Feminism is back, with a vengeance, and you can thank Donald Trump for that. No, seriously. The pussy-grabbing scam artist, ignoramus, and vulgarian with zero government experience, who ran on “Lock her up!” and gold-plated racism, won the White House against a former US senator and secretary of state, a woman with many progressive and pro-woman positions who also happened to be sane and the most qualified candidate in living memory—and, adding insult to injury, who got more votes! It was the loudest wake-up call since alarm clocks were invented. Even plenty of women who didn’t like Hillary Clinton could see the problem with a “Hillary Sucks but Not Like Monica” T-shirt. The Trump campaign was like overhearing your co-workers and finding out that, while they might be polite to your face, they all agreed you were an incompetent moron who was sleeping with the boss—oh, and by the way, there’s blood coming out of your wherever.
Women have worked incredibly hard to come as far as they have. For the last 36 years, we’ve gotten more bachelor’s degrees than men. We’ve pushed our way—sometimes even litigated our way—into male-dominated jobs, from auto manufacturing and policing to the military and Congress. In 2017, for the first time, the majority of students entering medical school were female. Despite statistics showing stalled careers, unequal pay, male violence, and the persistence of the double day, we invested in hope. Think how much better our lives are than our mothers’ and grandmothers’, we told ourselves. Our daughters’ lives will be better still. It’s as though women’s liberation were a kind of conveyor belt, humming along automatically. There was no need, really, to get all angry and hostile and man-hating, or to use antiquated terms like “women’s liberation,” with all it implied about the sweeping nature of our subjection and the wild collective energy needed to escape it.
That’s over. The Women’s March set the tone for the resistance on the first full day of the Trump regime—by some measures the largest march in American history, from Washington, DC, and other major cities to small towns in the deep-red states. Who now remembers the male pundits who claimed that calling it a “Women’s March” would discourage men from attending, even though, as they were repeatedly reminded, men were officially invited? (I saw many there.) The name was the point: We’re running this show. This is about our issues—all of them. You be the auxiliaries, for a change. Women set the tone for the year—none of this “Let’s wait and see what Trump does, maybe he’s not so bad, and anyway, infrastructure!” Women continued to do the lioness’s share of political activism as the year went on: showing up at town halls, sending those postcards, making those phone calls, hosting those Huddles (the local meetings that came out of the march), and doing all that grassroots organizing. According to the app Daily Action, 86 percent of active callers to Congress were women—particularly middle-aged women, the most overlooked people in Punditland. Good old Mom, so boring, so ordinary, so unphotogenic! A lot of them were big Hillary supporters, and I’m still waiting for the major-media coverage of how they feel and what they think. (“Tune in tonight, when we go to Teaneck, New Jersey, to check in with Debbie Levine and her book club—one year later, how are they coping?”) But I suppose that won’t happen as long as there are small-town diners full of angry white men in MAGA hats.
Now life’s coming at us fast. Some people scoffed at the resistance when Jon Ossoff lost in Georgia—but his campaign showed how much pent-up rage and energy there was among Democratic women. I know people who virtually moved to Georgia to go door-to-door. As my colleague Joan Walsh has written, local women who were previously apolitical, or who were Democrats but avoided discussing politics in order to keep the peace among friends and neighbors, became activists overnight. It turned out their PTA-honed networking skills were invaluable. Women were crucial in subsequent Democratic wins, including Ralph Northam’s for governor of Virginia and Phil Murphy’s for governor of New Jersey. Virginia voters nearly did the unthinkable, turning a 66–34 Republican majority in the state House of Delegates to a slim 51–49 lead. (It would have been a 50–50 stalemate had a tie-breaking draw in one district gone the other way). In the process, they elected a historic number of women, up from 17 to 28.
Women aren’t just voting in huge numbers; they are running for office, too. Five hundred women have declared their candidacy for congressional or gubernatorial seats in 2018. And just as the holidays brought 2017 to a merciful close, Doug Jones secured an astonishing victory over accused sexual predator Roy Moore in Alabama. Mothers don’t look kindly on molesters of teenage girls—who knew?
But electoral politics isn’t the whole story. #MeToo also has its roots in the post-Trump awakening. After all, there have been plenty of male celebrities credibly accused of multiple sexual aggressions—Bill Cosby comes to mind—who did not spark a mass movement of women speaking out about their own experiences of sexual harassment and molestation. Now, all of a sudden, it’s zero-tolerance time: Famous and powerful men, from Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose to Mario Batali and Garrison Keillor, are going down at a headlong pace. You wake up and wonder who will be all over the news today. It’s like the French Revolution, without the guillotine. And along the way, we’re finally getting a glimpse of what was always going on behind the scenes: Who knew so many men enjoyed waving their penises at female subordinates? According to a Unite Here survey, 49 percent of hotel maids in Chicago have opened a room door to be greeted by a naked man, or have seen guests otherwise expose themselves.
#MeToo helps answer the question of why women haven’t made more progress in the workplace in the 40-odd years since feminism’s second wave succeeded in abolishing most formal barriers to gender equality on the job. Maybe, we’re learning, it’s basically because too many men—#NotAllMen, to be sure—don’t want them there, except as underlings and sex objects. We talk all the time about the men who are losing their careers (though I still think the most profitable and well-connected will return after a much-publicized stint in therapy), but the subject remains haunted by the women who never got to have theirs, the brilliant women who were driven out of careers they’d worked for years to enter, or who found themselves mysteriously sidelined, little by little, and have ended up, at age 50, eking out a freelance living while the men they started out with are running the world. When it comes to educated women’s stagnation at work, the underlying story line has always been that women are the problem: They’re either doing their careers wrong and need to negotiate/dress/network better; or they don’t have the right stuff for success, whether it’s as scientists or chefs or game designers or senators; or they do have the right stuff—girls can do anything, as Barbie says—but opt to stay at home with their kids and raise chickens in the backyard, because capitalism sucks. Now it turns out that those women may have never had a real chance. They never enjoyed the same opportunities that the men had at work; or they were worn to a frazzle trying to deal with the small daily humiliations of working for a handsy manipulator like Leon Wieseltier; or they were quietly blackballed in their industry if they made a fuss about it; or they came to doubt their abilities because they were constantly being undermined, both professionally and psychologically.
Meanwhile, their male co-workers—who didn’t have to deal with any of this—sailed on. Louis CK didn’t force them to watch him masturbate as the price of mentorship. Mark Halperin didn’t rub his penis on their shoulders. Matt Lauer didn’t summon them to his office and push a secret button to lock the door. That must have been nice. But the corollary is that the men we see around us today, with the big careers and the confidence to match, may have taken spaces that were pre-cleared for them by harassment—which is, legally, let’s not forget, a form of sex discrimination.
If one of 2017’s lessons is that the rage of women is truly a marvel to behold, another is that it’s important not to speak of “women” as if they were all white, educated, middle-class professionals. Black women are the ones making the difference at election time: They went 91 percent for Northam, 94 percent for Murphy, and 98 percent for Jones. Indeed, the failure to reach out early and energetically to the black community was one of the problems with Ossoff’s campaign: In a segregated district, neighbor to neighbor and PTA mom to PTA mom have their limits. A party or movement that doesn’t acknowledge the centrality of black women is missing everything about this moment.
It’s also important not to think of “women” as if they were all feminists—or to assume they would be if only feminists weren’t so urban, elitist, irreligious, and bent on killing babies. There are millions of conservative women: rich Republicans whose first priority is lower taxes and less regulation; racists and xenophobes who think people of color are ruining America; conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants who think that abortion is murder and women belong under men’s thumb (although they wouldn’t put it quite like that). According to exit polls, 63 percent of white women supported Roy Moore. It’s rather conceited to think that all these women, and maybe their menfolk too, just haven’t heard the word from the right humble, neighborly, downhome-speaking woke person yet. Maybe, just like us, they actually believe what they say they do and have complex, self-interested, sometimes tribal reasons for it, just as we do. These are not 19th-century farmers getting their news a month late at the general store; they have access to the same range of information that we do. It’s a choice to watch Fox News, to belong to a church that preaches wifely submission, to spread racist memes on Facebook, to scorn global warming as fake news. The amount of political energy it would require to pry Trump’s base voters away from their chosen way of life—because that is what we’re talking about, a whole way of life embedded in geography, racial resentment, sexism, and Jesus—could be so much better spent revitalizing the Democratic Party by fighting voter disenfranchisement, registering voters, and mobilizing low-income people, especially people of color, who already support our politics but have fallen off the map.
None of this is to deny that 2017 was in many ways a terrible year for women’s rights. The Department of Health and Human Services is now a vipers’ nest of anti-choice and anti-contraception ideologues, and in October, the Trump administration rescinded the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has begun to dismantle Title IX protections for students who claim to have been sexually assaulted. At least 19 abortion clinics closed last year. The Justice Department engaged in a highly publicized fight to prevent an undocumented teenager from getting an abortion. The Office of Management and Budget scrapped a mandate that employers report wages by gender and race to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While protest grabs the headlines, backlash grinds on.
But to end on a positive note, a group of Hollywood actresses, lawyers, and entertainment executives has pledged $13 million to support working-class women in their struggles against sexual harassment. Merriam-Webster picked “feminism” as its 2017 word of the year. 2018 could well see a wave of victories in the midterm elections that would limit Trump’s ability to advance his regressive, racist, plutocratic agenda. And if this year turns out to be anything like the last, women will be heading that charge.