Reviewing the scandal-plagued record of the nation’s governors Thursday morning, The New York Times suggested that part of the problem might be that women are acting up. “Would the assault case bedeviling Mr. Paterson have surfaced or had the same throw weight three decades ago before women’s issues became as much a part of the conversation?” columnist Peter Applebome asks. The assault case bedeviling Paterson involves, in case you’ve been asleep for a week, him and his surrogates allegedly leaning on his chief aide’s ex-girlfriend to drop her request for a protective order against the governor’s man. The complainant, one Sherr-una Booker, says the Paterson aide David Johnson choked her, threw her against a mirror, and tried to rip her Halloween costume off. (Paterson says there’s more to the story, which actually involves people who worked for him, not him.)
People have nothing if they cannot protect themselves from physical assault. It is the foundation of every other freedom. And it is the first duty of government.
Blah, blah, blah: The conversation is the problem. Now 30 years after the women entered the “conversation,” getting the women who’ve had the shit beat out of them to actually do something about it is brutal. When the Rihanna/Chris Brown thing surfaced last year, I was one of the few women in the media willing to say that women, especially rich, childless women who could exit the situation have a responsibility to themselves to leave and take all available steps to protect themselves (and other women) from the abuser. The blogosphere exploded. How could I “blame” the victims for their abuse? How could I fail to understand how having your boyfriend hit you causes your brain to cease functioning like a normal organ, because abusers always taunt their victims to leave? I was no better than an abuser myself. A privileged and famous intellectual went public with the heart-rending story of how her Turkish boyfriend screaming at her caused her to lose her vaunted ability to think for several days before she finally found her way to the airport to come home. The self-described “blonde” and privileged Harvard graduate Leslie Morgan Steiner has written a tear-jerking memoir of the four years she spent being beaten regularly by her “blond” husband before neighbors rescued her by chance.
• Reihan Salam: What Paterson Got Right • Linda Fairstein: How Could Paterson Silence Abuse?Defying all these stereotypes about women’s passivity in the face of domestic violence, Sherr-una Booker actually did it. A woman with a history of cancer, a young son, and what was apparently a long relationship with the abuser, called 911. When the criminal-justice system treated her choking injuries as too minor for their serious attention, she went to family court to get an order to protect her. The governor allegedly sent emissaries to discourage Booker from pursuing it, but she kept showing up in court, trying to get the order served, running the Kafkaesque obstacle course the court system puts before any domestic-violence victim. Faced with such stubbornness, witnesses say the governor was forced to call her himself, and she finally stopped coming to court.
Unless you have been in the trenches of the more than three decades-long movement to turn women into people, it is difficult to understand the damage the governor of the state of New York purportedly set out to do. People have nothing if they cannot protect themselves from physical assault. It is the foundation of every other freedom. And it is the first duty of government. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” Sound familiar? Women are smaller than men on the whole and vulnerable through their children. They have a devilish time securing their right to life themselves. If Harvard-educated blondes (and their defenders in the blogosphere) are hard-pressed to resist and call in their government to protect them, imagine how hard it was for Booker. And then the head of the government whose first duty it is to protect her calls her up to make her go away. (“Make it go away,” Paterson allegedly told ordered his staff.) Every day that he remains in office is a message to all the women in New York that Jefferson’s recitation of rights is, indeed, confined to “men.”
Perhaps because powerful men haven’t heard enough of the conversation yet, the New York state government recently provided its citizens with another opportunity to discuss women’s issues. In December 2008, former State Senator Hiram Monserrate, (D-Queens) allegedly slashed his girlfriend Katy Giraldo with a broken glass before incontrovertibly dragging her kicking and screaming to the car (videocameras, bless them) to take her to a hospital far from his district, where she told the hospital staff that he’d slashed her face. No Sherr-una Booker she, however; when the police came, Giraldo changed her mind about the alleged slashing. All a terrible accident, she said, a terrible 20-stitch blunder into a broken drinking glass. When Monserrate came to trial, the judge dismissed all but one count of misdemeanor assault (a.k.a. dragging while being videoed). Giraldo changed her story once dragged on the stand by a subpoena, saying the incident was all a mistake. The judge ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict the senator of the more serious felony counts. The state senate threw Monserrate out, but he’s running as an independent in the election to replace himself, so in a couple of weeks the Queens voters will be able to reelect him if they want to. With no story from the girlfriend, the Times reports, female constituents they interviewed have... doubt: “There’s a lot of talk about what he did and didn’t do, but if he’s fighting so hard to clear his name, it could be that what’s out there is wrong,” one of them said. Another, Marlene Berliner, said that she was still “very confused.”
Even if Governor Paterson resigns, then New Yorkers may still have the opportunity to be governed by someone who thinks it’s OK to hit a woman.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Karla Giraldo didn't testify in the Monserrate trial.
Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.