Column

The Importance of Believing Women — Even When It’s Politically Inconvenient

When it comes to Joe Biden, feminists must uphold their values no matter what

Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

It’s not going to be easy, but feminists need to talk about Joe Biden.

As reporting on the sexual assault allegation against him uncovers new details — a former neighbor told Business Insider this week that accuser Tara Reade discussed the alleged incident decades ago — feminists are being put in a near-impossible position: Abandon our mantra to “believe women” and defend a man accused of serious misconduct, or speak out against him and in the process provide ammunition to a conservative movement fundamentally opposed to women’s autonomy.

Like many feminists, I’m terrified of Trump’s possible reelection; there is no overstating the damage that another term of his presidency would have on Americans and the world, especially the most vulnerable among us. But we can’t abandon our values out of fear. Doing so is not only wrong but would undercut all the credibility the women’s movement has built around #MeToo.

This is a test feminists have failed before. In the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton was impeached after lying about his relationship with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, mainstream women’s rights advocates were mostly absent or unhelpful as the then-22-year-old Lewinsky (Clinton was nearly 50) became a national punchline and was shamed worldwide. Observer at the time even published a conversation between high-profile feminist and female writers where one wondered, “Did Monica swallow or did she spit out” and another claimed that Lewinsky had “third-stage gum disease.” Betty Friedan, author of the iconic book The Feminine Mystique, called her some “some little twerp.”

In 2014, Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair about about the pain caused by this ostracism. “Given the issues at play — gender politics, sex in the workplace — you’d think they would have spoken up,” she wrote. “They didn’t. I understood their dilemma: Bill Clinton had been a president ‘friendly’ to women’s causes.”

That feminist-friendliness is why, when Clinton was accused of sexual harassment by Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey, well-known women’s rights advocates like Gloria Steinem came to his defense. In a 1998 New York Times op-ed, Steinem downplayed the allegations against Clinton as “clumsy” and “dumb” sexual passes. On Lewinsky, she wrote that despite the power imbalance, “welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”

Decades later, some feminists repeated the same kind of mistake when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was accused of rape by two Swedish women. Famed feminist author Naomi Wolf, for example, mocked the charges as being brought by “the dating police” and suggested the women were simply jealous and made the accusations out of “personal injured feelings.” Wolf also argued in The Guardian that the accusers should be named because to do otherwise was somehow unfeminist and infantilizing.

If Reade is smeared as a liar or opportunist by a movement that claims to believe women, what moral standing will we ever have again?

At the time, Assange’s accusers faced harassment, threats, and a global smear campaign. Conspiracy theorists even claimed they were CIA plants or “honeytraps” set to stop WikiLeaks and Assange. In another case of history repeating itself, similarly baseless accusations — that I won’t do you the disservice of linking to — are being made against Reade, claiming she is a Russian agent.

Feminists cannot afford to make these kinds of sloppy and cruel mistakes again. If Reade is smeared as a liar or opportunist by a movement that claims to believe women, what moral standing will we ever have again?

This week, we found out that Biden’s campaign sent around talking points on how surrogates should respond to Reade’s allegations; in addition to proclaiming his innocence, the document notes Biden’s longtime commitment to feminism. “He has spent his life fighting to end abuses of power against women,” it reads.

Of course, longtime support of women’s issues isn’t a defense against poor treatment of individual women. Some abusers, in fact, wield their feminist bona fides deliberately to elude suspicion. Feminists must not fall into the trap of ignoring individual women’s stories in exchange for broader political power. It not only runs counter to our most fundamental values around trusting women, but it’s also a strategy that has never — and will never — result in the progress we’re actually after.

I understand the fear, hesitation, and even anger that so many of us have right now. It’s infuriating to see men who have never cared about sexual assault suddenly come out of the woodwork and proclaim themselves defenders of women, especially when they seem keen to needle women who are terrified of losing their rights and democracy.

I’m as tired as anyone of women being made to answer for men’s bad behavior. It isn’t women’s job to defend or castigate Biden, but it is feminists’ responsibility to come to the aid of a woman who accuses a powerful man. We can listen to her story, believe her, and speak out about what Biden has done — not just to Reade, allegedly, but to the many women he has made feel uncomfortable or diminished over the years.

Doing all of this doesn’t mean we can’t vote for Biden. We can be loyal to our feminist values while recognizing the moral obligation we have to reduce harm and oust the dangerous bigot who currently sits in the White House. There’s plenty of ammunition to attack Trump that doesn’t require us to call a woman who has come forward about his opponent a liar. We can campaign against Trump without feigning enthusiasm for Biden.

I’m still furious, like many feminists, that we’ve been put in this position. It will be incredibly painful to watch as campaigns for the two men vying for the highest office trade barbs on who is the worse abuser. For years, women have had our rights rolled over or used as political trading cards — and this November, it will happen again. This time, though, we can be on the right side of history.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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