Melania Trump champions women – not easy when you're you-know-who's wife

David Smith in Washington
Melania Trump presents the 2017 secretary of state’s International Women of Courage award to Fadia Najib-Thabet who is from Yemen. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Rarely seen and even more rarely heard, Melania Trump stepped on stage in Washington to deliver a speech on Wednesday – but the first lady could not, in the view of critics, entirely escape her husband’s exaggerated shadow.

The first lady extolled women’s bravery and empowerment and made a plea for tolerance around the world as she presented the “International Women of Courage” awards to 12 recipients at the state department. She made no mention of the president.

“For wherever women are diminished, the entire world is diminished with them,” Trump told a packed auditorium. “However, wherever women are empowered, towns and villages, schools and economies are empowered, and together we are all made stronger with them.”

The sentiments were uncontroversial, and in keeping with those expressed by Michelle Obama and other first ladies, but the reaction from liberal sceptics suggested they are already being undercut by Donald Trump’s capricious personality and his “America first” policies.

Teresa Younger, president of the Ms Foundation For Women campaign group, said: “Melania talking about the need for women’s empowerment is in complete opposition to Donald Trump’s policy of cutting aid for women’s reproductive health in the developing world, his attempts to slash healthcare access for millions of women in America, or his repeated efforts to undermine women of color, LGBTQ people, and low-income women in order to direct funds to his billionaire friends.”

Twitter also erupted. User Amy posted: “How is she deeply humbled to be at the International Women of Courage awards when she has no courage to call out her husband’s misogyny.” Kevin Olmos wrote: “Coming from the lady who married the man who won his presidency based on a racist movement and supported discrimination against others.” Several urged her to make the same points to her husband.

Trump greeted each winner, posed for photos and chatted to them at the end. It was a steady if stilted performance – the autocues were glaringly obvious – by a woman who has the unenviable task of filling the shoes of Michelle Obama, whose heartfelt support for girls’ education and empowerment was infectious.

But Trump will always face the even greater hurdle of trying to offer a virtuous message that some see as tainted by her husband’s vices, making her an unlikely champion for the feminist cause.

Some criticise her for standing by her husband last year after the release of a 2005 video in which he boasted about groping women. At the time Michelle Obama memorably said the vulgar comment had “shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted”.

A dozen women came forward with allegations that Donald Trump had sexually assaulted or harassed them, which he denied, and many viewers objected to the manner in which he prowled behind Hillary Clinton during a debate. Even this week his lawyers made a court filing to argue Trump is immune to a sexual harrassment lawsuit from former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos.

Other dark ironies permeated the atmosphere on Wednesday. Three of the women honoured on Wednesday came from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, all affected by Trump’s first, failed travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. Another was living with a disability, receiving an award from the wife of a candidate who once infamously mocked a disabled reporter during a rally.

And the venue was the state department, facing a 28% reduction in funding in Donald Trump’s “hard power” budget. Foreign aid, which helps support programmes for girls’ education and equality, will also be severely cut back. Soon after taking office, the president reinstated a ban on providing federal money to international groups that perform or offer information about abortions.

Melania Trump has made an unusually low-profile start to her tenure as first lady, choosing to remain in New York while the couple’s 11-year-old son, Barron, completes the school year. But she hosted a White House luncheon for International Women’s Day earlier this month. On Tuesday night she attended a White House event for senators and their spouses. It was also announced that she had hired a communications director, Stephanie Grisham.

The state department award is given to women around the world who have shown courage and leadership while advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment often at personal risk. Wednesday’s honorees came from Bangladesh, Botswana, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Niger, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen.

The first lady was introduced by top state department official Thomas Shannon; the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was travelling to Turkey. She said the women honoured were “true heroes” and “extraordinary examples” of finding the courage needed to help change the world. She was greeted by applause, with many rising to their feet.

Her message was hardly in tune with her husband’s aggressively nationalist tone. “As leaders of our shared global community, we must continue to work toward gender empowerment and respect for people of all backgrounds and ethnicities, remembering always that we are all members of one race: the human race,” he said. “Each one of us is uniquely gifted.

“These honorees, who have fought on the frontlines against injustice, are true heroes. To the young people here today, I ask you to allow the triumphs exemplified by these heroic women to inspire you in your own lives and to remind yourself that you too are capable of greatness … Let these brave women serve as a daily inspiration as it is now up to each of you to remain vigilant against injustice in all its many forms.”

The winners, many of whom have survived violence, will travel across the US to discuss their experiences and work with American citizens. Malebogo Molefhe of Botswana, who was shot eight times by an ex-boyfriend and now uses a wheelchair due to extensive spinal injuries, said afterwards of Melania: “She was not only beautiful but gracious. I’m humbled.”

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