The so-called "war on women" is particularly salient this year given that the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee is Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump has not been known for his sensitive comments toward women, quite notably in his battles with Fox News' Megyn Kelly, who may or may not have had "blood coming out of her wherever." Indeed, Huffington has even catalogued hard-to-believe things that Trump has said about women, from marginalizing the importance of sexual assault in the military, referring to breastfeeding as "disgusting," to characterizing women as a "manipulative" sex, to speaking often to the importance of looks in politics and entertainment. Trump's latest attack on Cruz's wife only adds not only to the GOP's struggle to garner the support of women, but also to the animosity between the two main remaining Republican presidential candidates.
Trump's charge: his wife Melania (a retired model) is more attractive than Heidi Cruz (depicted unflatteringly), with the caption, "The images are worth a thousand words." This was in conjunction with allegations that Cruz had cheated on his wife. Admittedly, it is not uncommon for the families of presidential and vice presidential candidates to be "vetted" as well as the candidates themselves. 1992 saw numerous GOP attacks leveraged at Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore, characterizing them as "radical feminists" with women not actually wanting to be liberated from their home/kitchen. Tipper Gore was challenged for her campaign against violent and sexually explicit lyrics on record albums. The Palin family came under extensive scrutiny as well in the 2008 election cycle, showing that it is not solely a partisan matter.
Trump's comments may not be surprising to those who have followed him closely, and his transparency in the way of discussing the importance of image over substance (resulting in a 70% unfavorable rating of Trump among women, with even a 39% unfavorable rating among Republican women). They also allow Cruz an opportunity to defend women, because while women do vote more Democratic (52 vs. 36% according to a 2015 Pew study), Republicans cannot win the election without some women on their side. Cruz retorted that spouses and children should be off bounds with respect to partisan attacks. What remains to be seen is to what extent he will stick with that language moving forward. Will we see a resurgence of Bill Clinton's extramarital affair(s)? Will we see other personal attacks? Is it only personal when it is personal to them?
While Trump's comments certainly underscore his continued assaults on women (and many others), for example, his characterization of Hillary Clinton as "very shrill," it would be hard to construe Cruz's defense as much more than defending his wife. Cruz, after all, has opposed abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and opposes the provision of plan B. And while abortion is only one of many issues of gender (in)equality at play, Cruz has also expressed that equal pay for equal work is already law, and voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act. That Cruz defended his wife as beautiful and a wonderful wife and mother should not be mistaken for a position in favor of women more generally. Whether Cruz stands by his charge that the families of candidates should be off grounds for personal attacks remains to be seen.