Gloria Steinen by Joan Roth; Michelle Obama by Gage Skidmore
I watched Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire speech defending the honor of girls and women everywhere while huddled with my book club buddies in a hotel room in Milwaukee. We were there to go to an Ingrid Michaelson concert, drink wine, stay up late, talk about our lives, and have some fun.
Little did I know I was not so much making a getaway as travelling right into the heart of national politics.
"I listen to all of this and I feel it so personally, and I'm sure that many of you do, too, particularly the women,” Michelle Obama said in her brilliant, empathic speech, which I watched on a friend’s iPhone on the hotel bed. “The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect.”
Michelle Obama’s speech, which has already been declared “epic,” “remarkable,” and “a master class” for all politicians, has galvanized a feminist backlash against Donald Trump (whom the First Lady did not deign to name a single time in her remarks).
Everyone loved the speech. I did. The other women in my book club did. The national press corps did. And so did 1,200 women gathered the next day in Milwaukee for a Planned Parenthood eightieth birthday celebration luncheon featuring Gloria Steinem.
Steinem told the appreciative crowd: “It’s really exciting and great that we are not only going to have Hillary Clinton as our next President, we are going to bury Donald Trump,”
“It’s a moment like the Anita Hill moment,” she added.
It certainly feels that way, with the country riveted by stories of Donald Trump’s serial sexual predation and abuse, and women coming together to fight back.
Michelle Obama put into words the familiar feelings women have about the “locker room talk” Trump expects the country to brush off:
“It is cruel. It's frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It's like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you're walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.”
My women friends and I can relate to those feelings, of course. In fact, most of us are not particularly shocked by the videotape revelations of Trump’s disgusting remarks. We’ve heard that kind of talk before, and we are familiar with the whole package of abusive behaviors from men like Trump. But for a lot of people--including Republicans abandoning Trump in droves-- it seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It is notable how far the country has come since 1991, when Anita Hill made her explosive sexual harassment accusations against Clarence Thomas. Instead of a contentious debate about whether sexual harassment exists, and whether the women who endure it deserve what they get, we are far closer to a national consensus that what Trump did is beyond the pale. Trump is out of step with a culture that views women as more fully human than it did even a short while ago.
That’s the legacy of the movement Steinem has led all her life. As Steinem put it, feminists have worked to “de-normalize the violence and dominance it requires to control women’s bodies.”
And that has effects beyond liberating women.
Steinem pointed out the connection between high rates of domestic abuse among police officers and the use of excessive force against black citizens. Beating women and racist abuse by cops are both “supremacy crimes,” she explained. They are about the perpetrators proving they are more powerful than someone else, trying to hold onto a dominant position in a social hierarchy.
That’s a pretty timely and apt description of the rightwing populist appeal of Donald Trump, who promises disaffected white, working-class voters a return to greatness by pushing other people back down in the social hierarchy.
Trump acts out this dominance fantasy by threatening to put his female opponent in jail, by manhandling and assaulting other women and bragging about it, by encouraging supporters to beat up black protesters, insulting Mexicans, and threatening to “build a wall.”
All of this bullying behavior is related. And every liberation struggle, for women, people of color, gay people, and all human beings, is about resisting it.
Trump, with all his sheer nastiness, queued up that devastating response by Michelle Obama. “When they go low, we go high” pretty much sums up the 2016 campaign at this point. Most Americans would rather go high.
“Consciousness has changed in the majority,” Steinem pointed out. “Now we need to make more connections among the movements.”
Like Michelle Obama, Steinem projects a sense of ease with herself that is as powerful a message as her words.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she told her Milwaukee audience, describing how freeing it was for her, earlier in her life, to see other women who were comfortable with themselves, not caught up in the culture of female self-criticism and self-hatred of the kind promoted by Trump’s misogyny. “We inspire each other that way,” she proclaimed.
Inspired women can change history.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.