When the treatment of women by powerful men has reared its head in our body politic in recent decades, women have rarely come out on the winning side.
From the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern, the men in question survive the gauntlet and thrive professionally.
The women endure the opprobrium thrown in their direction and typically retreat from the public eye, remembered largely for their role in a national drama and not for their accomplishments.
For too long, women have made compromises in the face of this behavior.
Yes, Anita Hill was pilloried by smug senators, her reputation maligned, but voters disgusted at her treatment elected an unprecedented number of women to Congress the following year.
Yes, Monica Lewinsky has to live with the fact that her name will be forever associated with a verb in some quarters, but many women, particularly on the left, have justified their misgivings about Clinton’s behavior with a young subordinate by arguing that his policies, on balance, benefited women. “But in the large scheme of things” has been the ambivalent rallying cry for women who have watched other women be destroyed in the service of what many considered a greater good.
Clarence Thomas continues to serve on the highest court in the land, and Bill Clinton remains one of the most popular politicians in the nation.
But thanks to Donald Trump, female voters are finally on the cusp of blowing up this disgraceful paradigm. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Hillary Clinton was leading Trump by an eleven-point margin, in part due to women who have never before voted against a Republican. A widely circulated electoral map by fivethirtyeight.com projects that Clinton would win 458 Electoral College votes if only women were allowed to vote, to 350 votes for Trump if only men were voting.
It is not simply Trump’s misogynistic rhetoric that has rallied women against him. It is the condescending way he and his supporters have gone after women who have alleged harassment and assault, calling them liars because Trump would never deem them attractive enough to touch, or calling their accounts into question because they did not step forward earlier.
Women recoil at this, because almost every woman has encountered situations like this. You need not be a supermodel to face harassment, as most women can attest from personal experience. There are as many reasons why women do not step forward to report these incidents as there are instances of harassment.
When I was in my late 20s, I attended a workplace party where an older, politically powerful man came up behind me, unhooked my strapless bra, waved it around proudly and then refused to return it. He stashed it in his desk and would whip it out to taunt me every time I was forced to enter his office.
This man was someone who, at the time, was important to me professionally. I laughed the incident off because I did not know what else to do. And while I told several close friends about it immediately after it happened, I never discussed it publicly until this year.
My reasons were at once complicated and unambiguous: I was not professionally in a position to challenge him, and I did not want to humiliate his wife and children by making them aware of his behavior. Both for selfish and, I hope, moral reasons, I made the choice to remain silent.
More than a decade later, our circumstances have changed. He is no longer someone I need to fear professionally, but I still refuse to shame him publicly because I would rather not shatter his daughter’s opinion of him.
Would I feel differently if he were running for president and denying he had ever harassed anyone? I would hope I could put my misgivings about hurting his children aside and discuss this incident in detail, even though I, too, would face questions about why I had waited so long to speak.
The details of my story are unique, but the larger arc is familiar to women the world over. Whether Trump really assaulted women is not something we can determine beyond a reasonable doubt before Nov. 8, and he is as entitled to a presumption of innocence as anyone else. But what has made the behavior of his supporters so anathema to so many is the diminishment of women, shaming them for being too ugly to be assaulted or too opportunistic because they did not come forward earlier.
Most of us have encountered men like this: men who refuse to consider women’s reasons for staying silent even in the face of awful behavior, or men who belittle women for their looks, as though harassment is about attraction and not power. For these men, Trump’s candidacy is the dying gasp of a culture that has been slowly — too slowly — drifting away. For the women who watch them, it is an opportunity to stand up with moral clarity against an ethos that has attempted to diminish us all.
For so many women, Clinton's election now represents something more than the final crack in the glass ceiling. It is an opportunity to strike back at long last without any ambivalence or compromise, to defeat an antiquated mindset that for generations has dictated to us how we should look, behave and interact with men.
Trump’s candidacy has exposed the vestiges of a culture that so many of us had naively believed was eradicated from the public square, if not from public policy. But it has also served as a clarion call in empowering women to rise up and to, at long last, relegate the misogyny he represents to the ash heap of history.