Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has long been rumored to hold presidential ambitions. She was, for a time, seen as the heir apparent to Hillary Clinton, whose Senate seat she inherited. She has a reputation as a standout progressive ― she voted “no” on more of President Donald Trump’s appointees than any other Senate Democrat, and has been ahead of the curve on issues like paid family leave. She’s also an outspoken feminist, which ought to serve her well in an era of widespread hunger for progressive, female leadership.
Yet, headed into 2020, any mention of a Gillibrand presidential candidacy typically comes with the assurance that she is doomed. In August, HuffPost reported that powerful Democratic Party donors and other party tastemakers saw Gillibrand as guilty of ruining the political career of former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. This week, Politico reported Gillibrand is being blackballed by those same donors after she called for Franken’s resignation in the wake of accusations (and photographic evidence) of sexual misconduct.
Despite what she may have wished, Gillibrand’s potential candidacy has become a test, not just of whether the country can handle a female president, but of how well our culture has absorbed the lessons of Me Too.
Gillibrand herself has been coy about whether she’ll run. Earlier this month, when “Morning Joe’s” Mika Brezinzki asked Gillibrand if she was considering a candidacy, she danced around the question without denying it: “For me, I think it’s a moral question, Mika. I really believe each of us has to ask ourselves, ‘What can you do to push against this horribleness that President Trump has put into the world?’” She added: “I will give it strong consideration as to whether that’s something I should do, but I think each one of us has to decide what will we do at this time to fight back as hard as we can.”
Gillibrand’s potential candidacy has become a test of how well our culture has absorbed the lessons of Me Too.
Nevertheless, Gillibrand’s potential donors are apparently convinced that she will declare her candidacy ― and they are furious. So, apparently, is Franken. The Politico piece paints a grim picture of the disgraced Franken still glad-handing behind the scenes with powerful Democratic donors, who come away declaring their loyalty to Franken, in their view “one of our best weapons against this administration.” One donor reportedly pledged not to lift a finger to elect Gillibrand, vowing, “absolutely, I will never do anything for her.”
Depressing as it is to picture Franken slinking around cocktail parties like some community-theater Iago, figuring out ways to punish women for holding him accountable, it’s important to note that Democratic resentment of Gillibrand has more than one source. In November 2017, at the beginning of Me Too, Gillibrand said that Bill Clinton should have resigned after the Monica Lewinsky affair, and that his behavior would be seen as sexual harassment in 2018. A few weeks later, when several women credibly accused Franken of harassment, Gillibrand was the first to call on him to resign. “I believe it would be better for our country,” she wrote, “if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve.”
These statements were perfectly in line with Gillibrand’s career. Her work has always included a strong focus on sexual violence. She’s led the charge to overhaul the handling of sexual assault claims in the military, on college campuses, and, most recently, within Congress. She could not be a credible leader on the issue if she hadn’t internalized a very simple principle: When a man leverages his power and influence to harm women, that power must be taken away. She has, of course, called for Trump to resign.
Yet, in the wake of Gillibrand’s statements about Clinton and Franken, supporters of both men accused her of backstabbing and ruthless calculation. Gillibrand — who began her career working for Bill Clinton, received mentoring from Hillary Clinton and once said Hillary’s “women’s rights are human rights” speech was the reason she entered politics — was accused of throwing her longtime mentor under the bus to preserve her own reputation. “She never said she regretted not speaking earlier, or taking the Clintons’ support or money,” complained former Clinton aide Philippe Reines.
Gillibrand’s statement on Franken pushed that brewing resentment to a boil. Her visit to “The View” turned into a tribunal. “I just thought that was unfair, to make [Franken] an example,” Joy Behar complained, “when the president of the United States has so many sexual assault allegations.” (Again: Gillibrand has frequently called for Trump to resign.) “In her relentless positioning for a possible presidential run in 2020,” one Daily Beast columnist asked, “was [Gillibrand] too quick on the trigger when she hit fellow Democrat Al Franken with a blast of buckshot and drove him to resign his Senate seat?” insinuating that she had not just ruined Franken, but killed him.
No one likes to be insulted in the media, but these weren’t just insults. George Soros, one of the most powerful Democratic donors, announced that he would be willing to personally kneecap Gillibrand’s chances, explaining that “she is responsible for pushing ... Al Franken, whom I admire, to resign. In order to improve her chances.”
“I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, on then-Sen. Al Franken
Other donors joined in to blackball Gillibrand, calling her anti-Franken position “unforgivable” and “self-serving,” and branding her a “ruthless opportunist.”
“She saw an opportunity to be out front, and regardless of the ramifications, she took it,” an anonymous donor told HuffPost. The donors quoted by Politico are no kinder. She’s “duplicitous,” she’s “not to be trusted,” and ― watch out boys! ― she may indulge in some light cannibalism: “I heard her referred to as ‘she would eat her own’ and she seems to have demonstrated that,” one said. She is also, apparently, responsible for setting feminism back: “I think that what she did for women in politics was dreadful.”
This is par for the course in a culture that minimizes rape and penalizes both its victims and those who stand with them. Men’s career trajectories and reputations take precedence over women’s lives. Any woman who speaks out against those men can expect to find herself slandered, vilified, and terrorized into silence. Those women’s careers are often derailed, as in the cases of Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, two comics who were removed from Louis CK’s tour after they told people he’d forced them to watch him masturbate, or Mira Sorvino, an Oscar-winning actress who rejected Harvey Weinstein’s sexual advances and was subsequently blackballed from Hollywood. And, of course, in a culture built to subjugate women, any woman who wields real power — or openly aspires to do so — will be cast as soulless, selfish and career-obsessed, her intelligence denigrated into mere “shrewdness” and her toughness portrayed as violent rage.
In a culture built to subjugate women, any woman who wields real power — or openly aspires to do so — will be cast as soulless, selfish and career-obsessed.
The problem is that women have been publicly litigating these power dynamics for several years, and Democrats are the ones who are supposed to be on our side. They are supposed to know better than this. It is inconceivable that anyone who supported Hillary Clinton through two presidential candidacies, or who professes even a casual interest in “women in politics,” would not see the sexism inherent in characterizing a female candidate as “ruthless,” selfish, and obsessed with winning at all costs. Yet, here we are.
Our culture dislikes ambitious women, and that suspicion and mistrust would likely bleed into Gillibrand’s candidacy no matter what. For that matter, much of the animosity she’s currently experiencing may spring from the fear of a female front-runner, and not from anything she’s done. (Though Gillibrand was the first to call for Franken’s resignation, she was ultimately joined by the majority of Senate Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders — and their statements didn’t provoke similar backlash.) Democratic men are often smart enough to know that saying they “just don’t like” a female politician reads as sexist, but they are not above grabbing at spurious reasons to justify their dislike. Franken may just be the pretext some men use to disguise their knee-jerk distrust of women.
He may be, but it’s unlikely. There is a particular punitive rage our culture offloads onto women who report sexual misconduct, and even onto women who make the mistake of publicly standing with victims. This, too, is something Democrats supposedly understand; this is the party that stood with Christine Blasey Ford against the Republicans who tried to humiliate and discredit her. Yet when it comes to their own, it’s all too easy to heap shame on the woman who pointed out the problem, rather than to admit that something needs fixing.
Gillibrand is too well versed in the politics of sexual assault not to have realized the risk she was taking. Her statements on Clinton and Franken came at some personal cost. Hillary Clinton still has millions of supporters, and it cannot have been easy for Gillibrand to risk alienating her most powerful ally by naming her husband’s misconduct. Franken, like Gillibrand, was a leading voice on sexual assault in the military; they worked closely together and she admitted she was “fond of [him] personally.” It’s not her fault that he didn’t uphold the values he claimed to share.
Losing a female ally because you’ve called out the man in her life; losing a male friend because he wasn’t the ally he said he was. These are both routine consequences of sexual violence, which tears at communities just as surely as it shreds individual lives. We are supposed to understand that by now. We are supposed to want principled female leaders, women who stand by their beliefs no matter what. We say we’ll vote for those women; we ask where those women are. Then we blackball Kirsten Gillibrand.
Gillibrand had every right to expect that progressives would have her back. She had a right to demand that Democrats who made a public display of backing Me Too would still embrace its principles when they were applied to one of their own. That she was left unshielded, after knowingly making herself vulnerable, suggests that she may not be the Democrat who makes a habit of backstabbing.
Gillibrand should run. But women should be prepared to push back on the cruelty that attends her candidacy. Gillibrand has had survivors’ backs for years. Now, she needs someone to have hers. If it’s not us, it will be no one. That’s another lesson we’ve learned from Me Too.
Sady Doyle is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear ... and Why.
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