The Republican candidate’s misogyny has galvanized the feminist movement with more force and fury than any political issue in generations.
- By Christina AsquithChristina Asquith, based in Istanbul, covers women’s issues worldwide as the editor of Across Women’s Lives at Public Radio International’s The World and is the founder of the Fuller Project for International Reporting., Valerie HudsonValerie M. Hudson is professor and George H.W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
It seems an unlikely paradox that in a country where women outnumber men in all but nine states, the first woman in U.S. history to run for president on a major-party ticket would struggle to win over a strong majority of female voters. But for most of her 2016 presidential run, Hillary Clinton has not managed to secure the women vote. As it turned out — ironically or not — it took a man to do it for her: Donald Trump.
Following the release of a 2005 Access Hollywood recording on Friday, Oct. 7, in which Trump brags about how he likes to grab women “by the pussy,” Clinton’s support among women surged. Within the week, Clinton was leading Trump among female voters by about 20 points, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Among the women for whom the hot-mic tape prompted a turn away from Trump are married white women who typically vote Republican. In fact, according to polls, they are now making up most of the recent increase. And, in an unprecedented move for the conservative base, evangelical Christian women have broken ranks with their male counterparts in the church to disavow Trump.
Of course, it’s still unclear whether the growing numbers of women denouncing Trump are going the extra step to actually unite for Clinton. (Some say they will write in Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, instead.) But perhaps even more important for Americans is whether this is a fleeting moment of unity in modern feminism or if this collective backlash is building into something more, something that will change “business as usual” in U.S. sexual politics.
And if that’s true, it will have been the sheer vileness of Trump’s misogyny that was the proverbial straw to finally break the misogynist’s back. After all, though the pushback against everyday sexism began well before his presidential run, true bipartisan revulsion is now kicking the discussion up to a whole new galvanizing level. Is it possible that Donald Trump’s run for the presidency is the best thing that’s happened to the U.S. modern feminist movement in decades?
Even before the Trump tape’s release, high-profile, new-century movements such as Hollaback and the Everyday Sexism Project had been fighting back against this constant and daily harassing grind in the lives of American women. Noteworthy is that this groundswell has also been accompanied by a new vocabulary developed by women themselves to name the things they experience: rape culture, mansplaining, manels, manspreading, and gaslighting, among others.
Comediennes from Amy Schumer, with her skits on Hollywood sexism, to Samantha Bee, with her searing journalistic indictments of sexism in politics — as well as female actresses openly demanding the same pay as their male co-stars and advocating a Bechdel test for movies — have put a laser focus on gender and equality in a way that’s new for 21st-century America.
It seems as if the modern feminist movement — long defined by the divisive issue of abortion rights — is finally unifying against the everyday sexual harassment and even assault that most American women face in their lifetime. It is a #YesAllWomen moment, and women across the political and religious spectrum are saying all women are tired of it, all women want it to stop, and all women will unite against it. Whether it’s catcalling, groping, harassment, indecent exposure, molestation, or rape, it’s hard to find a woman without a story — quite a few stories, in fact.
The sheer magnitude of these #YesAllWomen stories became clear when Canadian author Kelly Oxford issued this public invitation on Twitter during the second presidential debate: “Women: tweet me your first assaults,” with the hashtag #NotOkay. She expected a few dozen responses. Within minutes, responses were pouring in. At one point, she was receiving two stories per second. Within a few days, more than 30 million people — overwhelmingly women — had read or responded to her tweet. In the course of one evening, she said, 1 million women responded to her call.
It’s quite true that Republican women had been deserting Trump throughout this year. His history as a womanizer; his personal attack on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly; and his despicable comments about Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe, in which he called her “Miss Piggy” had all taken their toll. But still many women stood by him. But then the audiotape proved the tipping point. Notable Republican women who have either publicly chastised Trump’s behavior during the campaign or changed their support after the tape was released include former first lady Barbara Bush; Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state for George W. Bush, who tweeted, “Enough!”; and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte who released a statement, saying, “I’m a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women.”
In the U.S. Senate, five of the six Republican women dumped Trump (compared with just 12 out of 48 Republican men). Only Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst maintains her support, although she did denounce Trump publicly for his comments. Meanwhile, in the House, a third of Republican women lawmakers have publicly withdrawn support, including Texas Rep. Kay Granger, who did so after the tape release.
Rep. Martha Roby from Alabama tweeted that Trump was “unacceptable” and she wouldn’t vote for him. Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who had been mum about Trump, issued a statement after the tape was released, calling his comments “disgusting, vile, and disqualifying.” West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Utah Rep. Mia Love, Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski all did the same — despite representing districts where Trump is polling strongly.
And although male evangelical leaders were happy to turn the other cheek upon hearing Trump say he tried to move on a married woman “like a bitch” — Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, and Robert Jeffress all reiterated their support for Trump in the wake of the tape’s release — their female counterparts went in the opposite direction. Leading the pack was Beth Moore, who has 733,000 Twitter followers. On Oct. 9, she rebuked Christian leaders for standing with Trump and then identified with the women Trump demeaned.
“I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it,” she tweeted.
Among the popular women leaders in the evangelical community to denounce Trump is motivational speaker and mother of five Jen Hatmaker, who, in an Instagram post, called his comments “disqualifying and disgraceful” and said her 7th-grader wouldn’t speak like that. Well-known Christian authors Christine Caine, Trillia Newbell, and Kay Warren have all publicly denounced Trump’s remarks, as have musicians Nichole Nordeman and Sara Groves, and Moody Radio host Julie Roys.
For evangelical women, disavowing Trump means, in essence, making it more likely the United States will elect a president who will put forward a U.S. Supreme Court nominee who supports abortion rights for women. Think about that for a moment: Women who are strongly anti-abortion and women who are strongly pro-abortion rights agree that Trump is anathema and they will not support him — no matter that some of them might agree with him on certain policy positions. Misogyny, for the first time in U.S. political history, has become a deal-breaker and a disqualification for political office among American women of all leanings.
“I think it took a comment from Trump that personally affected a majority of evangelicals for there to be a tipping point,” Katelyn Beaty, an editor at large of Christianity Today, told Religion News Service. “More than half of every church is women, and all those women are affected by comments about sexual assault.”
Apparently young evangelicals like Trump even less. Of 33 influential millennial evangelicals — both male and female — polled by Christianity Today, only one still supports Trump, online editor Kate Shellnutt told the New York Times. And at Liberty University in Virginia, run by Jerry Falwell, a student petition denouncing Trump and their university president’s support of him earned 2,500 signatures.
This #YesAllWomen movement is not uniquely an American revolution, either. Around the world, popular movements against sexual assault are uniting women. In Turkey, after a young college student by the name of Ozgecan Aslan was brutally murdered on a bus in late 2014 after resisting rape, the hashtag of her name went viral worldwide, with more than 3 million using it and sharing their own stories of harassment and abuse.
In Ukraine and Russia this past July, Anastasiya Melnychenko, the head of a Ukrainian human rights organization called Studena, became outraged at a Facebook post in which a man blamed a woman for her rape. She launched the hashtag #IamNotAfraidToSayIt, and it went viral. Thousands of women shared their stories.
“We do not have to make excuses. We are not to blame; a rapist is always to blame. I’m not afraid to talk. And I don’t feel guilty,” Melnychenko wrote.
In South Africa this summer, women shared their stories of rape with the #1in3 hashtag, referring to the statistical likelihood a South African woman is raped. The movement started after four women silently protested against President Jacob Zuma, who himself is accused of rape. In August, it was a top trending hashtag on Twitter for days.
In 2012, British feminist writer Laura Bates started a website campaign called the Everyday Sexism Project encouraging women to share their stories in an effort to document the abuse. The Twitter handle @everydaysexism now has 257,000 followers, and women from countries around the world have told their stories on her website. They also launched the hashtag #WhenIWas, which provided a window into women’s experiences of harassment and abuse. Within a few days, 20,000 people — mostly women — had shared the hashtag.
Bates immediately invoked the popularity of the hashtag to prove that women weren’t “overreacting” or “making it up.” This reaction explains why the Trump tape has had such a powerful response — it was the hard evidence women long felt they lacked.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser once mused, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” And so it is. Business as usual is over in American politics, by which we mean that misogyny is now a widely accepted disqualification for political office. This is not only on the right, where the GOP has been shocked into understanding that its female base will no longer stand up for misogynistic conservatives, but also on the left. If Bill Clinton were running for president in 2016, he would not be electable, period. This is a sea change for all with political ambitions in the United States.
It seems naïve to hope a unified women’s movement will emerge from this highly charged election season, but one thing that has happened is that the concept of “women’s issues” in the U.S. political discourse no longer simply includes abortion rights. That’s good for all women but is a double-edged sword for Hillary Clinton. Her husband’s own predatory behavior makes her unlikely to be an outspoken champion on this issue, and more’s the pity. She has remained tight-lipped, nearly silent, on the Trump tape and has halted noticeably from going beyond, “Who gets up at three o’clock in the morning to engage in a Twitter attack against a former Miss Universe?” And assuming she wins, and Trump fades into obscurity, the public’s attention might likely turn to the debate over the Supreme Court nomination and divide women all over again on the issue of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Though if her leadership at the State Department is any indicator, Clinton will push forward a bold agenda to advance issues affecting women — an agenda no doubt that will ride this current wave of interest and attention to women’s rights.
Regardless, the political landscape in the United States is forever changed, and it is important to mark this moment for the history books. Women are now telling the truth about what happens to them on a daily basis. With a media spotlight on the words that come from the mouths of men like Trump, it is also shining a light on the corruption of misogyny, and if he loses the election, every Trump-like man now knows his own ambition can be crucified for it. On Monday, NBC severed ties with Today show host Billy Bush, sending the message that such talk won’t be tolerated; on Nov. 8, his “boy talk” partner may find himself in the same position courtesy of the U.S. electorate. Although there is always backlash, it is crucial to recognize that men’s groups are also now stepping forward, such as the Amherst College men’s soccer team, who recently wrote in the Huffington Post to disavow the misogyny that is intertwined with American ideas of manhood.
Perhaps some men will rationalize that if only they avoid hot mics, they can have their misogyny and ambition both, but even the most die-hard among them must have winced to hear in public what they think in private. It really is ugly, and even they know it.
We all know it, and we’re all tired of it. On that, Americans — male and female, right and left, religious and secular — can agree.
This article was published in partnership with Across Women’s Lives at Public Radio International’s The World.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images