I remember when we were told that we had to elect Joe Biden as president because of the deep and undeniable misogyny of then-President Donald Trump. We were told Biden would be a breath of fresh air and bring back decency and morality to the office.
Fast forward to yesterday, when Biden was asked about Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema being followed and taped in a public restroom by activists hounding the lawmaker for answers about their political grievances. He was asked, “Are these tactics crossing a line?” It was a golden opportunity for the president to defend the rights of women everywhere, to uphold the expectation for privacy in the most intimate spaces and to repudiate intimidation and unlawful filming. Instead, he laughed and replied, “I don’t think they’re appropriate tactics but it happens to everybody. The only people they don’t happen to are people who have Secret Service standing around. It’s part of the process.”
Being filmed without your consent in a bathroom isn’t something that happens to everybody, thank goodness. As it happens, it’s something that happened to me about 10 years ago, and the man (my rabbi, of all people) who did the filming rightfully served six years in prison for voyeurism. Life-changing experiences like that rock a woman’s sense of safety and make one into a strident defender of a woman’s right to privacy. They make one deeply appreciate the bright red lines that our society had previously made clear cannot be crossed.
But like all things in these deeply polarized, deeply broken times, we can’t even agree on those lines anymore. Instead, we see women, even those who have spent the last year promoting the #MeToo movement, excuse and justify this egregious act of intimidation in what should be a private space. Kirsten Powers, a CNN political analyst and USA Today columnist, tweeted: “Which is worse: your grandparents being deported or being followed into a bathroom (bc you refused to stop and listen) by ppl desperate for your help?”
Which is worse: your grandparents being deported or being followed into a bathroom (bc you refused to stop and listen) by ppl desperate for your help? This is not a trick question.— Kirsten Powers (@KirstenPowers) October 4, 2021
When I questioned her on this statement, Powers doubled down: “I’m flabbergasted by people who think a US Senator has been harmed by constituents trying to get her to understand how her actions affect actual lives. If she didn’t want to be confront in a bathroom she could have stopped and talked to them outside the bathroom.”
I’m flabbergasted by people who think a US Senator has been harmed by constituents trying to get her to understand how her actions affect actual lives. If she didn’t want to be confronted in a bathroom she could have stopped and talked to them outside the bathroom.— Kirsten Powers (@KirstenPowers) October 4, 2021
And even more troubling, so-called feminist publication Jezebel actually cheered the move, writing that it was “absolutely” appropriate to bully Sinema outside of her bathroom stall.
These are influential so-called feminists, from the president to members of the media, backing the notion that a woman being harassed and filmed in a bathroom is now part of the political process. As a woman working in politics, this is extremely troubling and honestly downright terrifying.
After years of being warned about violations of norms during the Trump administration, we now know the words of his detractors were empty. We also know had Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., been followed into a bathroom by a conservative activist, we would have never stopped hearing about it.
As it happens, many of these same feminists who are silent on Sinema’s violation were protesting all weekend about a woman’s right to privacy when it comes to abortion. Actress Jennifer Lawrence held a sign at one rally that said, “Women can’t be free if they don’t control their bodies.” How can this theory apply to one thing and that one thing only? How can feminists rally on behalf of abortion under the guise of women’s privacy and bodily control one day and be mute when a prominent woman has had her privacy and bodily control violated literally the next day?
This latest news cycle has sent a chilling message to those harmed by sexual crimes — victims like me and, I would argue, like Sinema. It tells us that these violations of our privacy are something we might have coming to us if we dare step a toe out of line, and that our fellow women who deem themselves feminists won’t even raise a whisper in our defense.
Leah Libresco Sargeant pointed out on Twitter why this discomforted many women, myself included: “Look, the reason people (especially women) try to hold the line on small boundaries and taboos is that once a person breaks a small, non-violent rule; you shift your expectations about whether they’re on the cusp of breaking a violent one. Don’t chase people into bathrooms.”
If following a woman into a bathroom, violating her privacy and designed to intimidate her is now acceptable practice, where is the new line? Is there even one? Do norms exist anymore?
This is a watershed moment and the opening of a true Pandora’s box of badness in our politics and one that won’t come without unintended consequences.
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.