Women Aren't Political Tools

Sexual harassment shouldn't be about politics. The GOP is making it that way.

Yesterday, New York Attorney General Leticia James released her office’s long-awaited report on the sexual harassment allegations against Andrew Cuomo. It’s even worse than what had been previously reported, outlining a long pattern of harassment and intimidation, and pointing a finger not just at Cuomo, but at an entire team of people who protected him and tried to save him from himself when he didn’t — at the expense of the women he mistreated.

In the wake of #MeToo, I’m glad that many of us have been more open to considering the question of how we balance women’s rights with issues of fairness and due process in allegations of sexual assault and harassment. But I’m also increasingly frustrated with how both concepts — women’s rights and due process — have been used by the right to protect their own while attacking progressives and liberals.

Feminists (and Democrats) are not a united bunch, and our responses to #MeToo have not been identical. But overwhelmingly, the message has been: Believe women. That has not meant “believe all women no matter what” or “women never lie.” It has been a demand to weigh a woman’s word on the same scale as a man’s; to trust, but verify. And even that hasn’t really happened — over and over, there have to be multiple or even double-digit numbers of accusers before sexual harassment and assault accusations against powerful men are taken seriously.

But conservatives have latched onto the false claim that feminists said “believe ALL women” as evidence of our hostility toward due process — that is, when the accusations are against people like Donald Trump and other popular right-wing figures.

When the accusations are against Democrats and progressives, the standards flip — then, all of a sudden, conservatives who have made careers out of misogyny are leading the feminist charge to hold badly-behaving men accountable. It’s transparent and it’s cynical, but they certainly don’t care.

Feminists should, though, because the more #MeToo accusations are politicized and weaponized for political gain, the more women lose. There’s a through line here, too, with ongoing debates about abortion rights, and the shift in right-wing rhetoric. “Women who have abortions are evil baby-killers” didn’t play particularly well, especially after a bunch of pro-life maniacs murdered women and doctors. The reality of the “pro-life” plan — criminal penalties for abortion, already a reality in many countries in the world where women go to jail for ending their pregnancies or even having miscarriages — also isn’t particularly popular when you break it all down. So a now-common line is that “abortion hurts women.” Conservatives, who have done little to nothing to advance any women’s rights cause, position themselves as the true protectors of women when it comes to abortion. If the problem is that having a baby means you won’t be able to afford to take care of your existing kids, or that you’ll have to drop out of school, or that you won’t be able to work and pay rent or work toward your dreams and aspirations, then that’s a problem with the system, not with the pregnancy — and ending the pregnancy isn’t a solution, goes the now-standard pro-life line. Not that they’re offering a better solution, and in fact they’re working pretty hard to tear up what’s left of a social safety net that would help women in need, but here’s a phone number for a crisis pregnancy center that will give you a few week’s worth of free diapers. And once the baby is born, well — you’re a welfare queen, not a pro-life hero.

In other words, anti-abortion conservatives have co-opted the language of feminism in order to undermine women’s actual rights and freedoms — forced pregnancy is not actually any part of the feminist dream, and it’s not at all compatible with women’s emancipation. What’s truly gross is that you know they don’t even believe the words coming out of their mouths. They don’t care if “abortion hurts women” (if they did, they’d be advocating for a generous welfare state, comprehensive sex ed in schools, and free highly effective contraception methods to be universally available, as those are the most tried-and-true ways of decreasing the abortion rate). They care about getting their way — about putting women back in our collective place — even as they know their ends are wildly unpopular. So they use our language, which is.

The same thing is happening with the Cuomo story. It’s clear to me, after reading the 165-page report from AG James, that Cuomo should resign. I’m glad Joe Biden demanded he do so, and I’m glad that there was a full, independent investigation instead of a knee-jerk reaction.

But I’m disgusted to see many of the usual right-wing figures jumping in not to demand accountability for all men who harass and abuse women, but to make absurd pronouncements and demand consequences from Democratic men that they simply don’t require of their own side. New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik’s tweets are among the most egregious — she demands that Cuomo be arrested, complete with panicked emergency symbols — but are far from the only examples of Republicans who caped for men including Trump and Matt Gaetz, and who are only interested in holding men accountable when those men are Democrats.

We have already seen a brewing backlash on the Democratic side, with similarly cynical people claiming that accusations against Democrats are all about politics —that is in fact what Cuomo himself is arguing. Luckily, other elected Democrats, prominent political voices, and Democratic voters simply aren’t falling for it, and are saying that, in light of the clear facts on the table, Cuomo should resign (whether he should face criminal penalties strikes me as a stretch, but that is a different question). But when Republicans have faced similarly credible claims, their party has rallied around them, and accused Democrats and feminists of playing politics.

The result is that a lot of Americans now do see sexual assault accusations as a political cudgel, and do doubt women who accuse prominent men. The GOP has shown it does not hesitate to politicize women’s bodies, lives, and pain for power and political gain, and will not hesitate to cause women more pain and suffering. And we are increasingly living in a country where the political affiliation of an alleged harasser or assailant is a key factor in whether or not they face consequences, and certainly key in whether their own party investigates thoroughly or closes ranks.

Sexual harassment and assault are not partisan acts, and people across the political spectrum commit them, cover them up, and suffer from them. But the response to accusations of sexual harassment and assault is increasingly partisan. And it’s women —including the conservative women who often know better than to even try to speak out — who lose.

xx Jill

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Photo by Pat Arnow via WikiCommons