In South Carolina, Nikki Haley emerged from an underdog role to replace a man who finished his second term as governor under the shadow of a sex scandal. Mark Sanford lied to conceal that he had abandoned his post for a few days to go on a rendezvous with his mistress. By succeeding Sanford, Haley would become the first person of color, and first woman, to be elected governor in the state’s history. And she did so while rising above a phony sex scandal prompted by a Republican blogger.
Today, Haley is considered one of the Trump administration’s most impressive cabinet members. It’s clear that the role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has not been too big for her. To land that post, she had to accept the nomination from a man who bragged about extramarital affairs and has an exhaustive history of mistreating and demeaning women.
Sanford is back in Congress and his trip along the “Appalachian Trail,” his improbable cover story for his affair, is behind him. The story of President Trump and the porn star caused only a ripple and included evangelical Christian leaders saying they would give him a mulligan for it anyway. Haley? She had to spend time recently beating back ugly rumors about an alleged affair with Trump.
Though we are in the middle of the powerful #MeToo movement, which is trying to finally level the playing field between the genders, many men like Sanford and Trump get to move on from sexual indiscretions (or worse), while powerful women like Haley still must contend with outdated and outrageous gender norms. It doesn’t matter that she overcame a childhood spent in some of South Carolina’s poorest schools; climbed the political ladder like no S.C. woman before her; defied Trump in the presidential primaries; didn’t embrace him during the general election; and unapologetically said victims of sexual assault and harassment should be heard, even at the risk of making her boss angry. One minute she was taking Palestinian leaders to task in demanding peace talks; the next she was being asked about innuendo that bubbled up from the political book “Fire and Fury” – no matter that it is a mixture of fact and fiction – and sly comments from the author about an alleged Trump mistress he wouldn’t name.
Haley has the political talent and smarts to possibly become the first female president of the United States. She is considered a rising star in Republican circles. Some Democrats think Haley, not Trump, would be the biggest obstacle to Democrats regaining the White House in 2020 if she decided to run. No other high-profile Republican has more deftly handled the Trump dilemma. She can credibly claim she stood up to him while holding fast to her principles and put country first by taking an incredibly important job in his administration. She shouldn’t have to continue answering questions that are beneath her.
But the truth is, the higher she climbs, the more likely those questions will keep coming – because she is a woman. It is a dynamic men do not face. That’s to our shame. Haley, and women in general, deserve better.