People still discussing the 2016 US election cycle five days later are deeply divided. It isn’t simply division by sex, because so many (white, heterosexual) women voted for Trump. And it isn’t simply division by a belief that women matter, because I am still arguing with male colleagues on the left, whom I truly believe care about women and women’s issues (just how much is the debate point, because the male left and the male right sound too much alike). The divide might best be framed as one between those who are female and who believe that all women’s lives matter, and those who can’t claim both.
That debate point: how ready are men in the US to see women as equals in status and worth? The logical conclusion from this election, for so very many women, is that men hate us even more than we suspected, and if we are multiply-oppressed (via race, class, being Lesbian, etc.) we are likely even more damned and despised. I used to think “women’s equality” was a low bar, and now I’m looking at it from the underside.
I saw equality as a low bar of achievement because I’d understood it to mean “equality with men” or being “as good as men, LIKE men.” Given the rapes and molestations and other sexualized and non-sexualized violence, and the love of hierarchy enacted the world over by men, equality didn’t appear much of a goal. It seemed even a step or two downward.
But this “equality” is maybe better framed as men seeing women as equals, since men hold the power under patriarchy. And they simply do not. This “equality” is a plea: the low bar I once derided is not even within our reach; we must beg for access. This is not what we felt a week ago, some relative autonomy giving way to shock over the horrifying possibilities of our futures. Instead, our country voted for the candidate who bragged about being a sexual predator, and somehow both women and men found him an acceptable candidate.
Seriously, we are positioned under patriarchy to have to beg men for levelness. Whereas we were set to at least have a woman as president, whatever her flaws, and to use populist pressure to shift her to the left, we found ourselves enduring brutal abuses of her, of other women, of girls, and of men of Color and of marginalized ethnicities and religions. And it increased throughout the campaign. Still, we thought, this country is not going to accept the misogyny and racism and hate outright — we’ve come too far, and have too much in place already, right?
One word: pornography. Pornography set the stage for women being seen as incompatible with leadership. Over the last decades our culture’s view of women has become one of utility (fuckable/ not fuckable) to men, rather than as individual beings in their own right or a collective and marginalized sex-caste. We feel this occasionally (or often) as we pass groups of men or overhear their banter, but many of us have been able to keep it on the periphery of our lives. Unless we’ve recently been raped or sexually harassed, of course. And now pornography has brought us a “First Lady” that a number of American men have seen naked, enjoyed seeing naked. We know because they have begun to brag about it on social media. Her oiled-body nude photos have made the rounds recently on Facebook, and men who are generally respectful of women have stepped aside in their support and cracked brotherly jokes about those photos. We have a new standard for American women, and it is one of objectification and subjugation — in short, hell.
And so we have women who understood that Hillary at least meant holding off the descent into hell, and who are now terrified for their lives. Because eating and shelter are not optional, because marginalization has gone from dangerous to deadly. And we have women who are traumatized by her opponent’s flagrant abuses played over and over in the media, and legitimized by the vote — women who have sobbed for days and who show all the classic PTSD signs, and if functional, only barely. We haven’t even admitted to ourselves the likely increase in the rape rate, in intimate violence against women and girls — except the rare cases where it has hit the news and social media.
Maybe the saddest thing of all is watching women on the left claim there was never any real difference between the candidates, or that it’s acceptable to hold Hillary to an absolutely impossible standard when no man has ever — EVER! — been held to the same. And yes, I would say that women who are still Hillary-bashing do not fit my side of the divide, where women’s lives truly matter. They refuse to see the damage that is possible. Worse, they appear to refuse to care.
Some of this is the baggage of racism, of classism, but some of it, I think, is borne of privilege, of the need to feel better-than in the face of despair. I want to help nurture discussion and deeper communication between women, especially, and leftists, overall. But we will have to face the issues honestly as we work to lessen the damage to the most-marginalized. Here I do mean poverty-class women, Lesbians, race- and ethnicity-marginalized women, and disabled women first.
We can set the agenda on the issues later. Right now we need to heal ourselves, become aware of those things we need that we are most likely to lose, and then settle ourselves for the long conversations. At least that’s what I see.