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We kept telling each other — almost convincing ourselves — that it was subtle. Sure, there was bias against women, but it was “unconscious” bias, and awareness would make it go away. Yes, studies showed a glass ceiling, but that was because of the signals we were sending, and if we just dressed differently, or stood differently, or spoke differently at meetings, we could “lean” it all away.
Most of all, we told ourselves, it was a different world now — what with the first woman well on her way to being president.
What irony (predictable, perhaps, but ironic nonetheless) that the single greatest achievement of a woman in American history serves to show how far women haven’t come.
In Greek myth, and much of modern literature beyond, the most epic battles are allegories, between deities who represent larger truths about our mortal selves. How fitting, then, that our current combatants are a woman who first came to power in part because of an unfaithful man and a man who reminds women of their worst boss, boyfriend or subway groper.
The last time we talked like this, with the stark raw honesty of the past news cycle, was during the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991. “Listen to us,” Anna Quindlen wrote in a New York Times column that would win her a Pulitzer Prize. “You will notice there is no please in that sentence . … The gender divide has opened and swallowed politeness like a great hungry whale.”
And for a moment that was true. Anita Hill brought sexual harassment to the center of the national conversation. Women testified to each other as she testified before Congress. But then Clarence Thomas was confirmed anyway, which sent a none-too-subtle message about the importance of all our stories, and we all went back to pretending to be polite.
Since then, there has been mixed progress. Women have inched closer to men in wages, surpassed them as percentages of both the professional workplace and college degrees, and increased their presence in Congress (if you consider the current 19.4 percent to be progress). But they have barely budged as a percentage of workplace managers (37 percent in 1990, 39 percent today) or as leaders of Fortune 500 companies (none in 1990, 21 in 2016), and they still lose traction in many of the highest-paying professions. (While women are now nearly half of all law school graduates, they are just 20 percent of law firm partners.)
Measures of more private interactions are more difficult to find. There has been an increase in reports of sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual assault on campus in recent years, but it’s unclear if this is an increase in frequency or awareness or both.
What is clear is that much of the conversation about gender has been oddly sanitized. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, for instance, forcefully laid out statistical evidence of how women are perceived differently in the workplace than men, and her solution was that women adjust their behavior to challenge those perceptions. Sexual assault awareness on campus, in turn, focused on what women could do to drink less, walk home in groups, and recognize assault so they could report it when it happened. And analysis of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was about how Clinton might overcome voters’ unconscious responses to the way she dressed, wore her hair, spoke and smiled.
Then along came Donald Trump. Like Supreme Court hearings, presidential campaigns can turn over rocks, exposing a world of creepy crawlers beneath. We saw that in 2008 when the election of the first African-American president gave voice to racism that had been long present, if somewhat muted. Notably, though, Barack Obama was elected before the entrenchment of social media.
This time we have Twitter. And YouTube. And a place for ugly souls to express ugly things. Nearly every journalist has a story this election cycle of being bullied for a story. Mine is this: When I wrote here of how Donald Trump made a pass at me during an interview years ago, and how that fact was relevant today as a measure of how he hasn’t changed, I received email with subject lines like this: “You UGLY C*** —TRUMP NEVER “MADE A PASS” ON YOU. Kill yourself.” (The actual email did not contain any asterisks.)
The Internet is also providing a place for victims of the vitriol to fight back. #yesallwomen was a grassroots Twitter movement in which women shared stories of their assault and harassment in response to #notallmen, which aimed to show that most men were not guilty of being jerks. Most men were not harassers, the women agreed, but still we have a culture in which nearly every woman has a story of being harassed.
And last night, after the Washington Post released video of Trump boasting of kissing and groping women without asking, 1 million women (yes, an actual count) joined a Twitter thread begun by Kelly Oxford, who asked, “Tweet me your first assaults … I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘p****’ and smiles at me, I’m 12.” (Her tweet did not contain any asterisks either.)
The backlash that followed Friday’s “Access Hollywood” outtake was fiercer than any of the many that have come before in this campaign. There were calls for Trump to step down, to replace himself with Pence, and some of those who had endorsed him (though, strikingly, hardly all) rescinded their support.
This raises the question of: Why now? Why is this the tipping point, rather than Trump’s offensive statements about Muslims, war heroes, the disabled? Why not his refusal to disavow blatant racists and anti-Semites? Why not his many other insulting remarks about women?
In part it’s because the conduct he is describing on an open mic is criminal — legally a sexual assault. That alone makes this different, but now add the fact that this latest comes after a particularly awful three weeks, what with his smearing of a beauty queen and the revelation of his tax forms. In part it’s because this is the culmination of 18 months, and something was bound to be the last straw. But mostly, I think, it’s because, for the first time, there simply is no excuse. Nearly all Trump’s previous controversies were ones for which he found an explanation, however tenuous his critics might have found it. The Khans attacked him first. There were actually a few crimes committed by immigrants. He was saving Machado’s job, and beauty queens are not supposed to gain weight.
Here there is no other hand. (No, “Bill Clinton did it too” is not another hand.) All the talk over the years of how sexism was subtle and nuanced and manageable served to mask the fact that sometimes it is also blatant and embedded and unapologetic. What Donald Trump was recorded saying in the back of a bus — while others around him egged him on and laughed — laid bare that lie.
In his not-quite-an-apology, Trump said that the incident happened more than 10 years ago. That would be a fair point if not for two things. First, he was nearly 60 years old, so it was hardly a youthful indiscretion; and all evidence — including his own words during this campaign — indicates that he still sees women as decorative sex objects. Second, and probably more important: Others out there have shown themselves to think like he does. Like a Greek parable, he has come to represent all the misogyny we as a country have stuck under our metaphorical rock.
In that way, perhaps, he has done us a favor, forcing us to confront all he has exposed. No, not all men talk or act like Donald Trump — in fact, the overwhelming number of men do not — nor do most men condone it. But some do — enough that we need to pay attention. The sexism (and racism and xenophobia) he and many of his supporters spout has been there all along, though we have desperately wanted to see it as something else. In his second non-apology last night, Trump called this “nothing more than a distraction” and asked that we all get back to the real issues at hand. It turns out that this is the real issue (or, certainly, one of many very real ones).
“Listen to us,” we once demanded.
Trump’s latest has meant we have to listen to him — really listen — and recognize all he represents and how entrenched is the sexism his comments have unearthed.