by David Remnick
Illustration by Tom Bachtell
In 1975, Susan Brownmiller published a startling and controversial volume in the literature of feminism. It was called “Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape.” Deploying a wide range of examples from history, criminology, psychoanalysis, mythology, and popular culture, Brownmiller came to a provocative conclusion about the origins of the patriarchal order. “Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear,” she wrote, “must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe.” Sexual coercion, and the threat of its possibility, in the street, in the workplace, and in the home, she found, is less a matter of frenzied lust than a deliberate exercise of physical power, a declaration of superiority “designed to intimidate and inspire fear.”
Brownmiller chronicled the use of rape as a weapon in warfare, from classical antiquity to Vietnam; its role in the history of marital and property rights; the grotesque way that it shapes our notions of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Some of her arguments, particularly those pertaining to race, met with strong and convincing resistance from such critics as Angela Davis—Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case reads today as morally oblivious—yet “Against Our Will” remains an important prod to our understanding of the social order.
One of the most pernicious myths, Brownmiller wrote, is that women “cry rape with ease and glee.” As Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, in the Times, and Ronan Farrow, in The New Yorker, have made plain in their recent reporting on the Harvey Weinstein case, women who speak up about sexual predation do so with extreme difficulty and dread. Rumors persisted for years that Weinstein, a film producer and distributor of extraordinary influence, set out to defile and degrade countless women. And, using the instruments of his power—jobs, payoffs, nondisclosure agreements, expensive lawyers and private investigators—he sought to keep them silent.
That so many women have summoned the courage to make public their allegations against Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly—or that many have come to reconsider some of the claims made against Bill Clinton—represents a cultural passage. An immense cohort of victims and potential victims now feel a sense of release. Suddenly, a number of issues are in play: What constitutes harassment? What relation is there between the worst offenses and more ambiguous ones, between physical assault and verbal slights? What are fair guidelines and sanctions? Do men really understand the ways that harassment can diminish and undermine a woman?
These questions resonate far beyond Hollywood and the media, in less publicized places of work. They are, in a sense, a resumption of the discussions of 1991, when Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that a Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had harassed her repeatedly when he was her supervisor. Perhaps times are changing. Thomas won confirmation; he donned a robe and took his place on the Court. Weinstein, according to some news reports, may soon find himself in court, too, but in less comforting circumstances.
The Weinstein Moment is also a chapter in the Trump Presidency. When the news broke about Weinstein, Trump declared that he was “not at all surprised.” He seemed intent on signalling that he was in the know, a man of the world. And yet his knowingness comes from a different source—his own history. And that history is a disgrace. A year ago, on Election Night, when the most decisive precincts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin began to yield their results, there was shock, and a deep sense of offense, among countless Americans at the prospect of seeing Trump in the Oval Office. There were many ways to frame and understand the election, but one was surely this: a cartoonish misogynist had defeated an intelligent feminist. Hillary Clinton, the first woman to have a genuine chance to be President, lost to someone who had flaunted his contempt for women generally and for her personally, even prowling behind her during a nationally televised debate.
Trump has indulged in more scandalous behavior than is easy to recount. For some reason, his record of misogyny, in both language and acts, his running compendium of self-satisfied creepiness, the accumulated complaints against him of sexual harassment and assault (all denied, of course), have attracted only modest attention, one defamation lawsuit, and no congressional interest. The specificity of these accusations—by a former Miss Utah, by a reporter for People, by several former teen-age beauty-pageant contestants, by his ex-wife Ivana, who said that he had torn out a patch of her hair and violated her—is disturbing. Breast groping, crotch grabbing, unwanted kisses on the mouth. This is the President of the United States.
Before the election, Jia Tolentino determined for this magazine that twenty-four women had “corroborated Trump’s own boasting,” and twenty have come forward publicly. None with ease and glee. “As always happens when someone accuses a high-profile man of sexual misconduct, these women will be tied to their unpleasant, formerly private stories for life,” Tolentino wrote. There may be hope, however. According to some assessments, a pivotal factor in last week’s elections was a sense of disgust with the President—and one of the results was a sharp increase in the number of female candidates and winners. Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, recently announced that more than twenty thousand women have declared themselves candidates for public office—a “gigantic spike,” according to a detailed report by Christina Cauterucci, in Slate.
Donald Trump, with Steve Bannon drawing battle plans, believes that he is the initiator of a great culture war in America. But it may turn out to be a war of a very different kind, with a very different result. It seems to be occurring to more and more Americans that Trump would not pass muster before any decent department of human resources. And if he would surely be disqualified from running a movie studio, a newsroom, or a medium-sized insurance firm, how is it that he presides over the most important office in the land? ♦
The New Yorker · by David Remnick