a woman’s worth and her arguments based on her looks.
The cliché that feminist women are unattractive, and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously, goes back to the days of the suffragettes. It still thrives on the modern misogynist right. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter claims “all pretty girls are right wingers.” Trump sycophant Wayne Allyn Root sneers that liberal men are all having sex with ugly women “because all liberal women are.” Sneers about “hairy legged” feminists go back to the 1970s.
Part of the issue is resentment for women who aren’t trying to look good for men. Men like women to shave their legs, for instance; how dare women defy them by letting the hair grow! Shipping tycoon Demetri Marchessini, for instance, doesn’t approve of women wearing trousers because they’re “dressing in a way that is opposite to what men would like. It is behavior that flies against common sense, and also flies against the normal human desire to please.” It doesn’t matter whether Marchessini even knows you, apparently, you still have to dress to please him.
Don’t get me wrong, men get mocked for being overweight, old and ugly. But not to the same degree. Nor do people usually argue that looking unattractive invalidates male opinions. They get all the access to the mainstream they want. By contrast, Hilary Clinton has been mocked for her looks as long as she’s been in public life. She’s not unique. “We are routinely subject to all manner of attack on our looks,” blogger Melissa McEwan said in 2017, “because that’s the first tool out of the shed for lazy douchebags.”
And women who look good can be trivialized just as easily. Comedian Adam Carolla recently declared that if Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez were old, ugly and fat nobody would care what she thought. He doesn’t mean this as a criticism of sexism, but simply to dismiss her: she isn’t saying anything smart, she’s just getting a free pass because she’s cute (A-OC has proven herself, in fact, quite smart). I’ll bet Adam Carolla would be PO’d as hell if anyone suggested he wouldn’t get as much attention if he didn’t have a penis.