I woke up in Washington, DC, the morning of January 20, 2017, to the sound of screaming sirens, and I found myself thinking the unthinkable: Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe President Obama has found a way to stop the inauguration of Donald Trump. The Russia story was on fire, with reports of Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, communicating with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, not to mention the lurid (but increasingly well-founded) “dossier” published by Buzzfeed. There were still questions about voting irregularities in Michigan and Wisconsin. What if the Obama administration had found clear evidence that the election had been rigged, whether by the American right or Russia (or perhaps both)? Wouldn’t it be right to hit the pause button before acceding to that injustice?
That’s right: I momentarily preferred the thought of waking up to a civil emergency, or maybe worse, than to the Trump presidency. I immediately despised myself: Buck up, get out of bed, go report the news. What kind of small-d democrat are you, that you just might prefer an intervention by the outgoing president, undoing an election, however flawed or possibly rigged it was (see, I’m still making excuses for myself), to living under President Trump? I realized that I was terrified of losing something profound—a sense that, at heart, this is a good country—and grieving over all the hard work to make it better that was about to be undone. But I got out of bed anyway and walked into the maelstrom.
I joined the millions of Americans who snubbed the inauguration ceremony and walked instead, in a grim drizzle, to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. I needed to be reminded of how many wrong turns the arc of the moral universe takes before it bends towards justice. As I walked, I saw them: the pink hats. Women were already streaming into Washington for the Women’s March the next day, their pink hats vivid against the dull grey sky, and it was glorious.
The next morning, I walked out into the bright sunshine of the actual march, and my despair almost immediately evaporated, like an emotional vampire vanquished by sunlight and righteous women. We walked and sang and chanted and wrapped crime-scene police tape around the Trump Hotel. My contingent of happy strangers stopped the arrest of a young, black anti-Trump protester. The seemingly never-ending march wound up walking me all the way home, to the apartment where I’d awakened in grief and rescue fantasies just 36 hours before. I had dinner with a group of feminists I love and felt better than I had since November 7. We women would prevail—without extra-legal intervention by anybody.
I am here to deliver the sad news that one year in, this presidency is even worse than I had imagined. On the bright side: The woman-powered resistance is more vital and brilliant and powerful than I ever dreamed. Yet I’m still not sure which side will prevail.
The first week of his presidency, The Nation made a list of all the horrible things Trump had done in just seven days. We kept it up for a while, but we didn’t have the staff power to continue. (I’m grateful for this Washington Post list of Trump’s lies.) Also, it’s just been so hard to know what matters most.
For a time I joined in the high-minded effort to get people to ignore Trump’s tweets. He could shift the news cycle with a crackpot remark. Wasn’t it just a distraction? But when he’s threatening North Korea with nuclear war, or skirting obstruction of justice with menacing messages to fired FBI Director James Comey, his tweets are news. They’re factoring into lawsuits against the travel ban and his rescission of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Unfortunately, his tweets are must-reads, and sometimes even correctly drive the news cycle.
That argument to ignore his tweets (one almost nobody is making anymore) had a noble purpose: To focus us on Trump’s terrible policy moves and to avoid being gaslit by this lying liar of a president. But that is almost impossible to do. Just this week, there’s been a controversy over what’s amusingly been labeled “girtherism” (a play on Trump’s ugly racist birtherism): the widely debated notion that the White House doctor might have embellished the truth, at the very least, when he called the president’s health “excellent” 10 times in a press briefing on Tuesday. Medical experts like CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta immediately weighed in, saying the physician’s report at minimum included evidence of heart disease, which would seem incompatible with a version of “excellent” health.
But who cares if he’s fat? I’ve gained 10 pounds during this presidency. Are we fat-shaming now? What matters here? Of course, it’s the likelihood that Trump is lying, and possibly making others lie for him. Is his doctor prevaricating? Or maintaining plausible deniability by not knowing certain facts by not personally measuring Trump’s height or weight or body mass index? The real problem isn’t the president’s weight, or even his health. It is his constant gaslighting, which threatens the health of our democracy.
In the same week as the girther controversy, we’ve debated whether in a meeting with members of Congress Trump called African nations “shitholes,” “shithouses,” or calmly declared “I want a merit-based immigration policy.” The last possibility, floated by some conservatives, is a flat-out lie. Homeland Security director Kirstjen Nielsen played dumb about the president’s comments, only admitting to “rough language” on “both sides”—harking back to another awful Trump moment, when he claimed the violent march of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, in which a white nationalist murdered a counter-protester with his car, was caused by “both sides.” Nielsen was reduced to telling Congress that she didn’t know for certain that Norway, the country the president praised, was predominantly white. The gaslighting is terrible; so is the way he then makes others complicit in his gaslighting.
Asked to name the worst abuse in a year of Trumpism, Obama ethics czar Norm Eisen said this, which I cosign:
To me the biggest is his incessant lying. After all, you can’t have ethics without honesty, and just 16 percent of what Trump says is true or mostly true. His worst lies are those about that pillar of our democracy: opposition and dissent. Whether it is his false attacks on the press, law enforcement, the intelligence community, or Democrats, the president is using distortion and misrepresentation to squeeze the space for disagreement. The normal brakes of honesty and decency do not stop him. It is nothing less than an assault on truth itself—and the attack in that value underlies so much else that is wrong with this administration.
Yet the very same week we obsessed over the truth of his words and his weight, we witnessed, and perhaps inadequately acknowledged, the impact of Trump’s presidency on real policies and actual people. We saw a father, Jorge Garcia, stripped from his tearful family and deported to Mexico after having lived in this country for 30 years since coming here without documents at age 9. We saw a majority of the National Parks Service advisory board resign over Trump’s ignoring their input and shrinking the parks. We learned that 60 percent of the State Department’s top-ranking diplomats have left in Trump’s first year. Kentucky became the first state to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. NBC’s Suzy Khimm revealed that the EPA has quietly overhauled and weakened the process it uses to greenlight new chemicals, whether used in cleaning products, manufacturing, or children’s toys.
The Supreme Court, with its conservative 5-4 majority (thanks to Trump’s appointment of conservative Neil Gorsuch after Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell stole the seat from Obama nominee Merrick Garland), overturned a lower-court decision finding North Carolina’s ugly gerrymandering plan both racist and illegal. The list—true “American carnage,” in Trump’s dystopian inaugural words—goes on as I write. It may be intellectually impossible to take in everything awful he’s done; it’s certainly psychologically debilitating.
And yet: After a supremely talented woman was robbed of the presidency by one of the worst men in the world, women nevertheless rose up to save that world. (You’re welcome.) The power of the Women’s March endured, keeping me from sinking under the wave of lies and awful deeds. Feminist Democratic political candidates have stepped up like never before: The roster of women contacting Emily’s List, the powerful PAC for pro-choice Democratic women, to ask advice about running for office is up to 26,000 and counting; the number was under 1,000 the year before Trump. And when women ran in 2017, they tended to win. Emily’s List endorsed 65 Democratic women in an electoral off-year, and 42 of them won—13 of them in Virginia alone. Of the 35 successful first-time candidates supported by the fledgling Run for Something, a majority were women.
The Virginia story was easily the highlight of a dismal year. It helped the Democrats surge back from a 66-34 deficit to a 51-49 near-tie. The victors included the state’s first Latina delegate, its two first Asian women, its first out lesbian, first AFSCME member, first public defender—plus a breakout national star in Danica Roem, the first transwoman to serve in any state legislature. At the county fair in rural Stafford in August, I watched that public defender, Jennifer Carroll Foy (who happens to be African American), reach out for the vote of a stunned white man in a Confederate flag T-shirt. I doubt she got his support, but she won running away November 7.
Even before the Virginia story emerged, I got a glimpse of the powerful feminist electoral backlash to Trump’s victory while covering the special Congressional election in the Atlanta suburbs, where women powered the near-upset candidacy of newcomer Jon Ossoff back in April. In Newt Gingrich’s former district, Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb connected women at preschool meetings and soccer games to Democratic party activism. It was pretty breathtaking. Then came the more radical women-led Pave It Blue. They were joined by a women-powered local Indivisible chapter, which consciously sought to bridge the district’s racial divides, heal the remaining scars of the Clinton-Sanders primary battle, and also to include a few good men.
Indivisible leader Essence Johnson, who is black, said she was inspired by her local Women’s March, where Representative John Lewis spoke. But she was anguished, too. “I drove home through black neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods and saw so many people in poverty, I knew so many women were in shelters. We had white women in Range Rovers driving up to do voter outreach at bodegas. It wasn’t going to work.” She became Indivisible’s unpaid director of outreach.
When Ossoff lost, the women behind him were disappointed, but not discouraged. The leaders of the local Indivisible chapter have united behind the Georgia gubernatorial candidacy of Stacey Abrams, running to be the state’s first black governor (she happens to be running against a white woman, Stacey Evans, for the Democratic nomination). When I checked back in with Essence Johnson this Friday, she was busy: heading to file her paperwork to run for a state Senate seat. These Georgia women are fired up for 2018, and there are women like them all over the country.
Time’s Charlotte Alter has more detail, much of it from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University: At least 79 women are exploring runs for governor in 2018, which could double the historic record set in 1994. The number of Democratic women expected to challenge House incumbents has jumped from 41 in 2016 to almost 130 this year. They’re hugely outpacing Republican women: four times as many for the House, twice as many in the Senate. Of course there are divisions of race, class, and ideology among those women. We see it in that divisive Georgia governor’s race, which the black candidate, Abrams, is expected but not certain to win. But women candidates, and women voters, and especially black women voters, remain the best hope to make 2018 a referendum on the cruel mistake made in 2016.
Then came the stunning power of #MeToo. Again, there’s that paradox: the defeat of a talented woman by a self-confessed pussy grabber came as a gut punch, but it inspired a backlash against sexual harassment and abuse that prim Andrew Sullivan claims has “morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.” As if that’s a bad thing.
This phase of the movement was precipitated by reporting by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in The New York Times and Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker—along with the bravery of female sources like Asia Argento, Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, and Annabella Sciorra. But it is also a continuation of the outpouring of rage and grief that followed Trump’s sickening admission, on that infamous Access Hollywood tape, that as “a star” he could do anything he wanted to women, even “grab ‘em by the pussy.” For almost a month I watched as other women came forward, not just Trump accusers, but women who’d endured their own secret sexual assault, and began to tell the truth. The country seemed not to care. It went ahead and elected an accused serial sexual assaulter anyway. Suffering women went silent—for a while.
Then came the post-Weinstein reckoning, which felt like a mudslide, carrying away seemingly genuine predators like Weinstein and Matt Lauer, but also Senator Al Franken, while leaving Trump virtually untouched. For a while, the movement felt revelatory and bracing. Weinstein’s story, especially, got us thinking about all the actresses whose careers stalled (to me, Sciorra is the biggest tragedy), or never got off the ground. Remarkably, once we saw the number of male journalists accused of sexual harassment or abuse—not just Lauer but MSNBC’s Mark Halperin, CBS’s Charlie Rose, The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush—we could see they had something else in common: All had participated, some for two decades, in creating and peddling the narrative of Hillary Clinton as a singularly flawed, devious, possibly corrupt woman. Most recently we learned that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, a former colleague of mine, joked about needing “a Bill Cosby pill” before interviewing the first woman to become a major-party nominee in early 2016. (To be fair, the context left it slightly unclear whether the pill was for him or for Clinton, and Matthews has apologized.)
For women in journalism, the list revealed something else: how much we’ve endured getting into this business, and how many talented women have been driven away by predators. (Although surely no group of journalists, as a bloc, suffered anything comparable to the abuse of a generation of talented American gymnasts at the hand of US Olympics team doctor Larry Nasser, a comparatively under-covered story). For me, the pinnacle of the #MeToo moment came when 700,000 female farmworkers wrote a letter of support for the Hollywood women—and men—coming forward with tales of harassment, while reminding them that working-class women have plenty of #MeToo stories themselves, rarely acknowledged. Some 300 Hollywood women responded with a full-page ad in The New York Times announcing Time’s Up, a solidarity campaign with working-class women that included a $13 million legal fund for women with sexual-harassment complaints.
Of course, the long-expected backlash arrived. For months my feminist friends and I nervously wondered: Where is it? Is this it? Or this? Was the backlash evident in the scapegoating of New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand for her role in pressuring Franken to resign, after seven women came forward with varying tales of, at minimum, sexually inappropriate behavior? Thirty senators asked Franken to resign, including minority leader Chuck Schumer; why single out Gillibrand? (The story that Gillibrand was the group’s “leader” has been widely misreported.) The mini-backlash around Franken’s resignation, which I first opposed and then reluctantly thought necessary, has been among the toughest moments for me, I confess.
There were easily dismissed backlash pieces like Daphne Merkin’s mostly sad New York Times column, asking if #MeToo represented a Victorian witch hunt that was “stripping sex of eros”? (No, it isn’t). In Slate, writer Allison Benedikt wondered whether #MeToo would have prevented her (presumably happy) marriage to a man she started dating when he was her boss who looked down her pants. (Again, no; women remain free to marry whomever they want, even if that story was a little creepy to me.)
But as #MeToo became more fiery and personal and political, the backlash found its opening, when what began as a revolt against the election of a predatory pig as president devolved into a debate about comedian Aziz Ansari’s bad dating behavior. (It may have been more than that, but the terrible Babe.net story that broke the news didn’t make the case.) New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister (disclosure: a close friend) wrote over two years ago about why bad sex for women actually is a political issue—it represents the ongoing denial of women’s rights to be active agents in their own sexual pleasure and power. In many ways, the whole debate has reminded me of the groundbreaking power of the 1970s feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves (I know that dates me), which I remember describing a world of sexual pleasure nobody had ever told me about—and which made clear that women are entitled to it.
The Ansari story helped open the door to Andrew Sullivan’s unhelpful observations, among others. But it also launched a debate among feminists and #MeToo supporters that quickly became generational. Even gentle skeptics of the case against Ansari have been derided (inaccurately) as “Second Wave feminists.” But the women’s movement has always had ideological divides that were generational—Betty Friedan vs. Gloria Steinem is the most obvious example, though they are both, technically, Second Wave. The movement has nonetheless survived—and will continue to.
Let’s just make sure not to waste our growing but still finite and maybe insufficient political capital—or this epochal political moment—on fiercely fighting about details like this. In that spirit I wave my white flag (racial pun inadvertent but maybe useful): I have concerns about the Ansari story, but I’m not certain enough of them to fight about it. If someone wants to call me a “Second Wave feminist”—which I’m roughly 25 years too young for—I’m not going to fight about that either. If we talk in waves, I’m probably Third Wave, or maybe Second and a Half, and the millennial women who are most likely to denounce Ansari (some of them well and wisely) might be called Fourth Wave. Let’s just call them New Wave. I am happy to pass the baton to them. As I told a New Wave friend of mine recently: You all are fiercer than we were. Maybe stronger. And maybe right about this. But remember: We raised you. (At least, I raised one, and I now defer to her on just about everything.)
In this moment, intra-feminist debates about race and class and sexual behavior may feel unhelpful and distracting, but most of them are crucial. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to stay out of as many as I can. I’m just going to grab my pink hat and march on Saturday. The fact is, the only wave I care about right now is the 2018 tsunami that can and must sweep GOP Trump enablers—and that includes the vast majority of Republican elected officials—out of office. Women remain the best hope to do that, if we keep marching forward, and stay out of our own way.