Let 2019 mark the death of America’s appreciation for benevolent sexism.
For decades, the best women could get in politics was men exhorting other men to protect and take care of their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters. (If you happened to be an only child, unmarried, childless and an orphan, you were on your own, sweetheart.)
As Democrats look back on Joe Biden’s treatment of women, there’s some hope that 2019 could be the year this finally changes—even if many so-called feminists have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a more equitable future.
The conversation opened in earnest last Friday, when former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores wrote for New York magazine’s The Cut about an experience with former Vice President—and possible 2020 candidate—Joe Biden that made her so uncomfortable, she wished for the earth to swallow her whole. Offstage before a campaign event, Flores wrote, Biden came up behind her, put his hands on her shoulders, smelled her hair and kissed the back of her head.
Then a second woman, Amy Lappos, emerged, describing first on Facebook Sunday and then in an interview with the Hartford Courant published Monday afternoon her experience with Biden at a 2009 fundraiser:
"It wasn't sexual, but he did grab me by the head," she said. "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."
This is how to right the bar for what’s OK. It’s not OK to touch women in ways that make them deeply uncomfortable just because it isn’t directly sexual.
After Flores’ story came out, Biden’s communications team circulated two stories addressing photos that have often been cited as examples of the former vice president’s inappropriate touching. Stephanie Carter used Medium to provide background on an infamous video of Biden holding her shoulders at her husband’s confirmation as Secretary of Defense, explaining that she had been anxious and uncomfortable at the event, and Biden—an old friend—had sensed that and provided welcome reassurance and comforting. In The Washington Post, Sen. Chris Coons explained that his kids have known Biden their whole lives, and claimed his daughter “did not think of it as anything” when Biden whispered in her ear and kissed the side of her head in another infamous video, in which the little girl is seen leaning away from the vice president.
I don’t find this totally compelling, coming as it is from the father and not the little girl, and considering how hard it would be for any little girl, let alone a Delaware Democrat’s daughter, to tell her dad she doesn’t love Grandpa Joe’s close talking.
Anyone paying attention for the last few years probably isn’t surprised by these allegations. The Daily Show did a segment on Biden’s “audacity of grope” in 2015, and photos and videos of Biden hugging and kissing women and girls in ways that some viewers found inappropriate surfaced in 2017 as well. While Biden’s spokesperson’s claim that stories about those videos are part of “a cottage industry of lies” is hyperbolic, it’s true that many of the Biden images circulated by the right as damning are doctored.
But right-wingers muddying the waters in no way detracts from the stories Flores and Lappos are telling.
The excuses made for Biden by supporters ranged from the standard “he’s from a previous time” (when groping was… OK?) and “he’s just a physically affectionate guy” to attacks on Flores implying that she is an opportunist and a liar.
When Biden himself finally responded, he did better. While insisting that to him, these touchy moments were innocent “expressions of affection,” Biden also maintained that he wouldn’t question any woman’s reporting of her own experience and is interested in continuing to listen (and, hopefully, learn).
Others, clearly aren’t ready to learn but instead want to hand-wring about how women who don’t want to be groped by strangers are the real problem with the culture.
On The View, Meghan McCain worried that criticism like Flores’ would discourage politicians from shaking hands with every resident of Iowa, which seems both unlikely and illogical. It’s hard to conceive of how not wanting to be groped by a stranger is the same thing as shaking the hand of a presidential candidate.
I’ll shake hands with pretty much anyone. I do not want my shoulders or any other part of my body touched by someone I’ve never met before, no matter how famous they are (unless they ask and it’s Chris Pine and he wants to give me a hug—but even he has to ask first).
McCain’s colleague Joy Behar described Biden as “a close talker,” which everyone agrees makes you the absolute worst person in a bar but somehow is an excuse if you’re a politician? Whoopi Goldberg said Biden might be “a little overly familiar” and “a hands-on kind of guy.”
Biden isn’t Harvey Weinstein, but those explanations are all too reminiscent of the way people like him were talked about just a couple years ago. He’s “just” a womanizer, relax. Also, “handsy” is the word Goldberg is looking for—“hands-on” would be if Biden invited constituents to come to work with him and participate in government.
The cherry on top of Goldberg’s justification was how she just couldn’t imagine Biden making anyone feel “violated.” That’s nice for her. Just like it’s nice for the former Biden staffer who shared how great her former boss was.
But it’s also irrelevant. One woman—or even dozens of women—being comfortable does not negate any other woman’s discomfort. We are striving for greater respect and better communication, which ultimately will result in the clarity men claim they crave.
A good start is to treat strangers like they are strangers. This may seem anathema to the (Bill) Clintonian glad-handing kind of politics, but you can still be very warm and friendly to a constituent without molesting them. You can look a person in the eye, ask them a real question. Notice something specific about them. Make them feel seen without making them feel felt up.
Much of the criticism leveled against Flores has suggested she is ungrateful for the support Biden gave her. This happened when Al Franken was called out for groping as well. He’s so good on women’s issues, his defenders said.
The same is true for Biden—by the standards of the past several decades, he has been a champion of women’s issues. But his language, and behavior, have been at best paternalistic. In a 2014 speech on Obama’s Council on Women and Girls, Biden repeatedly referenced daughters, granddaughters, sisters, wives, mothers and grandmothers. A man raising his hand to a woman is “the cardinal sin,” he said. “The measure of manhood is willingness to speak up and speak out and begin to change the culture.”
This isn’t terrible. For a long time, much of the country probably needed to be reminded that most women are important in some way to a man in order to conceive of a culture in which women deserved bodily autonomy and respect and the ability to not feel constantly on edge while moving around through the world.
It is benevolent sexism, a fatherly pat on the head to a grown woman who deserves respect. Recall the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, when Biden said there were “things that I might say, jokes that I might say with a male trusted aide that I’ve been with for 20 years, might not be the same joke that I’d be willing to tell with the female members of my staff.”
This is the kind of attitude that keeps women away from the dinners where decisions are made, or the cigar club where networking happens. This attitude is why women don’t get mentored nearly as much as men—and why when they do, the mentoring often comes with unprofessional expectations. In order for us to have the same opportunities and access as men, we need to be treated the same way—not as fragile dolls or delicate daffodils who need saving, but as capable, intelligent people with meaningful skills and ideas to contribute.
Joe Biden does not deserve to be cast off from decent or Democratic society. But he is not our future. He is our past. And the president in 2020 should be a model of how we want to be, not how we were.
“We have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention” Biden said in response to Flores’ account. He’s right.
This is a time for women to claim control of our own narrative.