In case anyone has been avoiding the daily circus that is US politics and the media, allow me to summarize the situation. You might have seen the many internet memes referencing this moment even if you haven’t been paying attention:

It went like this: German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to the White House to meet with President Trump. As with any meeting between two world leaders, this was a highly publicized event with heavy media coverage. As President Trump and Chancellor Merkel sat side by side in the Oval Office surrounded by reporters taking pictures, the press asked Trump and Merkel to shake hands. Seeming at first as if Trump had not heard the request, the press asked a second time, and Merkel said to Trump, “I think they want us to shake hands”. The president sat there like this:

merkel and trump

It was an incredibly awkward moment as an American, watching our leader blatantly disrespect another world leader by feigning ignorance (there are theories that he legitimately did not hear the repeated requests, but I find that hard to believe), but what makes the moment particularly hard to watch is knowing what every feminist across the globe knows: this moment represents the fear of strong, independent, and successful women held by Donald Trump and millions of men similar to him.

Throughout the campaign trail, Donald Trump revealed his disdain for successful women through his sexist, offensive comments toward celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, news anchor Megyn Kelly, and his opponent Hillary Clinton. His “nasty woman” remark made toward Clinton during their final debate turned into the battle cry of the Women’s March Movement, as millions of women across the globe could relate to being scorned by men for being intelligent, thinking beings.

Betty Friedan addresses precisely this issue in The Feminine Mystique, her groundbreaking book that set in motion second wave feminism. In this book she criticizes the expectations society places on women to be sex objects and homemakers who are dissuaded from powerful careers. In her book, Friedan references a moment in history when a woman by the name of Angelina Grimke appeared before a legislative body to denounce the practice of slavery. The following pastoral letter denounced her “unwomanly behavior” of speaking on important issues:

“We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury…The power of woman is her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection…But when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer…her character becomes unnatural.”

Although society has progressed in such a way that few will so boldly verbalize the sentiment that women in positions of power are acting as men and threatening their femininity, this mindset still lingers in the subconscious, often manifesting through a president refusing to shake the hand of a female world leader.

Therefore, we can conclude that this handshake controversy is actually not about Donald Trump himself. History reveals that the fear of powerful women has existed as long as misogyny, and our current president’s disrespect toward Angela Merkel is only the most recent public example of such insecurities.