Of all the disheartening alerts that lit up my phone on November 21st (the end of net neutrality, nuclear arms anxiety, tensions with North Korea), only one, upon impact, managed to paralyze me. As I dropped out of suspension from the daily grind, my hands left my keyboard to swipe right on the haunting notification: ‘Trump all but endorses Roy Moore.’ As I read on, a series of horrified aspirations pinpointed the moment each of my female colleagues registered the direct hit we, as women, had just taken from the President of the United States. It’s only taken a year to readjust our threshold for trauma. Our demanding jobs, and our will to thrive, require us to filter most of it out while we work or at least wait list it for triage. Rarely do we jump from our seats to discuss ‘what just happened.’ But this news drew many of the women in my office together immediately. We coalesced from the cells of our sprawling workstations and agreed, ‘This is a declaration of war on women.’
‘He totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And look, you have to look at him also.’
‘He’s run eight races and this has never come up. Forty years is a long time.’
I suppose it seems odd that we could still be so shaken by anything this President does or says. Why take his overt sexism personally, now? It’s precisely because it is now that we do. The statements the President made in justification of Moore’s endorsement might as well have been transmissions received from an alternate universe–a universe that isn’t currently drowning under the diluvian implication of each #metoo. While the #metoo movement has been scrubbing the ‘veneer of civilization’ from the reputation of so many powerful and iconic men, many of us have been watching–maybe less surprised than our male counterparts–and waiting to see if this high noon will ultimately illuminate the bigger picture: within the nucleus of each ‘shocking’ allegation lurks the DNA of systemic oppression. The men who are losing their jobs did not operate in a vacuum. These patterns of abuse do not develop in a twilight zone; they are hatched in the dominant narrative and nurtured by a capitalist system. The fact that there are so many disturbing stories of assault bears witness to a much deeper problem.
More and more women are taking advantage of this moment to strike while the iron is hot. The gravity of the sheer mass of women simultaneously coming forward bends the light towards it. The solidarity that we forge by speaking our truth is steering a paradigm shift. The momentum fuels itself–as we are confronted with more stories of sexual assault, we must confront our own–and the realization that we have been so disenfranchised that we have internalized the oppression, failing to speak truth to power, each other, and too often ourselves. In the wake of Weinstein, Cosby, Rose, Ailes, O’Reilly, etc, it should be self-evident that citing ‘complete denial’ and a 40-year-accusation-free track record as more defensible than the corroborated allegations of Moore’s accusers is so tone-deaf it inoculates itself against satire. The words Trump used to defend Moore implicitly repudiate the existence of a system that not only prevents women from being heard, but also from speaking up in the first place. Trump’s endorsement of Moore was a direct assault on all women in the US. On November 21st, every newborn future woman in the States received her #metoo wings.
Of course, Trump’s defense of Moore mirrors his own denial of allegations that surfaced during the presidential campaign last year. He discredited the sexual assault and harassment claims made by at least 12 women as ‘total fiction’ and threatened to retaliate against ‘all of those liars’ with lawsuits after the election was over. He went further and attacked all women by stating his disbelief that ‘these things’ (ie sexual assault) ‘happen with many people.’ When the media recently pushed the White House to revisit the allegations against the President, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued the Executive Branch’s official position: the American people already cleared Trump’s name when they voted him into office. Case closed!
Trump could’ve stopped at ‘all but endorsing’ Moore, but true to his eponymous brand, proceeded to ace himself by declaring that Doug Jones, Moore’s Democratic opponent, was ‘the last thing we need.’ By implying a child molesting Senator was less repugnant than losing a vote for a tax plan which would disproportionately devastate the lives of poor, women of color, the President doubled down on his war against women and the very community that started the #metoo movement. Ten years ago, Tarana Burke, an African-American woman and activist, listened to a 13 year old girl recount her story of sexual abuse. This experience led her to the realization that two words had the power to heal and ‘empower through empathy.’ In her fight to amplify some of the most marginalized voices in America—those of working class, women of color—she minted a rallying cry that would resonate with women as a whole across the country. For me, the deafening roar of ‘Me Too’ is not a demand that each individual woman be personally vindicated, but that half of its population has been living under a systemic oppression so pervasive, that we’ve internalized it into a silent pandemic. I qualify with ‘for me’ to avoid rewriting the meaning for anyone else. I understand that not all women suffer oppression the same way as immigration status, race and class play a huge role. We are all affected by sexism, but not in the same way.
It is no surprise that the President appears not to grasp the bigger story being written by the #metoo campaign, just as he appears to miss the real message behind NFL players taking a knee and the Black Lives Matters movement. This is a man we’ve all heard bragging about committing sexual assault, filing it under ‘boys will be boys,’ then reportedly denying the authenticity of the recording itself. This is a President who, in one year, has rolled back protections against on-campus sexual assault, cut access to contraceptives and female health services, has put the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and $800 billion in Medicaid on the chopping block with his proposed tax cuts, removed a fact sheet on the Violence Against Women Act from the White House’s website, instituted a ‘Global Gag Rule’ which will result in an increase of incidental deaths of women in developing nations, aborted a bill designed to narrow the gender pay gap, and reversed a law that prevented government-contracted employers from silencing victims of sexual abuse in the workplace. This is a President who equated anti-racist protestors with white nationalist terrorist organizations following the tragedy in Charlottesville, and who on September 14th, while signing legislation explicitly designed to reject and combat ‘White nationalism, White supremacy, and neo-Nazism’ failed to explicitly mention all three campaigns of hate. This is a President whose sexist, racist and anti-working class statements and policies result in a triple-threat assault on working class women of color.
So far, the media’s focus has been on the abrupt demise of well-known male power brokers. We’ve learned of the extensive and exotic tools wielded by wealthy men like Harvey Weinstein to silence his victims. We’ve learned how the methods for reporting sexual misconduct within Congress seemed to have served the accused more than they protected the victims, how the potentially reprehensible behavior of men in Congress may have been buried by protocol, and that millions of taxpayer dollars may have been used to keep their transgressions a secret and their victims silent. But if any of this public drama is going to swell into a real sea change for all women, we need to be honest about who in America is most likely to face this kind of abuse and exploitation over and over again.
The human resources protocols of the government, institutions and numerous successful companies have drawn criticism recently, but what tools do women working at small businesses have at their disposal? Small businesses employ almost 50% of workers in the private sector. Women working in support positions at a company of a few, often find themselves alone with the boss in compromising spaces and situations. Undocumented women not only worry that speaking out may get them fired, but could also result in deportation (an even scarier threat for mothers). There is no media outlet that cares about their invisible life.
Consider that mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18. For Black mothers, that number jumps to 74 percent, and for 55 percent of Black families in America, mothers are the only parent. Consider that women make less than men in every industry, even though more than 39 percent of women work in occupations where women make up at least three-quarters of the workforce. Consider the fact that mothers who work full-time are still putting in more unpaid hours in child care, elder care and housework compared to their male counterparts. Consider how the intersectionality of racial, gender and class related disenfranchisement compounds to put the most invisible women in our society at the highest risk for abuse. How realistic do you think it is for women with no buffer in their bank account, no available credit, who some weeks pay out more in child care than they bring home, to stop everything and figure out how to build a legal case against their boss? What bargaining power does an undocumented or incarcerated woman have to negotiate a space free from sexual abuse?
My deepest hope is that the a-ha moment at the end of the flood, is a realization that the bigger story isn’t just about sexual assault. Sexual assault is the last link in a long chain of violence, perpetrated by a patriarchal capitalist system. The answer to the real problem will not be found in semantic debates over the definitions of ‘rape,’ ‘assault,’ or ‘bad manners,’ but through a holographic understanding of the mechanisms of systemic oppression. Systemic oppression gets internalized by individuals over time through a daily cluster of experiences that range from the insidious to the overt, the sequestered to the abetted; the messages we receive as young girls which prime us to acquiesce easily as adults. We must understand the mechanisms of a corrupt, capitalist system— and the politicians who keep it working for them—which inflict the institutionalized violence of mass incarceration and economic exploitation. It is clear to me that we cannot trust the Democrats to dismantle the mechanisms that mostly work to their advantage but continue to reproduce a gross power imbalance in our lives.
Writing this article, and reading articles written by many other women over the past few weeks, was a crucial first step for me. Working harder to identify specific mechanisms of oppression and seeking to understand how they manifest outside my personal realm of experience, has empowered me to disrupt my own engendered habits of complicity. Breaking the silence and learning more is a step. The next steps for me include proactively seeking ways to fight discrimination and gender bias in my own workplace, and working with others to build an intersectional movement beyond the internet to dismantle the racist, sexist capitalist system.
Devon Zink works full-time in fine art logistics. She is a writer, artist and amateur urban ecologist living in East Flatbush. She would like to thank the NYC DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group for helping her grapple with these issues.