As the 2020 presidential primary amps up and the field becomes more crowded each day, Joe Biden has consistently been described as the frontrunner with the strongest chance of defeating Trump. Affectionately referred to as “Uncle Joe,” he’s the affable, gaffe-prone guy who rides Amtrak, seems like he’d be fun to have a beer with, and could potentially help Democrats win back the Rust Belt. The former vice president has yet to throw his hat in the ring, and recent accusations of inappropriate behavior towards women may upset his hypothetical campaign—or, at least, they should.
Last week, politician Lucy Flores published her account of an incident that occurred at a 2014 campaign rally when she was running for lieutenant governor of Nevada. According to Flores’ piece for The Cut, Biden placed his hands on her shoulders and “proceeded to plant a big slow kiss on the back of [her] head.” Flores said she was embarrassed and wanted nothing more than to get away from the vice president.
Flores made clear that she’s not suggesting Biden broke any laws or sexually assaulted her. But, as she wrote, “Even if his behavior wasn’t violent or sexual, it was demeaning and disrespectful.” The same could be said for Amy Lappos’ 2009 encgmounter with Biden at a fundraiser in Greenwich, Connecticut. “It wasn’t sexual, but he did grab me by the head,” Lappos told The Hartford Courant. “He put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me. When he was pulling me in, I thought he was going to kiss me on the mouth.”
Both women were in professional settings when these alleged incidents occurred—Flores as a candidate and Lappos as a congressional aide to U.S. Representative Jim Himes. As Vice President of the United States, Biden would naturally be considered their superior in both situations. Due to the power imbalance, embarrassment, and societal expectation that women just suck it up when men touch us inappropriately, it’s no surprise that neither Flores nor Lappos headed straight to the press after these alleged incidents.
Neither woman is accusing Biden of sexual assault, but his actions still deserve a close examination because, as Lappos put it, they cross a line of basic respect and they’re rooted in “sexism and misogyny”—issues we’re (supposedly) fighting tooth and nail as we attempt to defeat the misogynist who currently occupies the White House.
Personally, I don’t know any women who would appreciate their older male bosses or superiors kissing their heads or rubbing their noses at a work-related event.
It shows a profound lack of respect to us as professional women and illustrates Biden’s disturbing lack of awareness of what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. If he wants to occupy the highest office in the country, Biden surely should possess a firm understanding of appropriate workplace conduct. Based on the accounts of Flores and Lappos, he doesn’t.
On April 3rd, Biden addressed the allegations on Twitter in a disappointing statement that was conspicuously missing an actual apology.
Biden’s statement referenced comforting constituents during times of tragedy and taking selfies together—but he failed to directly address why he allegedly invaded Flores’ and Lappos’ space during professional events. He is correct that social norms are changing, but that’s hardly an excuse for his behavior.
Biden’s nicknames may be “Uncle Joe” and “Grandpa Joe,” but he’s not an uncle, dad, or grandpa to Flores or Lappos—and it’s disturbing that he doesn’t seem to understand the difference between kissing a candidate’s head during her own rally and hugging a grieving parent who has just lost their child to gun violence.
What’s equally disappointing is how quickly so many high-profile Democrats, including proponents of the “Me Too” movement, have rushed to defend Biden. Alyssa Milano, whose October 2017 tweet calling on women to say “Me Too” helped Tarana Burke’s decade-long movement go viral, posted a photo of herself with Biden and declared that she’s proud to call him a friend. Milano went on to list all the things he’s done for women, including the “It’s On Us” campaign, which is aimed at teaching bystanders to identify and stop sexual assault when they witness it.
Milano’s message essentially boiled down to this: The Joe Biden I know has always treated women with respect. I believe her, but why isn’t she willing to entertain the possibility that the Joe Biden she knows isn’t the Biden that every woman has encountered? This attitude is precisely the reason so many women don’t want to come forward, whether it’s about a sexual assault or an inappropriate workplace encounter. We know that men don’t treat every woman the exact same way. And if a man happens to be well-liked and has advocated for women’s rights in the past, we can expect women to rush to his defense and declare that they never felt violated in his presence; therefore he simply can’t be capable of disrespecting other women—but that’s not true of anybody.
While I applaud Biden’s contributions to “It’s On Us,” Milano and others have also chosen to conveniently ignore his handling of the 1991 Anita Hill hearing.
In 2017, Biden finally said that he owes Hill an apology—but he’s never actually apologized to Hill directly. And in a recent, somewhat head-scratching statement, Biden opined that “to this day I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get [Hill] the kind of hearing she deserved.” As Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he actually could have given her a fair hearing but failed to do so. Instead of taking ownership of his mistake, Biden frames it as though there was no possible way to give Hill a fair hearing. (There was.)
This isn’t the first time Democrats have fallen all over themselves to defend a male politician accused of inappropriate conduct. Many Democrats, including top donors, still remain furious that Al Franken resigned over eight credible sexual misconduct allegations. They resent presidential candidate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was the first Democrat to call for Franken’s resignation.
In a party that prides itself on respecting women and our bodily autonomy, the rush to defend men like Franken and Biden is both disheartening and perplexing. Each person certainly has their own reasons for either not believing an allegation or simply saying it’s no big deal. But I think a lot of it boils down to this: In a country that has yet to see a female president and where women make up just a quarter of Congress (a historic high that was reached in the 2018 midterm elections), we are left to depend on male Democrats to cast votes that will protect our right to choose, help us reach pay parity, and fight for paid maternity leave.
There’s an understandable fear that losing a Democratic Senate seat or a potentially strong presidential candidate will result in further blows to our rights. I share this fear and I’m keenly aware of the political realities we face.
Democrats currently control only one branch of government, and if we don’t take back the White House in 2020, we’ll very likely lose yet another Supreme Court seat. But the solution isn’t to make excuses for men’s inappropriate conduct—it’s to focus on the brighter reality, which is that women are making major political strides.
Although there is still a great deal of progress to be made, we now have the most female congress in history. Six women have entered the Democratic primary, and although they may not yet have the level of name recognition Biden does, some of them are strong contenders who could very well shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling in November 2020. The solution isn’t to make excuses for men’s creepy behavior and decide that we’ll have to accept some humiliation and disrespect in exchange for our political rights. Instead, let’s focus on volunteering for and electing candidates who will fight for our rights without thinking they’re allowed to engage in some disrespectful, humiliating touching or kissing along the way.