Maybe One Day a Woman’s Word Will Be Enough

What if women started to believe each other—and found power in the process?

A demonstration against the confirmation Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, 2018. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of the biggest turning points in America around domestic violence wasn’t a public-awareness campaign or a piece of legislation — it was an instant camera. In the 1980s, thanks to Polaroid pictures, women in hospitals and shelters could immediately take shots of their injuries and use them in court if they wanted their abusers prosecuted.

Sometimes, though, the Polaroids never even saw the light of day. Women kept them tucked away in a safe or in the back of their closet — just in case. The pictures were proof of their suffering, of the violence that was happening in their own home.

Most important: the Polaroids were tangible and lasting, something that could prop up the public or private testimony of women, who are so often disbelieved or doubted when recounting their own experiences.

The truth is that a woman’s word alone has never been enough. We’ve always needed pictures, or witnesses, or some sort of irrefutable proof that — in a country where we believe and protect men even when logic and evidence damn them — doesn’t really exist.

Over the last 10 years, that’s started to show signs of changing — and it has men on the right running scared.

In the same way that the Polaroid camera enacted a cultural shift around domestic violence, so too did the internet for women’s voices and experiences around sexual violence. The rise of feminist blogs, social media, and first-person essays where women share their stories has meant that more women are speaking out than ever before — and that other women can read those stories, affirm them, and see themselves in them. Naturally, women’s demand to be taken seriously and to be listened to has always been there — but the internet has made that demand more urgent and more difficult to ignore. #MeToo, a movement created years ago by Tarana Burke and made mainstream via social media more recently, demonstrated how trusting women en masse could change the shape of our country. At the very least, women were starting to believe each other — and that in itself had power. But most impactful was that influential white men started to be fired and held accountable — a change in political pace that was terrifying to a lot of people.

And so when the backlash began, it started right in the most important place — women’s word.

There’s a reason that the most resounding and viral motto of the modern anti-sexual violence movement is “Believe women.” It’s the recognition that underneath the policy debates, anti-violence laws, and cultural progress, the foundational shift that needs to happen is simple but radical trust in women. That listening to women and bearing witness to their experiences — and having faith in their stories — could be the antidote to the American default of men’s word trumping all else.

Women were starting to believe each other — and that in itself had power.

That’s why it was so telling that this simple request — believe women — became deliberately distorted by conservatives and those afraid of women’s progress. Those invested in the backlash to #MeToo insisted that feminists wanted Americans to “believe all women,” a seemingly small change to the original call to action that completely misrepresented what women were really asking for.

Whereas “believe women” is a plea for justice and fairness, “believe all women” implies one should blindly believe women’s stories about sexual violence despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a one-word bomb.

Bari Weiss, a New York Times opinion editor, was one of the first to distort the phrase, characterizing it as “the huntresses’ war cry.” “[I] can’t shake the feeling that this mantra creates terrible new problems in addition to solving old ones,” she wrote.

In response, writer Rebecca Traister homed in on what was so troubling about Weiss’ claim: “‘Believe all women’ is NOT A THING. Weiss has pumped it up from the original ‘believe women’ to make the ‘huntresses’ sound even more threatening. This is exactly the process many of us have been talking about: transformation of women into the aggressors.”

Indeed, a pivotal part of the backlash to #MeToo — which at the time was outing individual abusers at record speed — was to paint victimized women as vengeful and unhinged. Even more: painting them as the ones with real power.

Even though the men being accused had vast amounts of wealth or public profile — from world-renowned journalists and TV personalities to famous comedians — the right was managing to make it seem like it was women with all the power. As if it were possible that a woman who had risked everything by coming forward was somehow more powerful than a man who had millions of dollars or a well-respected career.

When claiming that women coming forward had all the power became a fiction too ridiculous to be believable, conservatives tried a different line of attack. When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, for example, accused now Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, the right knew that they could not frame Ford — who was likeable and compelling — as power hungry or as part of a witch hunt lest they be seen as sexist. Instead of attacking the truthfulness of her words, they focused on her memory. She wasn’t a liar, just “mistaken.” The meaning was the same: her word could not be trusted.

To be clear, this kind of shift from Republicans and conservatives would not have happened if Ford weren’t white, attractive, deferential, and a professor. Women’s word and believability are inextricably tied to their identity — women of color, low-income women, Native women, immigrant women, and others in marginalized communities are not just disbelieved; they are also not defended from being called liars in the same way that more privileged women often are.

This conservative obsession with women’s believability, along with the sharp turn in cultural progress women have made, is likely to continue. The backlash has picked up more steam since the 2016 presidential election, and the focus on the power of women’s word alone has intensified. But so has women’s determination to make sure we don’t lose footing.

When Moira Donegan created and circulated the now infamous Shitty Media Men list in 2017, for example — a crowdsourced document shared among women so they could warn each other about potential predators in their industry — the criticism was that men were being maligned without evidence, based only on a woman’s word. (Since the list was anonymous, the usual ire and harassment that women face when they come forward was aimless.) In the months following the list’s release, however, several men who were named ended up being fired for their behavior — not because their accusers were believed unreservedly, but because their word was taken seriously. They were listened to, their accusations were investigated, and in many cases they were found serious enough to warrant action.

Now when women come forward, the media pays attention. There doesn’t need to be a dozen of us to tell our stories to be trusted, just one.

Trusting women’s word is literally starting to change the trajectory of men’s lives. That’s not to say there’s been justice; Justice Kavanaugh and Donald Trump remind us of that every day. Women are still disbelieved, men are still given the benefit of the doubt. But the fact that our word is starting to scare the powerful, and that we are demanding that we be taken seriously without a Polaroid in our hand or a witness by our side — it means something. It means that maybe there will be a day when our voices, our word alone, will be enough.

Excerpted from Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman. Copyright © 2020. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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