We are living through the fallout of a very real “war on women.” We’re hearing the stories of this war’s victims firsthand. And many Democrats, who have claimed for years to stand staunchly on the front lines of the defense, are running for the hills.
On Thursday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi called on Democrat John Conyers to resign from his congressional seat, ten days after allegations emerged that he sexually harassed at least three former staffers. Pelosi is right: Conyers should resign. But it took her ten days too long to say so, and not nearly enough Democratic leaders have followed suit, in either chamber of Congress.
When accusations against Conyers — a long-time Michigan congressman who, until last week, served as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee — surfaced on November 21, Pelosi said she has “zero tolerance” for harassment. But shortly afterward, she appeared on Meet the Press to defend Conyers, invoking his due-process rights, calling him “an icon,” and praising him for his longtime support of women’s rights. She even intimated that his accusers might be less than credible — “What is it, one accusation? Is it two?” she said dismissively.
Now, Pelosi wants Conyers to resign. But her painful equivocation suggests that her ultimate change in rhetoric had more to do with political calculus than with principle. Very few of her fellow Democratic congressmen, including those who purport to be champions of women, preempted her to demand Conyers’s resignation.
In response to the first few allegations, Franken said he was ashamed about his behavior because he has always cared deeply about women’s rights. It seems that some of his colleagues are perfectly willing to overlook his misdeeds, or even defend him despite them, on that same logic.
Just after the accusations against Franken began to surface, most Democratic senators who commented on the issue expressed some kind of disapproval, but not one suggested that, if the allegations were true, the Democrat ought to give up his seat.
Famed “reproductive rights” crusader Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, backed Franken almost without question after the allegations emerged, calling him “a very popular senator.” “People in Minnesota think that he is doing a good job and his political future will rest with the people of Minnesota,” Sanders added.
New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who made this “war on women” rhetoric a chief component of her Senate campaign in 2008, was asked on Thursday whether Franken should resign. “It’s his decision,” Gillibrand replied, noncommittally.
At this moment in history, many women feel as if they have the cultural power to reveal the myriad ways in which they have been preyed on by men in positions of authority. Naturally, not all of their stories allege equally serious misdeeds, and discerning the appropriate response to this movement is complicated by the reality that, more than likely, not every story is completely accurate. But we have seen and heard enough over the last two months to know that there is a deep moral rot in our culture — a rot that has led powerful men to target and abuse vulnerable women. Freed by others’ testimony, women are speaking up.
In the majority of these cases, the abusive men in question have been punished; they’ve lost positions, contracts, projects, and public respect. But in politics, these abusers have so far gone unscathed. One key reason for that discrepancy is surely that public figures who have long claimed to defend women have chosen to fall conveniently silent when their allies are the ones being accused of sexual misconduct.
And for all of their empty moralizing on “women’s rights,” Democratic politicians have proven unwilling to defend women when it truly matters. Their supposed moral certitude vanishes when their fellow progressive warriors — be it Conyers in the House or Franken in the Senate — are credibly accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct.
Then, suddenly, “women’s rights” become a whole lot hazier and more difficult to defend. The imperative to believe every woman’s testimony transforms into an intense concern for due process — despite the fact that Pelosi and her fellow Democrats support the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX regulations, which robs men accused of sexual assault on college campuses of their due-process rights. Respect for female autonomy is dismissed with a wave of the hand toward “ethics investigations” that will be forgotten in a matter of weeks.
A host of Democratic politicians swear that we’re living in the Handmaid’s Tale universe. They lecture us unceasingly about how conservatives take pleasure in persecuting women, robbing us of health care, telling us what we can and can’t do with our bodies. But when it comes to sexual assault, they’re oddly ambivalent in practice.
Could it be that, by “war on women,” Democrats really meant nothing more than “some Americans are unwilling to fund contraception and remain opposed to abortion”? Could it be that progressives’ conception of a man fully committed to “women’s rights” was, in fact, any man unwaveringly committed to unlimited, government-funded abortion on demand? Could it be that this, rather than actual respect and equality, was the line drawn in the sand?
Democratic politicians have proven unwilling to defend women when it truly matters.
In the wake of these sexual scandals, Democrats have showcased their intense hypocrisy. Their supposed devotion to women is nothing more than a political tool, wielded to garner votes from feminists and silence Republicans. When progressive men — “icons” — within their own ranks are exposed as predators, who abuse their power and take advantage of vulnerable women, the loudest “pro-woman” Democratic voices fall silent.
Any Democrat who examined the credible allegations against Conyers and Franken and still declined to call for their immediate resignations has forever forfeited the right to lecture us about “women’s rights.” Because the “war on women” is, sadly, all too real — and Democratic leaders care more about their politics than they do about its victims.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism with the National Review Institute.