Mollie’s Legacy: White Femininity and the Murder of Mollie Tibbetts
A single mahogany chair sits in front of a navy blue background as these two words appear on the video screen. The Trump White House released the ad at the end of August as a direct response to the death of Mollie Tibbetts, a twenty-year-old white woman who was murdered by an undocumented immigrant in Iowa while out for a run. The emphasis on “separation” serves to reclaim rhetoric that progressive activists have used to condemn family separation at the US-Mexico border. Undocumented immigrants are “not supposed to be here,” a grieving father says somberly. His son died when rear-ended by one. The ad, posted on the White House’s YouTube channel, is intended to spark outrage—defenseless American children are dying because of our lackadaisical laws.
Weaponizing white femininity—as Trump conservatives have in the Tibbetts case—is not a novel concept. Almost every effort to oppose civil rights movements has invoked the same rhetoric of “safety,” especially surrounding protecting white women, the passive subjects whom the law exists to protect. For black men, as in infamous cases like Emmett Till’s, one woman’s accusations of distress can be deadly. For Asian men, stereotypes of immorality and hypersexualization historically limited their interactions with white women, including legal restrictions on their mobility in urban neighborhoods like Chinatown. For Latino men, the rhetoric of “illegality” carries the same consequences—their supposedly violent, criminal tendencies are said to be incongruous with America itself, rightfully a nation of law and order, where the Mollie Tibbettses of the world do not have to worry about jogging alone.
In cases where men of color do commit acts of violence against white women, as in Mollie’s story, the victims are often exploited as the emotional backbone of policies put in place to marginalize thousands of innocent people. This is most recently evident in “Kate’s Law,” a bill that former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly proposed in 2015 to enact greater penalties against undocumented immigrants convicted of felonies. On his cable show, O’Reilly urged Congress to pass legislation creating a mandatory-minimum five-year sentence for undocumented immigrants who return after deportation. In 2017, the bill passed the House with support from 59% of representatives, including 24 Democrats.
The bill honored Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman who was killed on a walk with her father in San Francisco by an undocumented Mexican immigrant with a long history of felony convictions. Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union called this blanket legislation a “shortsighted and ill-conceived response” to the crime. Progressive activists argued that this law indicated an inherent criminality among undocumented immigrants. Still, Kate’s father supported Congress’s attempt to rectify the country’s “disjointed laws.”
In Kate’s story and many like it, the young woman’s family—or in some cases, as with Emmett Till, the woman herself—willingly perpetuated stereotypes about non-white men. But after Donald Trump Jr. published an op-ed in the Des Moines Register directly blaming Democrats for Mollie’s death, her father urged Republicans to “not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”
Mollie’s murder is inseparable from today’s most contentious political issues, including debates over undocumented immigration and sexual violence. But it is also a question of history. It is a question of who gets to control how we are remembered. Exploiting Mollie’s femininity is inherently misogynistic, and is symptomatic of how conservatives turn women into political pawns in life and death. Men turn women into symbols because they do not see them as people. Both the circumstances surrounding Mollie’s death and the political manipulation of her legacy are part of a narrative that her family can no longer control.
Mollie, on every ideological front, was radically opposed to Republican values. On her Twitter, she retweeted posts calling Michelle Obama a “flawless FLOTUS.” She lamented slut-shaming and argued against anti-vaxxers. She sent out tweets of her own that supported “fighting until we make a change in this country” and holding white people accountable for supporting Roy Moore in Alabama. In his op-ed, Trump Jr. denounced liberal platforms that Mollie herself believed in. Conservatives argue that they are using Mollie’s name to put country over party. But they are exploiting her story. There is not one who validated her convictions and actually listened to what she had to say.
The single, irreducible element of conservatives’ identification with Mollie Tibbetts is her whiteness.
It is the principal reason why her death resonated so deeply across this country, especially with people who said they could picture their own daughters in her—murdered by an immigrant farmworker and left to rot in a field. It is why there is disproportionate attention from Trump on this case, and administrative silence on atrocities like sex trafficking of black girls, who are currently disappearing, most notably, from Washington, D.C. White voters can point to Mollie’s death as a tangible rationale for the racialized fears that gave us the Trump presidency, even if it utterly ignores her family’s wishes.
The Tibbetts case serves as a referendum on the leadership this administration embodies. It indicates that elected officials recognize the attachment voters feel with stories like Mollie’s or Kate’s. But even if Mollie’s loved ones insist on remembering her as more than her death, do they have the political capital to have their wishes honored? Or does what her death has exposed about political polarization supercede her right to carve out her place in history? Will her family’s voice be loud enough to define her memory?
Mollie’s death is not the first to justify systemic oppression against a group, especially in the name of protecting white femininity. But it is the first in which her family insistently, publicly rejected these ends. Her case’s ability to show how polarized the country is, and how deep the chasm is between those who do and do not believe in the president’s leadership, necessarily involves reducing her to her murder, erasing who she really was when defining her legacy. Her death remains on one side of the aisle. Her life was on the other.