If you had told me a year ago that feminism would now be in vogue (Merriam-Webster just declared “feminism” the word of the year; #MeToo silence breakers are Time Magazine’s Person of the Year), I would have first been really excited, and then laughed at the sheer insanity of it all.
I mean, we had just witnessed our first female major party nominee for president lose the electoral vote to a supremely unqualified man whom we heard for ourselves, on tape, brag about being a serial sexual assaulter. The misogynistic venom that anti-feminists spewed at Hillary Clinton, and all the sexist tropes, seemed to have paid off, rewarding in spades retrogressive ideologues like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.
The female Millennials who had told older feminists with assurance essentially this: “Thanks but no thanks, Gloria Steinem. We’re living in a post-feminist era now, so no need to be voting with our vaginas” maybe still sort of, kind of, believed that a protest vote was the noble thing to do. In fact, some people were still falling over themselves blaming Hillary for being a “flawed” candidate who made fatal errors and telling her to stay in the woods forever.
Well, a year later, all but the most committed Trump supporters would have to admit that’s pretty ludicrous, given our current leader’s sophomoric performance and abysmal approval ratings, and everything we now know about Russian interference and collusion and fake news on social media.
So, why the sea change over the past year? And how can we keep the momentum going?
It Turns Out Trump’s America Can Transform Most Anyone Into An Accidental Feminist!
First of all, Hillary herself got up and brushed herself off, persisting as she always does, even showing up for Trump’s inauguration. Could there be a better role model for grace and dignity, even in defeat?
Next, of course, came the Women’s March. Skeptics said it couldn’t be pulled off and continued to decry feminism generally, but millions of women, men, and children, of every race, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexual orientation showed up, marching in streets across the country, with signs proclaiming “women’s rights are human rights” and all sorts of feminist-sounding slogans. We now know that the Women’s March on Washington, together with all its sister marches, was likely the largest single-day protest in American history, and many of the marchers had never before participated in a political protest. Alternative facts notwithstanding, it eclipsed Trump’s Inauguration Day in size and symbolism, landing the now-iconic pink pussy hat on the cover of Time Magazine in lieu of the new President (who had been deemed just months earlier Time’s Person of the Year after his upset victory) and likely pissing him off in the process, which was a bonus.
The skeptics then questioned if we would be able to turn the righteous indignation and “catharsis” of the Women’s March into tangible action and change. We now know that the marchers went back to their home communities and continued to organize and activate. We populated establishment organizations, giving them a needed infusion of woman-power and renewed energy and purpose. And we formed new grassroots groups and huddles. With all that, and a seemingly nonstop threat to so many of our rights and values, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work (Rosie Riveter-style), becoming accidental activists. There wasn’t going to be another presidential election for four years at a time when each day felt like an eternity. No matter. There were Trump’s horrific appointments to his cabinet, discrete issues like the travel ban and saving the Affordable Care Act, and special elections. We learned how to use Facebook and Twitter for political purposes. We phone banked from home and in groups. We marched and protested some more. We lobbied, and went to Town Halls, and made phone calls to our legislators demanding that they do what we wanted them to do as their constituents. We canvassed and registered voters. We worked hard to GOTV (get out the vote). “The Resistance,” as we deemed this new progressive pushback was, and is, powered largely by middle aged women.
The story goes on from there. The cynics said that we wouldn’t show up to vote. They told us that “identity politics” was to blame for the devastating loss in 2016 and we needed to “win back” Trump voters. To come to such a conclusion, they turned their backs on all but white males, and further discounted the votes of people of color (especially African American women) that make up the base of the Democratic party. Democrat Jon Ossoff lost a hard-fought special election to Republican Karen Handel in Georgia, which caused more handwringing.
Nevertheless, we persisted. On Election Night 2017, Virginia made history electing the first openly transgender woman to state government (over an old homophobic white male incumbent, no less), and nearly flipped its house of delegates from solidly red to blue. That same night, women and people of color were elected to public office across the country in a blue wave that shocked many (at least those of us who weren’t frantically and strategically working behind the scenes to make it all happen).
Still, skeptics said we would certainly never pull out a win in the Alabama Special Election—a state that had voted red for a quarter of a century. After definitively choosing Hillary Clinton over both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, African American women and men came out in droves to prove the naysayers (and racists) wrong. As the result, we suddenly have a pro-choice Democratic senator-elect hailing from evangelical Alabama (Doug Jones), instead of an uber-conservative bigot, Jeff Sessions (or for that matter, an uber-religious child predator, Roy Moore). Will wonders never cease?
And while we’re talking about our U.S. Senators, let’s give it up for the growing number of female senators, who have been fighting back, tooth and nail, against the Trump agenda. From Kirsten Gillibrand (the only senator who voted against Trump’s entire repugnant cabinet, save Nikki Haley as U.N. Ambassador), to Kamala Harris (who interrogated the heck out of Sessions at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian collusion) to Elizabeth Warren (who has been in an ongoing Twitter feud with Trump and defiantly refuses to sit down and be quiet), they have shown us how to stand up to bullies in our midst and to the patriarchy generally. So many more women are now seeking public office as an apparent backlash to the Trump Administration, but let’s not forget that, in 2016, we still managed to elect to the Senate three new women of color (Harris, Tammy Duckworth, and Catherine Cortez Masto), bringing the total number of women holding senate seats to 21, a record in our nation’s history.
Of course, despite our best efforts, there have been and will continue to be some grave disappointments. The GOP continues its war on women’s rights and, at least until January 2019, its stranglehold on all three of the nation’s branches of government. Their tax (scam) bill sneakily assigns “personhood” status to fetuses. The DCCC has said, maddeningly, it will back anti-choice candidates. Paul Ryan and his colleagues want to control every aspect of our bodies, urging us to bear children for an economy that will benefit wealthy white men and corporate interests. Yeah, he pretty much said that.
Still, what seems to me to be the one thing that has resurrected feminism more than anything else? We found our individual and collective voice—as women, as Americans, as human beings. When there was suddenly so much at stake, perhaps we had no other choice. We started by speaking out, at first in secret and closed Facebook groups, commiserating about how much we had wanted Hillary to win, and Trump to lose, and how much we hated this outcome. We maybe felt badly about not speaking up sooner, but it’s hard, so very hard to speak up when the other side is a bunch of powerful and angry white men trying to silence you.
Once the dam burst, we couldn’t stop speaking. It was so cathartic to finally say “F.U.” publicly to sexist men who mistreat us. The media marveled at us as “angry” women but, for once, without harsh judgment and scorn. African-American women inspired all of us by speaking out and schooling us with witty, yet no-holds-barred commentary on social media, including Twitter personalities like the aptly named @AngryBlackLady and @Bravenak (targeted for abuse by Bernie Sanders/Susan Sarandon supporters, and even suspended from Twitter, she would not be silenced, and has only become more outspoken over time).
And then it happened. It seemed so sudden, but it was the culmination of a movement that really began decades earlier, at the confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas, when a black attorney, Anita Hill, spoke of her experience of a hostile work environment, a relatively new concept in the American consciousness. Nobody believed her on the all white male Senate Judiciary Committee, as she spoke about the wildly lewd and inappropriate things that Thomas had said and done to her, and a public opinion poll at the time showed a majority of Americans didn’t believe what she said either. As journalist and author, Jane Mayer, has put it:
She was just dragged through the dirt. They accused; they questioned her motives; they suggested that she was something they called an "erotomaniac"; they questioned whether she was a woman scorned, whether she had personal motives, whether she had professional motives, political motives. ... They basically questioned her sanity and made her out to be a liar and potentially a lunatic. ...
Yet, Hill spoke her truth anyway, about how a man about to be confirmed to the highest court in the land had made her work environment unbearable through his words and conduct. Nobody should have to deal with that crap to go to work and earn a paycheck. Yet, so many of us do.
Which is why the new #metoo movement has such force. Incidentally, the #metoo hashtag originated not with Alyssa Milano, as many assume, but about ten years ago with a black woman named Tarana Burke who complained about sexual assault in her community (as Bravenak and many other black women have informed us). It wasn’t until a famous white woman, Gretchen Carlson, came forward with sexual harassment allegations against her boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, that we all sat up and took notice.
The combination of so many women, after grappling in isolation, now listening to each other’s stories via social media, is the techie 21st century version of consciousness-raising that second wave feminists went through in the late 60s and early 70s. The more we shared and learned, the more we realized that powerful men like Donald Trump, who think they have license to grab our private parts, are a heck of a lot more common than we had thought.
It Turns Out That Groping Is The New Sexual Harassment
Today, even some of the most powerful men in America are being brought to their knees, on an almost daily basis, by allegations of workplace sexual harassment (though to date, not our President, despite calls for his resignation). This is because we have actually started to believe these women when they come forward with stories of quid pro quo and horrifyingly hostile and offensive workplace environments.
Groping is seemingly the new frontier of what society considers inappropriate and thus, unacceptable, male behavior. In this uncharted territory, I’ve observed that people are more willing to both disbelieve and dismiss a woman who says that she’s been groped, rather than sexually harassed, even when multiple women come forward with similar stories about the same man. In secret and closed Facebook groups, I’ve heard “men will be men” excuses about groping. I’ve heard women say that groping is no big deal compared to “real sexual abuse,” and that groping victims should “grow up.” (Some men, as well. Take Matt Damon’s awkward mansplanation on the issue.) These same people want the female accusers to testify at a hearing under oath—apparently like Anita Hill—before requesting the resignation of a beloved white male elected official. Unfortunately, “due process” and the American justice system most often favors white men to the detriment of everyone else, which isn’t shocking when you stop to consider who has made all the rules by which we play and who is most likely to be the ultimate arbiter of what does and doesn’t constitute justice in our country. (Spoiler alert: it’s definitely not women, especially women of color, or people of color in general.)
Nevertheless, we watched last summer as Taylor Swift sat on a witness stand in court and, steeled, told her story about how she had been groped in a public setting, and how much it impacted her. And unlike the Senate Judiciary Committee and Anita Hill, the jury actually believed Swift! Young women like Swift weren’t yet born when it was the norm for a boss to pinch his secretary’s behind. They don’t think it’s normal or appropriate for men to grope them during meet and greets or photo ops like they’re sex objects. In fact, they think it’s demeaning and humiliating and infuriating, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it? For women to have autonomy over their bodies, it must extend to personal space boundaries that shouldn’t be breached by a stranger or acquaintance, even if he is rich, powerful, and/or famous. Why shouldn’t we be demanding this respect from men to be free from unwanted sexual contact and advances? Isn’t this, too, an integral part of feminism?
I disagree when women (often self-professed older feminists or victims of abuse) say that the #metoo movement will be weakened by the women who are coming forward with allegations that don’t constitute full-on criminal or even civil cases of sexual assault or harassment. In fact, what I think will be the surest way to bring the movement to a screeching halt is attempting to silence women who are bravely coming forward and telling us what feels wrong to them, by not believing them or refusing to give them the benefit of the doubt, by minimizing their experiences, and by saying there should be no consequences for perhaps lesser, yet still bad, behavior. Indeed, the DJ who groped Swift after her concert lost his job because the radio station held him accountable for his actions. Until we change the culture around men and their entitlement to touch and objectify us at will, how will we ever gain equality with them, either culturally or under civil and/or criminal law?
Instead, we need to enlist this next generation of women on their own terms to join in the fight for equality—in the Constitution, within our existing justice system, and by further changing state and federal laws to level the playing field for women and to keep pace with the changing culture. For third wave feminism to succeed ultimately as a movement, we need to include every woman regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability (known as intersectionality), lift each other up (especially those of us who have been marginalized in multiple ways), have each other’s backs, elect more pro-choice Democratic women to public office, run for public office ourselves, and finally pass the Equal Rights Amendment.