American society is today experiencing a deeply significant change in relations between women and men, as large numbers of women feel free for the first time to report instances of abuse or harassment by men, particularly in the workplace or school, where the men had more power. This social earthquake has ended the careers of a growing number of powerful men in politics and entertainment, even as Donald Trump and (perhaps) Roy Moore seem able to survive it—so far.
One of the dwindling advantages of being old is that you remember a lot. I remember how behaviors that now qualify as sexual harassment were taken for granted in many workplaces. Men would think nothing about calling women subordinates by demeaning nicknames (“sweetie,” “sugar,”), touching them without invitation, telling dirty jokes around them to enjoy their embarrassment, keeping Playboy calendars on the wall, and, of course, trying to get them to bed. Short of actual rape, none of these behaviors was considered out of bounds.
One of the dwindling advantages of being old is that you remember a lot. I remember how behaviors that now qualify as sexual harassment were taken for granted in many workplaces.
It was even notoriously hard to get a criminal conviction for rape, because of the “she said/he said” nature of the alleged crime. A woman who testified about an alleged rape was systematically destroyed on the witness stand.
We now realize that most women in this country have experienced some kind of sexual harassment in their lives. Yet until the present #Metoo moment, most women have not sought redress. Some women may have internalized the idea that it was harmless play. Most no doubt found it necessary to put up with it to keep their jobs. They may have told no one, they may have told their best friend, their sister, their mother. Few actually complained, and they were usually not believed. Many have succeeded in spite of it. But only now do we see this becoming a consequential political issue.
Sexual harassment and abuse is a problem men have across American society, independent of class, race, region or party. Not every man is guilty of it, but virtually all of us have put up with it in order to get along on the job.
This is the context of our present moment. It is clear that our two major parties are poles apart in how they are dealing with it. Republicans happily ignored credible, documented charges of harassment against Donald Trump. They have recently agonized over whether to support Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, finally coming down, led by Trump himself, to supporting him in spite of credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Democrats, meanwhile, led by a dozen female senators, have forced Al Franken to resign his seat for offenses much less offensive than those attributed to Trump and Moore.
Underlying these different approaches by the parties is a cleavage in public opinion. Numerous surveys have consistently shown, since 2000 or earlier, that women are more likely to vote Democratic and men more like to support Republicans. That gender gap has grown under Trump. The latest Pew survey reports that 40 percent of men and only 25 percent of women approve of Trump’s performance.
In Alabama, The Washington Post recently reported:
Women are more likely than men to find the allegations credible and to support Jones, with 41 percent of women saying Moore made unwanted advances compared with 28 percent of men saying the same. Moore leads by 15 points among men likely to vote, while Jones leads by 18 points among likely female voters.
The Republicans are increasingly the party of white men and a minority of women; the Democrats, increasingly the party of white women, a minority of white men, and racial/ethnic minorities. Democrats also have a decided edge with younger voters, while old white men favor the Republicans.
The women who still support Trump and Moore seem to be mostly conservatives who remain willing to put up with a little sexual harassment as the price of Right policies. The 1950s still live!