It's December 3 and already we've seen a lot when it comes to women and the 2012 presidential election.
Let's see... Here's the latest this week. Right now three women have come forward to claim that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain sexual harassed them. Now a third woman, Ginger White, alleges a 13-year consensual affair with Cain. Cain’s candidacy and reputation have no doubt taken a blow, but arguably far less than the reputations of his accusers who have been routinely skewered for speaking up.
Ann Coulter has suggested that White lacks credibility because she’s an unemployed a single mother. Rush Limbaugh accused one of the women who spoke out about Cain's alleged unwanted advances Karen Kraushaar, of a “pattern of whining.”And Limbaugh even dragged another Cain accuser Sharon Bialek’s 13-year-old son into the mud, calling the teenager a Nazi for supposedly encouraging his mother to step forward.
Now GOP candidate and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has made a statement that the conversation should focus back on political issues and not “the latest bimbo eruption.”
Regardless of the truth of their claims, we owe women who make any claims of sexual violence or abuse basic respect -- not only because their accusations may be true but because doing so creates an environment in which other women feel safe to speak out. And that’s what we want for our daughters and sisters and wives and friends, right?
Studies find that one in four women experiences sexual harassment in the workplace. Arguably, 25% of women aren’t just whining.
In fact, it’s far more likely that the actual rate of incidents is higher but many women try to brush it off. But frankly, who cares about the numbers. If even one woman is in a workplace being groped by a male co-worker, promised a raise in exchange for sexual favors or, as in one of the extreme cases, held down while her male superior performs a sex act on her, isn’t that one too many?
By the way we conduct ourselves in political debates and in general, don’t we want to discourage and condemn sexual harassment and make women feel comfortable reporting it -- rather than attacking any woman who dares speak up?
Of course, this “blame the accuser” posture isn’t exclusive to Republicans. Bill Clinton’s attorney called one of Clinton’s accusers, Paula Jones, “tabloid trash” and James Carville piled on, “Drag a $100 through a trailer park and there’s no telling what you’ll find.”
Aren’t we better than this?
The truth about the accusations against Herman Cain will come out. In the meantime, it’s utterly appropriate to say we should not rush to judgment without conclusive facts. In the meantime we should attempt to evaluate Mr. Cain fairly, based on his campaign positions and experience.
But we must also think carefully about the larger climate we create in how we react to such allegations. Mr. Huntsman, for one, would be wise to think about his three daughters. If they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, no doubt Mr. Huntsman would want them to be able to speak up and not be attacked and degraded as “bimbos.”
Presidential elections aren’t just about who’s going to sit in the Oval Office, they’re about the kind of future we as a country want to create. Let’s use this election to create a future in which sexual harassment isn’t tolerated or excused -- and where, if it does happen, women (and men) can speak out without fear of vicious character attacks and humiliation. Hopefully that’s a vision we call all vote for.
Sally Kohn is a political commentator and grassroots strategist. You can find her online at sallykohn.com.