In 1848, one hundred women and (a few) men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York and signed the Declaration of Sentiments, citing a series of grievances against men, including how they had “given to the world a different code of morals for men and women.” For 170 years, that grievance has persisted—metastasized into something more poisonous than our foremothers could have imagined. It enabled a morally degenerate man to fashion himself as more palatable than a woman for the nation’s highest office.
This past month’s news—Donald Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleading guilty to campaign finance violations and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, convicted of tax evasion and bank fraud—shouldn’t have been surprising. Throughout his many decades in public life, Donald Trump has been mired in questionable business dealings and personal scandal, walking around like Pigpen, in a cloud of filth. Fishy real estate deals. Suspicious foreign loans. A fraudulent university. His misdeeds were impressively diverse, from refusing to pay contractors to cheating on his wives to selling lousy wine.
But Trump’s record of unethical behavior did not stop him from successfully painting Hillary as the more corrupt candidate. We were so primed to think ill of her that he may have actually benefited from the comparison. He still does it today, embracing “lock her up chants” at his various rallies.
It is not new to suggest that women in general—and Hillary Clinton in particular—are held to a double standard. But as we salivate over the latest scandal before refreshing Twitter for the next one, it is still, again, worth reflecting on how gender colors the lens through which we see this.
That Hillary’s use of a private server as Secretary of State dominated the campaign remains, for many Democrats, a reliable source of gallows humor. Trump railed against the security threat Hillary’s server posed—and now uses an unsecured phone. His staff, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, used private email in the White House. Most maddening, James Comey, the man who investigated Hillary’s use of personal email for official business, was himself using personal email for official business.
It was never about her emails. But during the campaign, they were treated as more disqualifying than Trump’s unprecedented refusal to disclose his tax returns. Unfounded nefarious connections between her work at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation were more damning than the Trump Foundation’s documented misuse of charitable funds.
At every twist and turn of the 2016 election, we convinced ourselves that Trump’s behavior was garden-variety sleazy while Clinton’s was unforgivably immoral.
After winning, Trump stayed on brand. The compulsive lies—more than 4,000 since becoming president. The nepotism—hiring his daughter and son-in-law as White House advisers. The old-school corruption—from making money off foreign officials staying at his hotels to his crooked cabinet. It’s all out in the open.
No matter. A poll taken last month found that only 14 percent of Republicans believe that he’s corrupt. And it’s hard to imagine that anything, even Cohen and Manafort’s guilt, will convince them otherwise. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart explains that this is because Trump’s supporters define corruption as “less the violation of law than the violation of established [racial and sexual] hierarchies.”
In other words, Clinton’s real crime was daring to run for president.
Not only is female ambition itself categorized as a type of corruption, but a woman’s every action is judged on a wildly different scale from men—a scale that minimizes the sins of powerful, white men.
Take Congressman Jim Jordan, who is under (not enough) fire for ignoring sexual abuse while he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University. His excuse? The accusations of assault he heard were just “locker room talk.”
When Trump was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women, it was dismissed as “locker room talk.”
The “locker room” is a proxy for the vast space we give men to behave in morally reprehensible ways. It is the crucible for our low expectations, a widespread cultural assumption that men need “a different code of morals” because they are, in fact, incapable of doing better.
The corollary is that women must do better. After reports surfaced that Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) kept a former chief of staff in his job for months after learning he had harassed and threatened a woman, she didn’t pledge to fight back against her critics. She quickly announced her retirement from Congress. And, let us not forget, it was Hillary who paid, time and again, for her husband’s infidelity.
This is the part where helpful commenters will bombard me with examples of Hillary’s lapses, including her reaction to Bill’s affairs. Yes, Hillary is flawed. But to liken her defects with those of Donald Trump is to engage in the kind of false equivalence that obliterates the very notion of moral clarity.
It also denies provable reality (a popular activity in some circles). Women who seek public office are held to an impossible double standard, not to mention subjected to levels of harassment their male counterparts will never know.
And a job well done is not enough. Whatever her flaws, Nancy Pelosi is one of the most effective Speakers of the House and minority leaders in recent memory—and the best Democratic fundraiser in the country. Her approval ratings are no worse than those of Mitch McConnell. And yet, she has been cast as Public Enemy No 1 in the midterms. Republicans are obsessed with her. And their attacks are driving other Democrats to distance themselves from her. A man in her position would have been sanctified. A woman becomes a pariah.
The wreckage of the Trump presidency is an hourly reminder of how his behavior was excused or overlooked during the campaign—not just by Republicans, but by a media that gave exponentially more airtime to Hillary’s email pseudo-scandal than to any one of Trump’s many real scandals.
A percentage of Americans simply cannot stomach a woman president. We knew that.
But the real problem is not the type of sexism that announces itself. It is death by a thousand injustices.
The daily microaggressions aimed at women, no matter their background, calcify into a set of norms—a latent sensibility that allowed people to suspend logic, reality, and their own sense of right and wrong, to convince themselves that the Donald Trump they saw was somehow better than the Hillary Clinton they imagined.
When the Seneca Falls convention adjourned, an Albany newspaper responded to its declaration for female equality: “This is all wrong… Society would have to be radically remodeled in order to accommodate itself to so great a change…”