It’s been a tough month for women and feminists, and likely to get tougher before it gets better. As UltraViolet goes to press, the smirking, sneering face of Brett Kavanagh (KAVA-NO! as it’s spelled on signs at pop-up protests around the country) dominates our television screens. His arrogant, self-pitying and rage-filled voice haunts our waking and our dreams.
Last Sunday night I attended a vigil in downtown San Francisco. Woman after woman stepped up to the open mic, their voices trembling at first and growing firmer and more confident as they realized people were listening, supporting, willing to hear them. Their stories were more horrible than I could have imagined. One had been raped by her father, her father’s friend and another male relative. Another had been kidnapped at 17 by several men, shoved into the trunk of a car, made to dig her own grave before she somehow escaped. One had been raped at knifepoint by her boyfriend. She never told anyone because she knew no one would believe her; he was her boyfriend, and everyone thought he was a nice guy.
They talked about PTSD, often lasting years. The woman who was put in the trunk of a car talked about realizing, three years later, that for the first time she was riding in a car and not having flashbacks.
I was standing with a friend who worked at San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR) when I volunteered there in the eighties. She told me her story – her lover put his hands around her throat, held her down with the weight of his body just as Kavanaugh did with Christine Blasey Ford. Again, she told no one because she knew she would not be believed, but she wrote a poem about it. Even while we worked at SFWAR, she had not told me.
It occurs to me that during four years of college, no woman friend ever told me about a sexual assault. It can’t be that none of them were assaulted; the odds are against it (1 in 6, 1 in 3, no matter which number you choose to believe, out of a few thousand women on campus, some hundreds of them had been sexually assaulted). I never told anyone about the bad things that happened to me. We were feminists. We would have believed one another. I think. We talked about everything. Except that.
As we stood listening to women testify, my friend turned to me and said, “Did you ever think we would have a rapist in the White House?” I had to say, “Actually, I kind of think we’ve had mostly rapists in the White House.”
For all the work that feminists and racial justice activists and feminists of color and radical groups of every stripe have done recently about reckoning with our history, for all the overuse of the word “intersectional,” the brave tearing down of statues by African American and Native American activists, the movies and plays about Sally Hemmings and the raging debates about them, we continue to fall into the trap of seeing the over-the-top misogyny of guys like Kkkavanaugh and kkkrump and Lindsay GGGraham as exceptional. Of the first ten presidents, seven were slaveholders. Most of those committed documented rapes against multiple women, but it’s safe to assume the others raped too. They didn’t name it the White House for nothing.
FDR had an affair with his wife’s secretary, which today would certainly be classified as creating a hostile work environment, as would Eisenhower’s relationship with his female chauffeur and George H.W. Bush’s with his “personal assistant”. (Bush has also been accused of inappropriate touching by seven other women.) Anyone want to take bets on how many of JFK’s liaisons were consensual? LBJ “liked the ladies.” Let’s not get started on Bill Clinton, who has been accused of rape by no fewer than four women, not to mention the high-profile hearings regarding sex with an intern in his White House.
The fall of Al Franken and John Conyers, along with Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Wiener, reminds us that predation is not limited to republikkkan men, white men, young men or old men. Notably, it does seem, so far, to be limited to men, at least in politics – I’m sure if Crooked Hillary had so much as brushed against anyone, the public crucifixion would have lasted a year or two. (And no, to my ever-vigilant ultraleftist friends, I am not defending Hillary’s neoliberal warmongering.)
The ability of powerful men to get away with terrible behavior toward women is not confined to the u.s. or to the mainstream. If I had a queer $3 bill for every leftist who has dismissed the accusations of sexual abuse against Julian Assange as just a right-wing conspiracy, I could retire tomorrow. Those who aggressively disbelieve the women who were in his bed when he penetrated them against their express wishes include self-proclaimed feminists, like Wages for Housework cofounder Selma James and The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf. (Incidentally, when James Damore was fired by Google for circulating a memo trashing efforts to hire more women and people of color, Assange offered him a job at Wikileaks in the name of anti-censorship. If you’re still unsure on the question of Assange’s misogyny credentials, watch Laura Poitras’s film about him, “Risk.”)
Rebecca Solnit reported that at a Dump Kav demonstration in the Castro, where naked men were in their usual abundant supply, a man got in her space and waved her own book at her, trying to explain male supremacy to her. She didn’t say whether he was one of the naked men.
The hardest thing about this episode (Dismantling Patriarchy Season 10002 No. 5) is having to witness the rage of these men who so obviously resent having to spend one second even responding to accusations they consider irrelevant and trivial. It’s not that they don’t believe Christine Blasey Ford and the others. It’s that they don’t give a crap and they can’t believe anyone else does. And for the moment, they are likely to prevail. Kav will probably be confirmed, and if he isn’t, the next guy may not be a rapist alcoholic but he’ll still be a woman-hater who wants to tell women what to do with their bodies.
For those of us who remember the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings as if they were yesterday, it’s frustrating to see how little progress we’ve made. But in fact, we have made progress. There were two women in the Senate during those hearings. The next year, there were six. That was also the first year that women’s bathroom facilities were provided on the Senate chamber level. Now there are 23 women Senators. Some of them – maybe most of them – are fairly useless, but it’s not nothing. Though Kongress as a whole is still heavily white, 39% of the Demokrats in Kongress are people of color. Women of color are vastly underrepresented – 33 states have no women of color in their congressional delegations (11 have no women at all!), but they do make up 35% of congresswomen.
The process of unraveling and dismantling 500 years of liberal patriarchy will be harder than almost anything, except the process of unraveling and dismantling 10,000 years or so of patriarchy. And it doesn’t help that we are increasingly forbidden to talk about women’s oppression, in the name of gender inclusivity. But we can acknowledge that gender is not binary and still acknowledge that men have been forcing women into sex, and then getting everyone to blame them for it, for millennia.
The People Will Win.
Just Maybe Not Today.