Six months ago I lay in bed with tears in my eyes. I was staring at my tiny iPhone screen, watching a larger-than-life woman stand before a packed crowd in Brooklyn, dressed all in white like some kind of goddess wizard, making history as she officially became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
For the first time, a woman had a shot at real political power. For the first time, we could tell our daughters: You could be anything! And it would actually be true. As autumn approached, you could feel the excitement. Women were on the brink. On the morning of Election Day, they dressed in pantsuits and welled up, holding their little girls’ hands at the voting booth, posting adorable photos.
That night was a devastation. Ambitious women and girls across the country didn’t get a new role model. They got a smackdown.
Though the sexism behind Clinton’s loss has hardly been a secret, it’s taken me awhile to truly grapple with what lays at the bottom of those election results. Clinton’s loss isn’t simply about emails or Russian hacking or James Comey or the perils of the Electoral College or the struggles of the so-called white working class. Underneath that, her loss has everything to do with the different expectations men and women face in our country. Her loss is about what we do to women who dare to seek power.
This struck me as I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ incredible essay on Barack Obama’s presidency. “To secure the White House,” Coates writes in The Atlantic, “Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.” This is the simplest evidence you need to understand that of course racism played a role Trump’s election, Coates writes.
Immediately, I realized, Coates missed something.
It wasn’t just money and bluster.
Much of the country went for the guy. Sure, technically she got more votes, is winning the popular vote by millions, but a huge percentage of the country went for him. Obama voters switched sides. He won.
With his utter lack of government experience, track record of lies, without disclosing his taxes, with his hateful comments about women, his boast about sexual assault. For all that, Trump was seen as more “authentic” than her. More likable.
That’s sexism. You can dress it up in as many ill-advised email servers or Benghazi hearings as you like.
Time and again, men get a pass.
Women who go for power get shot down in this country. In our corporations, where only a handful have broken into the corner office. In academia, where so few achieve the most prestigious roles. In law, where more women are getting degrees but are still a small minority at the top of the most elite firms. At the patent office, where men secure the rights to far more inventions. In journalism, where mostly men get to cover business and economics and politics while women cover “lifestyle” and “fashion.” In Hollywood, where to be 40 is to be rendered invisible.
Decades of research has demonstrated this. If you’re a woman reading this, you don’t need to read an academic paper. You know this at your core: Boys will be boys. Girls better be good. Really, really, really good.
And, of course, powerful women terrify men ― and women, too. Women voted for him, too.
When Trump voters were asked why they were able to overlook his now-infamous comments on that Access Hollywood video, about grabbing women “by the pussy” because he can, their overwhelming response was: That’s what guys do. His own wife said a version of “you know how boys are.”
Why do men get to skate by on such low expectations? How am I supposed to explain to my daughter that sexism isn’t real? That there isn’t a double-standard?
I know it’s the end of the year now. And we’re supposed to be fighting back. There are protests and marches on the way. More women are gearing up to run for office.
Hillary Clinton’s out there in the woods. She’s gathering lots of fans again ― selfies with HiIlary grab millions of likes and retweets. Women write about how brave she is not to wear makeup. As if that means anything. As if we wouldn’t rather have her shielded in lipstick and running the country.
Now that she no longer threatens us by daring to be president, it’s once again OK to feel empathy for Hillary Clinton.
The story has moved on. Trump is assembling his team ― a group that includes men who have been charged with spousal abuse, men who want to make abortion illegal, men who don’t support raising wages for working women.
His only policy on women seems to be that he has a daughter who works.
Women’s activists are out there fighting all of this. But it’s hard not to mourn for what could’ve been.