Is it simply a coincidence that the wave of women coming forward reporting sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior comes approximately a year after a woman, Hillary Clinton, won the popular election to the office of President of the United States, but was denied that office by the electoral college? I don’t think it is. I think that the election became a referendum on the status of women in our society and the outcome doesn’t flatter us.
We all witnessed the infamous video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and getting away with. Perhaps more stunning was how so many people were able to disregard this video and justify their continued support of Trump on the basis that Hillary Clinton was so untrustworthy that no sin of Donald Trump would ever make him a worse choice than her.
This really became the theme of the Trump campaign and has been the stock and trade of many pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. I remember watching one of the debates in which Donald Trump repeatedly called into question Hillary Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness utilizing a common technique of abusers called gas-lighting. With gas-lighting, the abuser repeatedly states blatant lies as fact, often saying things like “people are saying”, “everyone knows you’re…” in order to sow seeds of doubt regarding the victim’s credibility. It’s a brainwashing technique that has been used by abusers, dictators, and cult leaders and is alive and well in modern American politics.
Sadly, in my life, I have seen gas-lighting used most effectively by men against women. I’ve witnessed it time and time again in nearly every setting where a man’s power is threatened by a woman. What is even more surprising is how often women readily join in and support the gaslighting of another woman who dares to step out of line. We need to recognize gaslighting for the form of abuse that it is, but I don’t see any signs of that happening.
Our culture has a long tradition of not trusting women. Most Americans who are religious practice one of the Abrahamic faiths in which the very first story in the Bible is the creation story where it’s Eve who first eats of the forbidden fruit and is often blamed for our expulsion from Eden (I would strongly argue that this is not a correct interpretation of this story, but I do think it is how a majority of people read the story). Within the creation story we see G-d seeming to endorse an subservient position for Eve: “…your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you.” This preference for the masculine is reinforced in Abrahamic religions in which G-d is usually referred to in the masculine form, and in many traditions women are excluded from portions of ritual life or considered disqualified to serve as clergy. The religious message isn’t simply that women are dishonest, but that they are impulsive and have poor judgment and that when a man allows a woman to lead, it will corrupt him.
In American history the institutionalized lack of trust in women is pervasive. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920. In many states, married women were legally considered incompetent to contract and their property belonged to their husbands. The law did not protect women from sexual assault by their husbands. These are not ancient laws that were abandoned long ago. Such laws have are within living memory and were in force for the majority of our nation’s existence. The Florida Supreme Court wrote, as recently as the 1940’s: “The common law as interpreted by this Court does not recognize capacity in a married woman to contract.” Hogan v. Supreme Camp of Am. Woodmen, 1 So. 2d 256, 258 (Fla. 1941).
We are a product of our history and old biases and ideas that often lurk in the deepest depths of even the most educated and progressive minds. It’s not simply that we accept “boys will be boys”. It’s that our society carries an inherent bias against the competency and trustworthiness of women that continues to be a strong force to this very day. It’s why voters were so easily mislead regarding Hillary Clinton and why victims of sexual assault have felt often felt powerless.
Recall the Jameis Winston case, in which the woman who claims she was sexually assaulted immediately reported the incident, but the police failed to vigorously investigate the alleged crime despite the serious nature of the alleged offense. It is worth noting that when the alleged rape was first reported, the woman didn’t know the name of her alleged attacker, so I see this as more than just the local police trying to cover up for an athlete. I think the unspoken truth in that case is that the police simply didn’t take her seriously, and, if the case hadn’t led to a star football player, we never would have heard another word about it.
Many of the women who have come forward have said that they didn’t speak up because they were afraid that people wouldn’t believe them or take their claims seriously. Whenever a complaint of sexual misconduct is made, we need to take it seriously and ensure there is no retaliation against the person making the report. I’m not one to say that women never make false allegations. I’ve done enough criminal defense law to have long abandoned that idea, but I also know that we don’t question the victim’s credibility to such a degree when it’s a man complaining that he was hit by another man. I also know that this bias isn’t limited to men. One of the earliest lessons that I was taught by a very effective and experienced female criminal defense attorney was to choose as many women as possible when selecting a jury for a sexual assault case with an adult female victim. She told me, women are skeptical when another woman claims she’s been raped and they don’t feel the guilt that a male juror does.
Legal scholar and Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz, wrote: “The struggle for morality never stays won, it’s always in process”. As our society has evolved we’ve often been shocked to see what injustices we’ve turned a blind eye to and that people who we’ve regarded as leaders have become the symbols of those injustices. I think we have to remember that while evolution can be a slow process, there also times when rapid changes occur. I hope that this is one of those times and that we emerge as better and wiser people.