If there’s any lesson that jumps out after weeks of reactions to revelations of sexual misconduct by powerful men, it’s that the “sisterhood” we’ve been hearing about since the women’s lib movement emerged is dead.
There’s hand-wringing and enmity among women about . . . whether Democratic Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s alleged sexual misdeeds should be put on the same par as sexual assault accusations against Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate.
Not far beneath the surface of this conundrum are tensions between women. Their beliefs fall across a spectrum from certainty that not every lewd joke or come-on is equivalent to sexual abuse to insistence that groping must be categorized as attempted rape, drawing on the U.S. Department of Justice’s definition of sexual assault as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
And that’s even before factoring in race issues.
These came to the fore when millennial darling and actress Lena Dunham took a vocal stand in defense of Murray Miller, a writer on her hit show “Girls,” who has been accused of raping actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17 and he was 35.
You’d think it’d be a slam dunk to simply be angry that Dunham, who is generally considered a feminist poster girl, defended her friend by implying in a tweet that Perrineau was lying, as in the instances of “the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.”
But the hurt goes far deeper.
Dunham’s defense of a powerful white Hollywood man at the expense of a young woman of color (Perrineau’s father is African-American and Afro-Haitian) has again exposed the rift between white women and women of color. It’s one that has forever been bubbling beneath the surface of feminism and once again erupted when Donald Trump sailed into office with the help of white female voters.
“There is nothing resembling sisterhood between black women and white women, period,” said Jamilah Lemieux, vice president of news and men’s programming for the media company iOne Digital, in recent remarks on the political podcast “In the Thick.” “There are individual friendships, there are familial relationships, there are mothers and daughters, but there’s no overall sense of sisterhood. They feel no sense of loyalty or protection or connection to us.”
Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, followed up on the sentiment in the same podcast by noting: “White women are never to be found when it comes time [to stand up for women of color who have been victimized], therefore, the Women’s March, for me, was something that I chose not to participate in. I don’t feel the sisterhood and I think it’s false and I think white women have to do a lot more to gain my trust before we’re in lockstep.”
Those are the big issues, but the small, day-to-day ones are just as alarming.
Probably the most loathsome thing I’ve read recently came out of the publishing world — a field sorely lacking both women in powerful positions and diversity. The fashion industry trade journal Women’s Wear Daily reported that upon arriving to meet and greet her staff at Vanity Fair, Radhika Jones, the newly appointed editor-in-chief, got the side-eye from Anna Wintour, the ultra-influential editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine.
Yes, Jones, who is of Indian descent and is a Harvard graduate and an alum of top publications like The New York Times, The Paris Review and Time magazine was apparently mean-girled by members of her new workplace because of her taste in clothes.
In her new book, “Girl Logic: The Genius and the Absurdity,” comedian Iliza Shlesinger explains such carnage. “Why do well-meaning women — women who know better, feminists even — feel the need to tear each other down? Frankly, I think it’s because, no matter how much progress this society has made, there are still limited opportunities for women. Women are left desperately trying to reassure ourselves, whether it comes to men or money or kids or jobs, that ‘there’s enough to go around.’ And sometimes there is. But sometimes there just isn’t, and feeling starved for opportunity can make anyone a little competitive.”
Whether woman-on-woman bullying results from victimization, powerlessness, certain privileges or competition born of scarcity, one thing is clear: Women must respect and care for each other enough to band together and fix the power dynamics that continue to keep us from achieving full equality.
Esther J. Cepeda is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post.