The last few days of this presidential campaign have been brutal for anyone who believes that women are human beings worthy of respect.
On Friday, footage emerged of Donald Trump boasting about grabbing women “by the pussy” and trying “to fuck” them. It was hardly surprising, given Trump’s rather remarkable history of sexism, but it was still a wake up call to anyone who has become numb to his relentless misogyny. A candidate for the nation’s highest office bragged about being a sexual predator, then tried to brush it off as harmless “locker room talk.” It’s all deeply depressing, and not just Trump’s words, but the forces they are rooted in. Sexism. Male privilege. Rape culture.
That is why in the midst of an otherwise ugly, dispiriting debate, it was so satisfying to watch the first female presidential nominee call Trump out for his track record of dehumanizing women.
“He has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is, but I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly what he is,” Clinton said. “We’ve seen this throughout the campaign. We have seen him insult women. We’ve seen him rate women on their appearance, ranking them from one to 10. We’ve seen him embarrass women on TV and on Twitter. We saw him, after the first debate, spend nearly a week denigrating a former Miss Universe in the harshest, most personal terms. So yes, this is who Donald Trump is.”
Watching Clinton ― a woman who has, for years, prioritized policies that promote fair pay and reproductive rights ― stand up to Trump does not undo the pain his words have caused. But it served as a rallying cry for every woman who has ever felt her body threatened by a man who would try and claim it through words, touch, or legislation. It laid bare that, for better or worse, this presidential election has become a referendum on what America really thinks about women and how they should be treated.
Trump, of course, spent part of Sunday night attempting to deflect (by bringing up Bill Clinton’s infidelities) and backpedal (saying that nobody has more respect for women than he does). But the gulf between the two is vast and entrenched. Trump is a predatory misogynist. He insists he respects women while he simultaneously delights in cataloguing their physical attributes and supposed shortcomings. He has said it’s OK to call his daughter a piece of ass. He believes, wrongly, that only mothers should be granted paid family leave, and has assembled a coalition bent on taking away women’s access to safe, legal abortion services.
Clinton, by contrast, is a longtime champion for women’s rights. She believes in closing the gender pay gap and has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. At a personal level, she has endured decades of gendered slurs and learned the cost of being “too emotional.” She has been called unlikeable and scolded for not wanting to bake cookies. She has been dismissed as physically and mentally weak and derided for her shrill voice.
Being a woman in America in 2016 is a strange, shifting experience. In some ways, things feel more equal than ever. Many women are now the primary breadwinners in their households. Women are more likely than men to enroll in and graduate from college. At the same time, women ― particularly women of color ― are paid less and are far less likely to hold leadership roles at work. One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. As a woman in America, you have control over your destiny and your body ― up to a point.
As Lisa Belkin wrote for Yahoo, the sharp divide in the candidates’ rhetoric over the weekend is, in many ways, a gift. It is no longer possible for voters to pretend that this election ― in addition to being about the economy, environment, immigration, racism and security ― isn’t also a simple test of how much this country values women. There is no ignoring the difference between a candidate who talks about prizing diversity (Clinton) and one who tries to gloss over talking about grabbing women “by the pussy” (Trump).
It’s rare to have a moment where the contrast between two candidates is so clear and what is at stake for women is so high. Hillary Clinton is right. This is one of the most consequential elections we’ve ever had.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.