New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently found herself on the receiving end of a barrage of sexist attacks — and I’m not talking about Donald Trump’s disgusting implication that she offered to trade sexual favors for campaign donations.
In a strange new era when sexual misconduct is actually being taken seriously, it was fitting that Gillibrand was the first Democrat to call for Franken’s resignation. She has made sexual violence awareness and prevention a cornerstone of her platform for years, with a particular focus on sexual assault on campus and in the military.
Within the next 90 minutes, 16 additional Democratic senators (10 women and six men) took to social media and called on Franken to resign. By the end of the day, over half of his colleagues, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, had joined the list. On December 7, Franken announced that he was stepping down in a speech that didn’t include an apology.
As a Democrat, I’m not especially stoked to lose a Senate seat — and I’ll take a wild guess that Gillibrand isn’t excited about this turn of events, either, but Franken could have just kept his hands to himself and not put us in a situation where his resignation became inevitable and necessary.
Gillibrand’s Twitter mentions were an avalanche of disgusting threats and declarations that Franken was a better champion for women than she ever will be. The comments on her Facebook page were equally difficult to stomach. At first, I took it with a grain of salt — I didn’t know these people and it was entirely possible that they were simply alt-right trolls attempting to divide Democrats. But my heart sank when I scrolled through my own Facebook feed. Although they stopped short of rape threats, a significant number of Democrats who I’ve volunteered with on local and national campaigns were participating in sexist rhetoric that mirrored what I’d seen elsewhere. The same people who had recently been posting #Gillibrand2020 were now brainstorming ways to unseat her in the 2018 midterm election.
To be clear, I’m not talking about people who simply object to Gillibrand’s call for Franken’s resignation.
Many have argued that he was entitled to a full ethics investigation, and they’ve done so without calling Gillibrand a “fucking c*nt.”
The vilifying comments, however, reveal that many people are hung up on skewering one woman — rather than looking at the entire picture.
When it comes to Gillibrand’s role in Franken’s resignation, there is a lot to unpack. First of all, she’s not the only senator or the only woman who called for Franken to resign. It was a coordinated effort that appears to have been spearheaded by Gillibrand, who issued the first and the lengthiest statement. But anyone who thinks that Gillibrand, or any other senator, has the power to singlehandedly force Franken out of office is woefully misguided.
Gillibrand took on a leadership role in this situation and, to state the painfully obvious, people are uncomfortable with women leaders. There’s been speculation that her leadership last week, along with her strong record of voting against the president, makes Gillibrand the ideal candidate to take on Trump in 2020. Remember all the people who said they’d be happy to vote for a woman, just not one named Hillary Clinton? I have a sinking feeling that Clinton’s name is about to be replaced with Gillibrand’s.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve seen precious little anger directed at Franken, who admitted to sexual harassment and made the vague statement that “some” of the allegations against him are “not true.” To once again state the painfully obvious, Gillibrand never would have called on Franken to resign if these disturbing allegations hadn’t emerged. As Franken prepares to vacate his seat, where is the outcry of anger (or even frustration) that a grown man engaged in lewd behavior and harassment?
Why are people so much more comfortable skewering the woman who said “enough is enough”?
The response to the Franken allegations has been disheartening, to say the least — and it’s yet another painful reminder that sexism and misogyny are nonpartisan problems. Gillibrand isn’t the only one who was subjected to sexist, threatening rhetoric from Franken loyalists. Abby Honold, a 22-year-old rape survivor from Minnesota, spent the past year working with Franken on a bill to help sexual violence survivors. After the first allegation emerged, Honold graciously thanked his office for its support and found a new sponsor, Senator Amy Klobuchar. After explaining her decision in a Washington Post column, Honold received a barrage of hateful messages and rape threats from people who accused her of conflating Franken’s behavior with rape. (Spoiler alert: She didn’t.)
During his resignation speech, Franken echoed a talking point that I’ve heard ad nauseam since the accusations emerged: The allegations against him aren’t as serious as those against Trump or Roy Moore.
No, no one one has described Franken as a rapist or a pedophile, nor have they accused him of such actions — but I’d say that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle. I’d prefer to belong to a party that has a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct.
Democrats including Gillibrand have called for Trump to resign over the myriad sexual misconduct allegations against him. Trump will, of course, not voluntarily resign — but perhaps the tide is changing in America, as evidenced by Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama on December 12th.
Women are, at long last, being heard and even believed. Al Franken may have been able to weather this scandal during a different time, but I don’t particularly miss that era. If his seat is “collateral damage,” it’s damage that was caused by Franken, and Franken alone.
Gillibrand’s tireless advocacy for sexual violence survivors is the reason I’ve admired her for years, and it would have been deeply disappointing if she kept her mouth shut for the sake of “saving” a fellow Democrat’s seat.
Nearly every industry has finally been forced to confront sexual harassment and assault head-on and it seems like the country is slowly catching up with Gillibrand, who cared about people’s “Me Too” stories long before it was a popular political and social cause.
This was the ideal time for Gillibrand to show strong leadership and put country over party — and, unfortunately, we saw once again that women in leadership roles are often mistrusted or even reviled. But I feel hopeful that we can make progress over the next few years. In November 2016, Trump became president after the entire country heard him brag about sexually assaulting women. Just one year later, dozens of powerful men have been felled for similar behavior. It gives me hope that in 2020 or 2024, America will be a slightly less sexist place that just might be ready for a strong, qualified woman president.