gender, language, politics


You may not want to hear this, but it’s true. DONALD TRUMP IS WOMAN’S BEST FRIEND. It’s not that he intends to be, or that he deliberately behaves so as to benefit women – anything but! But as most of us have learned, actions may have unforeseen consequences.


What I mean is that by his election and prior and subsequent utterances and actions, Donald Trump has benefited women more than anyone else in history. That’s horrible to contemplate, but true.


I place in evidence a series of events starting very soon after the 2016 election and directly proceeding out of it. Each one is dependent on the election as well as prior members of the series. We can represent the major events in that series as follows:


Trump’s election (November 2016) –> the Women’s Marches (January 2017 and 2018) –> #MeToo (October 2017) –>  the Cosby verdict (April 2018).


Each of the events following from Trump’s election drew upon what had come before it. With each of them, women achieved a goal or goals that previously had seemed unattainable, and the achievement of each goal moved us forward politically and personally in very significant ways.


The success of the Women’s March demonstrated that one heretofore impossibility was now possible: women could unite in solidarity with one another in large numbers, and organize supremely effectively. What else might change if women kept that triumph in mind and acted accordingly?


Everyone had always known, if silently, that powerful men kept women in subordination partly by sexual threats, one potent form of gender terrorism. Everyone knew that Harvey Weinstein was a lout, and that countless others had behaved equally badly. But nothing happened, in large part because women didn’t unite and organize to make the necessary statements, and would not support one another if they tried. But in October of last year, women who had been abused by powerful men started to speak, not one by one, but as a group, #MeToo, a name that made it clear that the former victims, by standing together and believing each other, were casting off their status as victims. Because they stood together, they signified that women as a group and as individuals were credible and their complaints had to be taken seriously. So the Women’s March led directly to the formation and success of #MeToo.


But it is important to identify the force behind the organization and success of both the march and #MeToo: Donald Trump. Everyone (except possibly Trump himself) recognized the obvious: the malefactors named by the protesters were functioning in part as stand-ins for the Malefactor in Chief. The idea that POTUS, the Leader of All of Us, women as well as men, was a sexual predator par excellence told a nasty truth: women’s position in modern America was not terribly different, symbolically at least, from women’s position under the Taliban: objects of male convenience and subservience. The election revealed that claims to the contrary were false. Now, finally, #MeToo made that formerly unspeakable reality something that had to be acknowledged. Trump is #MeToo and #MeToo is Trump. He tells the true story as it must be told, just like #MeToo.


Now women could comfortably support one another (and thereby themselves individually), and could see themselves for the first time as human and (potentially) equal. That recognition has led to others, which also must be appreciated as subversive, revolutionary, and dangerous to the status quo – even events that are not obviously about women, but have been of especial concern to women.


Topics that had been identified as “women’s issues” and therefore safe for male politicians to ignore or deride suddenly became fundamental. The mass murder in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February, 2018 spurred powerful demands for gun control that continue to resonate. The connection between women and young people here was strong and unexpected. Two previously disempowered groups, two groups not taken seriously, could work as allies and become a force to be reckoned with. Gun control, traditionally a women’s issue, now loomed large in electoral politics. The Nineteenth Amendment was, perhaps, finally kicking in with full force.


The struggle is still on. Women will never have power without political parity. In 2018, 106 (78D, 28R) women hold seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.8% of the 535 members; 23 women (23%) serve in the United States Senate, and 83 women (19.1%) serve in the United States House of Representatives. Better but far from parity, three of the nine United States Supreme Court justices are female. All kinds of reasons have been given to excuse this depressing count; one being that women won’t run (there are good, if bad, reasons for this). Something is happening here as well, possibly (it’s too soon to tell) throwing all the good excuses for non-parity into the circular file.


Women are running for office at all levels in numbers that have not been seen before, and they are succeeding beyond expectations. Most, unsurprisingly, are Democrats; but a Republican woman, Debbie Lesko, has just narrowly won a special congressional election in Arizona against a Democratic woman candidate. Lesko’s victory brings the number of women in congress to a new high, 107 (of 535). A record number of women are running for office at all levels, and according to a recent article in the New York Times, women are running both men’s and women’s campaigns – especially young women, a particularly good omen. These signs of progress too may be credited to Donald Trump: perhaps the election of someone universally considered unelectable may be giving encouragement to others (e.g. women) previously considered unelectable. More seriously, the new recognition that women’s interests may be “special” but are nonetheless legitimate, is giving more women the courage to declare their candidacies. The effectiveness of the marches and #MeToo arise out of and contribute to the strength of this new kind of self-identification as legitimate.


Finally there is the Bill Cosby verdict: on April 26, a jury of 7 men and 5 women found “America’s Dad” guilty of three counts of indecent sexual assault. A previous trial had resulted in a hung jury: what had happened in a year? The recognition that powerful men could behave badly and lie about it made it more plausible that women could be truthful – a very new concept in the history of the world, especially concerning sexual matters. The defense continually harped on the accuser’s alleged untruthfulness; the jury apparently didn’t buy it. Something has changed: we have begun to learn how to listen to women.


Our understanding of the relationship between the genders of participants in communication and how people make sense of those communications has increased greatly, if slowly, over the last half century. At first researchers’ attention was focused on how women speak, as opposed to how men do, an emphasis that encouraged the understanding of women the source of the problem: women (Others) didn’t talk the way men (= human beings) did, so they deserved not to be taken seriously. Early work also emphasized how women are spoken about – the various forms of derogation as well as the various forms of nonexistence: bitch, cow, and vixen alongside chairman and the “neutral” third-singular masculine pronoun. These were fruitful areas of research and contributed a great deal to our understanding that something was going on; that humans were using language in more than one way to create injustice and inequality and to justify them. But they were not the full story. Scholarship also looked at how women are spoken to, as one creator and justifier of inequality: for instance, men’s tendency to interrupt women, and what is currently known as “mansplaining.”


But now, as another result of the 2016 disaster, we are finally turning our attention to a last and possibly most significant difference in communicative roles: the inability of both males and females to listen to women and fully understand them as meaning-making creatures, i.e. as human beings, especially in public discourse and most especially when women are demanding power. A great deal of ink has been wasted on analyses of what Clinton did wrong in order to lose an election she should have won. She didn’t have a good slogan; she didn’t make the right promises; she went after Trump too much rather than … what? Meanwhile, her opponent ran a scurrilous, un-American, and debouched campaign and won.


I have argued that Clinton did nothing wrong; she ran a normal campaign against an opponent who broke all the rules. But I am coming around to another point of view: Clinton did something very wrong, something that necessarily brought about her electoral failure, something her opponent did not do because he could not do: she ran as a woman, and women (as we learned conclusively in 2016) are not allowed to run for president: to assume the right to wield (mostly symbolic) power; to ask for something for herself, her own self-aggrandizement, rather than for someone else. That was more violative than anything her opponent did or could even have dreamed of doing. So Clinton lost, I now think, not because of anything she did or did not do, but because of what she was. We didn’t know how to listen to her; we had no way to properly understand the language of a woman who was running for president. In no way could that make sense.


As proper and unthreatening as she tried to be, she was perceived by a great many voters as threatening and dangerous, and indeed she was. The hatred the mere utterance of her name still engenders, a year and a half later, is evidence of this. The fear of many voters that her campaign was impermissible and her victory, if it were allowed to occur, illegitimate, made it inevitable that nothing she said would be heard because the background din of fear and outrage drowned it out. She did nothing wrong…but she did everything wrong.


Yet in the light of the events detailed above, I am beginning to entertain the hope that something deep has begun to shift. Thanks to Trump’s misbehaviors, we have been forced to reassess what women are about and how women should be listened to. It’s still too early to proclaim with confidence that our fundamental understanding of the roles of the sexes has changed forever, but maybe, just maybe, that change is starting to take hold. It’s still too early to think that a woman can be elected president, but parity is getting closer. I think my granddaughter might be elected president. Certainly she has what it takes – and by the time she is 35 (27 years from now), that may be the only thing that matters. And voters in that distant election will have Donald Trump to thank for bringing them to their senses.