Michelle Obama has won universal praise for he speech today decrying Donald Trump’s behavior. Which is great, but he’s far from unique.
I have a confession to make: I have a hard time taking Donald Trump seriously as a presidential candidate. The fact that he won the nomination seemed like an aberration to me–a U.S. version of the Brexit vote–more an expression of voters’ frustration with our political system than an actual desire for him to lead our nation. The chances of his being elected are historically low for a major-party candidate–less than 15 percent, according to the polling site FiveThirtyEight.
I’m having a bit of outrage fatigue over Trump as well. Just when I was getting over my shock at his proposal to ban all Muslims from immigrating to the U.S., there was Trump’s veiled suggestion that Second Amendment supporters should assassinate Hillary Clinton if she is elected, his open threat to throw her in jail, his assumption that Mexican immigrants are rapists…I could go on, but what would be the point?
So when the damning recording of Trump bragging about kissing women and grabbing their private parts surfaced last week it was hard to summon up much shock. This is the Trump we have always known, the man who sees women only as accoutrements, being himself in a candid moment. When I heard that Michelle Obama won praise from just about everyone for her impassioned speech about the incident earlier today in New Hampshire I almost didn’t bother watching. What could she possibly say about it that would be new or surprising?
But then I did watch and she said this:
It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them or forced himself on them, and they’ve said no, but he didn’t listen. Something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day.
It reminds us of stories we’ve heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how back in their day the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office. And even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough. We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we?
Well no we didn’t. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that women who achieve even modest fame on the Internet can reliably expect a deluge of rape and murder threats. If you’re a woman who’s ever walked around a city by herself, you’ve had that sick, sinking feeling she described. And maybe you’ve had the odd and slightly shocking experience of hearing how men talk when they think no women can hear. Like I did once overhearing a man tell his friend about how nice it was that his new girlfriend has big breasts. “Those things are great,” he said. “Muffle, muffle!”
In case anyone might think that Trump is unusual in his denigration of women, some male Trump supporters have raised their hands to say they’ve said similar things and worse. One held up a sign that read, “Better to Grab a P***y than to Be One.”
One of the gender bias issues Michelle Obama alluded to–that women who work for powerful men routinely face sexual harassment–may be true of some who worked for Hillary Clinton’s husband. Dragging those outdated accusations back into the limelight hasn’t done Trump any good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are false. And whether those particular charges are true or not, reality is that in this country, women are sexually harassed and sexually assaulted on a daily basis.
How do we fix this?
Having a female president, as seems reasonably likely, won’t solve the problems women face in our society. Having a black president hasn’t done that for black people. But at least it started a national conversation about race and violence and equal treatment under the law.
Maybe this election cycle, dispiriting as it’s been, will do the same. Maybe it will start some of us asking out loud whether we should be putting up with a lot of things that have always been treated as “normal.” Like being afraid to walk down a city street alone. Or laughing off a boss’s unwanted advances. Or having our value defined by our beauty or lack thereof. Or having men’s voices be the only ones heard in high-level meetings.
Most women don’t say much about any of this. It seems easier not to. But maybe it’s time we started–and not by piling on with yet more outrage at a reliably outrageous Donald Trump. What if we confronted men who say lewd and demeaning things instead of just ignoring them? What if we took action against those who belittle or ignore us or fail to appropriately value our work? What if we raised our voices and called out misogyny whenever we encounter it, which is pretty much every day? Maybe none of that would change anything. But then again, it might.