I always thought feminism and gender would be central issues during the first election to feature a woman with a 50-50 shot at the US presidency. But before the 2016 presidential race, I imagined the impetus for those conversations would be the woman candidate, her policies, and the possibilities her candidacy represented—not an opponent who boasts about sexually assaulting women on video.
In an election that could have been an inspiring opportunity to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and advance the national conversation around feminist causes, women have been forced to spend much of their energy contending with Donald Trump. The effect of the Republican nominee’s misogyny has been to put feminists, not to mention Clinton herself, in the position of playing defense rather than offense. The situation is incredibly depressing—and it perfectly encapsulates why it’s still so difficult for women to get ahead in 2016.
To be sure, the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy has been a topic of discussion this election cycle—but not so often, or with as much excitement, as one might expect. Writing for the BBC, Katty Kay suggests this may be because Clinton’s candidacy is old news, given her previous run for president back in 2008. More optimistically, she suggests that social progress may have led younger women to see a female president as an inevitability rather than a cause for outsize celebration.
But there’s another major reason that so many women are spending less time cheering the possibility of a female president and talking about ways to help more women break the glass ceiling and achieve equal pay, reproductive rights, affordable childcare and broad socioeconomic equality. Donald Trump has determined the national conversation throughout the election cycle. And his blatant, abundant sexism has left little room to celebrate Clinton or delve into a thorough discussion of how to advance feminism in the years ahead. We’re too busy hitting our heads against the wall.
A quick, by no means comprehensive review of the things that women have actually had to spend their time writing, Tweeting, Facebooking and otherwise attempting to educate people about this election cycle:
- Why groping women without their consent constitutes sexual assault
- Why boasting about sexual assault is not “locker room talk” in any kind of moral universe
- Why using a position of power to burst in on naked women in the process of changing backstage constitutes sexual assault
- Why it’s dehumanizing to call women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals”; rank their looks on a scale of 1 to 10; suggest that they have an expiration date above a certain age; and attempt to shame them into losing weight
- Why it’s unacceptable to suggest that you’d date your daughter if you weren’t related and to give other men your permission to speak about her in derogatory, sexist terms
- Why it’s racist to call a Latina woman “Miss Housekeeping”
The list goes on, and on, and on. But what all of these points have in common is that they are obvious. This is common sense, nonpartisan, baseline morality. You don’t have to identify as a feminist to understand that it’s always indefensible to put your hands on a woman without her consent. You don’t need to vote Democrat to understand that sexual harassment is bad, or take a gender studies course to understand that reducing women to their body parts suggests a fundamental refusal to see them as human beings.
This is not the level of discourse American culture should be at in 2016. And it’s not the kind of stuff you’d expect to be up for debate when a good percentage of Americans are ready to put a woman in the White House. Yet women and Anderson Cooper are reduced to reminding Donald Trump what the definition of sexual assault is because he, and far too many of his supporters, still don’t think women are worthy of basic respect.
As Molly Ball writes in a recent article for The Atlantic, it’s not a coincidence that Clinton finds herself going head-to-head with a man who epitomizes retrograde sexism. The most logical opponent for the first woman presidential candidate was always going to be a man who represented the entrenched misogyny that has defined so much of US history. Trump—“the cartoon of masculinity, the parody of machismo”—seems like a throwback to another era, the kind of man even the Mad Men suits might have thought crossed the line. And because he consistently drags public discourse down to his level, we all get stuck reviewing the fundamentals of human decency instead of dreaming big.
This is an old story. It’s how sexism has always held women back. It’s really hard to advance your career if the CEO of your cable news channel has institutionalized an atmosphere of sexual harassment. It’s tough to put yourself in high-profile positions when you know that you’re going to be attacked with rape threats and sexualized slurs simply for speaking in public. It’s difficult to come forward about sexual assault and try to stop powerful men from abusing other women when you know most people won’t want to believe you. And it’s tricky to develop the healthy sense of self-worth necessary to successfully pursue an education when you live in a society that’s constantly trying to tell you that your looks are the only thing that make you valuable, and where you’re always wondering what men are saying about you when you leave the room.
And so for a lot of feminists, despite Hillary Clinton’s prospects, this hasn’t been an inspiring election. It’s been a demoralizing one. The 2016 presidential campaign hasn’t shown us how far we’ve come. It’s shown us, in the form of Donald Trump, just how far we have to go.