Stop Asking Powerful Women To Fix Bad Men

Kate Harding

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Most of us spend our childhoods learning repeatedly that when something bad happens — falling out of a tree, being bullied at school, getting wet-willied by a sibling — the person you call to fix it is Mom. Mom is qualified as a first responder, advocate, judge and jailer, depending on the problem at hand. She always seems to know what to do.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that so many of us carry a version of this practice over into adulthood. When something bad happens, we look around for a powerful woman to step up and take care of it.

Hundreds of people involved in the movie industry covered up studio executive Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial abuses over decades, and we ask: What did Meryl Streep know, and when did she know it?

Director Woody Allen was accused of molesting his daughter Dylan Farrow more than 20 years ago. Not long after, he took nude photos of girlfriend Mia Farrow’s teenage daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, then left Mia Farrow for Soon-Yi, who was his own children’s sister. Between the time when he was in therapy for his alleged inappropriate relationship with Dylan and the advent of the #MeToo movement, he’s made two dozen films and been approved to adopt two girl children. But now that we as a society have suddenly decided to shun men who abuse and exploit girls and women, we keep asking women to answer for him. Greta Gerwig, Kate Winslet and Diane Keaton have all been publicly called to account for their collaborations with (and disappointing defenses of) Allen, but I’ve only seen two people ask the same of ”Wonder Wheel” star Justin Timberlake: alleged Weinstein victim Rose McGowan and Dylan Farrow herself.

And it’s not just female celebrities we expect to control the men around them. Tondalao Hall has been in prison for 13 years for “failing to protect” her children from her abusive partner. Hall, herself a victim of his abuse, was only 19 years old and a mother of three when a judge sentenced her to 30 years in prison. Her partner, Robert Braxton Jr., was released from custody on the same day. He finished his probation years ago and is a free man.

Moms are supposed to solve the problems other people create, no matter how much they suffer themselves or how little power they have relative to the men they’re expected to bring to heel. Naturally, that includes our national mom, Hillary Clinton, the woman we hope can fix everything and soothe our fears, even as we hurl sexist invective at her and insist she’s too old to understand anything.

Clinton, too, was asked to account for her relationship with Democratic Party donor Harvey Weinstein. During the 2016 campaign, she was accused of feminist hypocrisy because in 1975, while employed by a legal aid clinic, she defended a child rapist in court. For 30 years, she’s been held personally responsible for everything her husband has done or been accused of, including cheating on her in the most publicly humiliating way imaginable and allegedly assaulting three women. During a presidential debate, Donald Trump repeated a line frequently heard in both right- and left-wing circles, that Clinton not only stood by her man but “viciously attacked” the women who accused him of sexual assault. Politifact rated this claim “mostly false,” noting that, although Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign “deployed tough tactics to defend against stories of consensual sex,” Hillary was “largely silent” when it came to allegations of sexual violence. No matter. She was “just as responsible” as the alleged rapist, according to conservative commentator Tomi Lahren and seemingly half of Twitter.

And now, when the Oval Office is occupied by an admitted sexual predator accused of misconduct against 19 women, the burning question of the day is, “Why didn’t Hillary Clinton, who is not currently running for office and seems unlikely to ever again, fire an employee accused of sexual harassment 10 years ago?”

When Clinton answered the question

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The most important work of my life has been to support and empower women. I’ve tried to do so here at home, around the world, and in the organizations I’ve run. I started in my twenties, and four decades later I’m nowhere near being done. I’m proud that it’s the work I’m most associated with, and it remains what I’m most dedicated to. So I very much understand the question I’m being asked as to why I let an employee on my 2008 campaign keep his job despite his inappropriate workplace behavior. The short answer is this: If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t. Before giving some of the reasons why I made a different choice back then and why looking back I wish I’d done it differently, here’s what happened and what my thinking was at the time. In 2007, a woman working on my campaign came forward with a complaint about her supervisor behaving inappropriately toward her. She and her complaint were taken seriously. Senior campaign staff and legal counsel spoke to both her and the offender. They determined that he had in fact engaged in inappropriate behavior. My then-campaign manager presented me with her findings. She recommended that he be fired. I asked for steps that could be taken short of termination. In the end, I decided to demote him, docking his pay; separate him from the woman; assign her to work directly for my then-deputy-campaign manager; put in place technical barriers to his emailing her; and require that he seek counseling. He would also be warned that any subsequent harassment of any kind toward anyone would result in immediate termination. I did this because I didn’t think firing him was the best solution to the problem. He needed to be punished, change his behavior, and understand why his actions were wrong. The young woman needed to be able to thrive and feel safe. I thought both could happen without him losing his job. I believed the punishment was severe and the message to him unambiguous. I also believe in second chances. I’ve been given second chances and I have given them to others. I want to continue to believe in them. But sometimes they’re squandered. In this case, while there were no further complaints against him for the duration of the campaign, several years after working for me he was terminated from another job for inappropriate behavior. That reoccurrence troubles me greatly, and it alone makes clear that the lesson I hoped he had learned while working for me went unheeded. Would he have done better – been better – if I had fired him? Would he have gotten that next job? There is no way I can go back 10 years and know the answers. But you can bet I’m asking myself these questions right now. Over the years, I have made, directly and indirectly, thousands of personnel decisions – everything from hiring to promoting to disciplining to firing. Most of these decisions worked out well. But I’ve gotten some wrong: I’ve hired the wrong people for the wrong jobs; I’ve come down on people too hard at times. Through it all, I’ve always taken firing very seriously. Taking away someone’s livelihood is perhaps the most serious thing an employer can do. When faced with a situation like this, if I think it’s possible to avoid termination while still doing right by everyone involved, I am inclined in that direction. I do not put this forward as a virtue or a vice – just as a fact about how I view these matters. When The New York Times reported on this incident last week, my first thought was for the young woman involved. So I reached out to her – most importantly, to see how she was doing, but also to help me reflect on my decision and its consequences. It’s never easy when something painful or personal like this surfaces, much less when it appears all over the news. I called her not knowing what I’d hear. Whatever she had to say, I wanted her to be able to say it, and say it to me. She expressed appreciation that she worked on a campaign where she knew she could come forward without fear. She was glad that her accusations were taken seriously, that there was a clear process in place for dealing with harassment, and that it was followed. Most importantly, she told me that for the remainder of the campaign, she flourished in her new role. We talked about her career, policy issues related to the work she’s doing now, and her commitment to public service. I told her how grateful I was to her for working on my campaign and believing in me as a candidate. She’s read every word of this and has given me permission to share it. It was reassuring to hear that she felt supported back then – and that all these years later, those feelings haven’t changed. That again left me glad that my campaign had in place a comprehensive process for dealing with complaints. The fact that the woman involved felt heard and supported reinforced my belief that the process worked – at least to a degree. At the time, I believed the punishment I imposed was severe and fit the offense. Indeed, while we are revisiting whether my decision from a decade ago was harsh enough, many employers would be well served to take actions at least as severe when confronted with problems now – including the very media outlet that broke this story. They recently opted to suspend and reinstate one of their journalists who exhibited similarly inappropriate behavior, rather than terminate him. A decade from now, that decision may not look as tough as it feels today. The norms around sexual harassment will likely have continued to change as swiftly and significantly in the years to come as they have over the years until now. Over the past year, a seismic shift has occurred in the way we approach and respond to sexual harassment, both as a society and as individuals. This shift was long overdue. It occurred thanks to women across industries who stood up and spoke out, from Hollywood to sports to farm workers – to the very woman who worked for me. For most of my life, harassment wasn’t something talked about or even acknowledged. More women than not experience it to some degree in their life, and until recently, the response was often to laugh it off or tough it out. That’s changing, and that’s a good thing. My own decision to write in my memoir about my experiences being sexually harassed and physically threatened early in my career – the first time was in college – was more agonizing than it should have been. I know that I’m one of the lucky ones, and what happened to me seemed so commonplace that I wondered if it was even worth sharing. But in the end, that’s exactly why I chose to write about it: because I don’t want this behavior or these attitudes to be accepted as “normal” for any woman, especially those just starting out in their lives. No woman should have to endure harassment or assault – at work, at school, or anywhere. And men are now on notice that they will truly be held accountable for their actions. Especially now, we all need to be thinking about the complexities of sexual harassment, and be willing to challenge ourselves to reassess and question our own views. In other words, everyone’s now on their second chance, both the offenders and the decision-makers. Let’s do our best to make the most of it. We can’t go back, but we can certainly look back, informed by the present. We can acknowledge that even those of us who have spent much of our life thinking about gender issues and who have firsthand experiences of navigating a male-dominated industry or career may not always get it right. I recognize that the situation on my 2008 campaign was unusual in that a woman complained to a woman who brought the issue to a woman who was the ultimate decision maker. There was no man in the chain of command. The boss was a woman. Does a woman have a responsibility to come down even harder on the perpetrator? I don’t know. But I do believe that a woman boss has an extra responsibility to look out for the women who work for her, and to better understand how issues like these can affect them. I was inspired by my conversation with this young woman to express my own thinking on the matter. You may question why it’s taken me time to speak on this at length. The answer is simple: I’ve been grappling with this and thinking about how best to share my thoughts. I hope that my doing so will push others to keep having this conversation – to ask and try to answer the hard questions, not just in the abstract but in the real-life contexts of our roles as men, women, bosses, employees, advocates, and public officials. I hope that women will continue to talk and write about their own experiences and that they will continue leading this critical debate, which, done right, will lead to a better, fairer, safer country for us all.

at length in a Facebook post last week, she was pilloried again for her decisions, which include (1) listening to the victim, believing her and taking immediate measures to separate her from her harasser; (2) enacting non-firing but non-trivial consequences upon said harasser; (3) believing in second chances; and (4) having a different opinion in 2018 than she had in 2008.

It’s easy for all of us to say from our armchairs that we would have immediately fired a harasser, turned down a Woody Allen-adjacent paycheck (and its attendant promise of awards and cachet) or abandoned an old friend when the tide turned. But if #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that, prior to this unusual moment, real consequences for workplace sexual harassment were almost nonexistent.

Weinstein’s abuses went unchecked for years. The first allegation against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — who recently pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct for molesting young girls but has been accused of the same crime by 265 women at this writing — came in 1994. Bill Cosby’s alleged pattern of drugging and raping women dates back to the 1960s, but he was not publicly held to account until 2014.

For decades, these men traded not only on their power, privilege, money and networks of loyal friends, but also on cultural stereotypes of women as liars and gold diggers, to silence their accusers and bolster their own reputations. They felt emboldened to continue their abuse, safe in the belief that their voices would always be trusted over those of girls and women.

Although Clinton is the subject of so much ire in part because she has more power than nearly any other woman in the world, the reality remains that most women are not in a position to single-handedly fix the problems that men have created. Not Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet or Greta Gerwig, in an industry where last year only 1 percent of the top-grossing films “employed 10 or more women in key behind-the-scenes roles,” according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. Not even Clinton herself, who despite winning nearly 3 million more votes overall, could not overcome Trump’s appeal to rural voters in crucial states and Russian interference in the election. And certainly not women like Tondalao Hall, who deserve community support, not punishment for a man’s actions.

This is the problem with blaming powerful women for men’s bad behavior. It’s never just about the powerful women.

Blaming Clinton for the harassment Burns Strider committed after he worked for her does nothing for his victims. Do we somehow think that if she had fired him 10 years ago he wouldn’t have worked again? It does, however, open the door to a pernicious victim-blaming argument: If you don’t report your own harassment or assault or rape, you’re leaving the perpetrator free to do it again. While many survivors do speak out in hopes of stopping serial predators, there is no guarantee that their courage will do anything but open them up to re-traumatization by the justice system. One need only look at the backlog of untested rape kits to understand that the structures needed to support victims in their efforts to prevent future assaults are simply not there. They are neither culpable for anyone else’s crimes nor capable of stopping them.

Holding women accountable for other people’s behavior is how we end up with laws in 29 states that criminalize victims of intimate partner violence who can’t protect their beloved children from abuse. Most of all, it’s a great way to avoid looking at the complicated systems of privilege and power that enable men to treat women and girls as sexual objects that their status entitles them to possess.

I’m not saying anyone has to forgive Hillary, or Meryl, or Diane Keaton, or Lena Dunham or Camille Cosby for standing by men who hurt women. They have all made deeply disappointing choices, and not all of them have expressed regret for it. But if our goal is really to move from a #MeToo world to a #TimesUp world, we ought to spend much less time looking for moms to absorb our rage and frustration. That time is better spent thinking about what structures need to come down and what just new systems we’ll build in their place.

Kate Harding is co-editor of Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, and author of Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — and What We Can Do About It.