Editor’s Note: Martha Pease is CEO of DemandWerks, a firm that advises companies on marketing strategy, and co-author of the book, “Think Round.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Martha Pease: Allegations about Trump's behavior toward women could cost him the election
But Trump may start nation down the path of finally deciding, once and for all, to treat women as equals, Pease says
With three weeks left before election day, most Americans are asking whether there’s any silver lining to this mess we call a presidential campaign. And perhaps there is.
The “Access Hollywood” recording – which captured Donald Trump’s raw, predatory approach toward women – sparked controversy concerning the Republican nominee. This political firestorm was only further fueled by the stream of women who have come forward with allegations of sexual assault in the wake of this scandal, and Trump’s inflammatory response to these claims.
This situation could cost Trump the election. Yet in an ironic twist, the world’s most notorious misogynist may start the nation down the path of finally deciding, once and for all, to treat women as equals. What an unexpected blessing that would be!
Without intending it, Trump has brought us the ultimate reality show, revealing what is really said behind the scenes among men seeking power over women. A predator one can see can at least be confronted, but a predator who lurks in the shadows – or, rather, in the case of Trump and Billy Bush, on the luxury bus – is hard to identify and even harder to stop.
Trump’s casual description of stalking and thrusting himself upon unsuspecting victims is, for many women, an ugly reminder of the worst moments of their lives. And for many men, especially younger ones, it has yanked back the curtain and revealed the brutal underbelly of misogyny and how the instigators of actions like these are often hidden from sight. For women and men, this episode has been a wakeup call.
The intensity of voter reaction may also be fueled by the intimate nature of the topic. Unlike other important feminist moments in our history, this is not about groups of women acting out in protest by burning bras, or even marching for reproductive rights. This one is about bodies, about each woman’s and girl’s individual right to expect that hers is off limits to anyone she doesn’t want touching her.
Unlike older generations, young men today have a keener sense of justice when it comes to women and their right to physical security. In my own household of millennial men, the case of the former Stanford swimmer, who was convicted of rape but given only the lightest of sentences, was greeted with anger and outrage. The point is that elevating sensitivity around sexual assault and rape culture – whether proven in court or captured on tape – is beginning to bring about significant changes in attitude.
It is way too early for proponents of women’s rights to declare victory. Even as some polls show Hillary Clinton opening up a huge lead among women, a Washington Post-ABC poll taken nine days after the scandal had reached its peak found that 63% of all likely voters say the contents of the Trump tapes would not affect their vote.
While this is certainly not a hopeful figure, a number of signals do point in an optimistic direction and that suggests widespread change can happen.
First, people do seem more ready to make this issue both a personal and a public one. Michelle Obama is at the head of that line, testifying from her powerful and personal perspective that aggression toward women is simply unsupportable in our society. After the Trump tapes were revealed, author Kelly Oxford tweeted about her own sexual assault experience, and encouraged others to do the same. More than 30 million people either left a response or visited her Twitter page over the past week.
There have been other moments in history when a national conversation like this moved from the institutional to the personal level, which in turn shifted the balance of power as well. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used the personal testimony of black Americans to drive the civil rights movement forward, and Nelson Mandela used the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to move South Africa toward unity. When painful confrontation like this begins, change is often not far behind.
Women also seem to be taking action. There has been widespread acknowledgment that these misogynistic actions occur for a while now, but the latest push is one that is distinctively toward attitudinal change: a sense that it’s time for men like Trump to move on and that women are done tolerating the status quo.
Some of the subtle realities of sexual harassment are also being discussed and considered more openly. The truth is coming out that when it comes to facing the comments of men who behave like Trump, women often have to choose whether they want success or the emotional satisfaction of confrontation. Even Ivanka Trump admitted she faced aggressive behavior like this from men on her father’s construction sites, but didn’t do anything about it out of fear of damaging her job prospects.
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While Hillary Clinton should be the person benefiting from this scandal, due to her husband’s past infidelities she can’t be as full-throated as she might like. Trump might have the power to throw Bill’s women in her face now, but once elected – as seems likely – she will be in a stronger position to make the empowerment of women, both here and overseas, a central theme of her presidency.
Ultimately, then, Trump’s scorched Earth legacy with women may have a positive effect on America. If the collective moral reaction against Trump means that society is finally ready to say enough is enough, this ugly chapter in our politics could actually turn out to be a victory.