If anybody needed more evidence that the war on women rages on in America, we were served up another substantial and unappetizing helping of such evidence earlier this month.
Most disturbing about this evidence is the way it highlights just how widespread the acceptance of sexism, and of violence against women, is.
While the anti-abortion legislation passed in Texas has been characterized as part and parcel of right-wing and Republican extremism, we should be keen to the fact that recent events underscore just how mainstream and institutionalized women’s second-class citizenship, even lack of personhood, is in U.S. culture and society.
This institutionalized and normalized sexism, we must understand, is precisely what enables what tends to get labeled as “extremism” in our political culture, fostering the dangerous illusion that this extremism is somehow completely outlandish and disconnected from American mainstream belief and value systems.
What we witnessed earlier this month with the Facebook scandal and the testimony of U.S. gymnasts should disabuse us of that harmful misconception.
Let’s start with the testimony of U.S. gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Maggie Nichols at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the FBI’s mishandling of the case of U.S. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s prolonge3d sexual abuse of them.
While Nassar is in jail experiencing some consequences for his behavior, many other institutions and individuals actually made Nassar’s behavior possible and allowed it to persist, including organizations Congress created to protect athletes, such as USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles captured the scope of the malfeasance rather straightforwardly and succinctly in her testimony, highlighting the lack of accountability beyond Nassar:
“We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at the FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers. Nassar is where he belongs, but those who enabled him deserve to be held accountable. If they are not, I am convinced that this will continue to happen to others across Olympic sports.”
The list of enablers is long, and their behaviors and those of these institutions shouldn’t just be chalked up to incompetence or failure to follow procedures or adhere to policies.
These behaviors need to be understood as rooted in a deeply embedded sexism, a denial of personhood to women, in American culture, society, and politics.
Maroney testified that the FBI “minimized” the sexual abuse she reported and also actively silenced her and falsified reports.
Raisman testified that she had repeatedly requested an interview with the FBI regarding Nassar’s abuse; yet it took them 14 months to respond. Even then, she recounts investigators treated the sexual abuse she reported as if “didn’t count and it wasn’t a big deal.”
She cites neglect by the FBI, USAG, and USOPC that allowed Nassar to “quietly slip out the side door” and continue to abuse new victims. “It was like serving innocent children up to a pedophile on a silver platter,” she said.
These dismissals aren’t just examples of incompetence or poor performance. They are rooted in a powerfully entrenched belief that women simply don’t count and that abuse of them is ok.
Indeed, these gymnasts’ testimonies echo those of millions, perhaps most infamously and recently that of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified at Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing.
Her testimony of rape and sexual abuse was ignored, and an alleged sex offender was appointed to serve on the highest court in the land and be one of nine people to make decisions impacting hundreds of millions of lives. Sexism, and sexual violence against women, was validated.
But we can’t just skewer conservative ideologues, or Republicans for this sexist erasure of women’s personhood and rights, even as we consider the draconian anti-abortion legislation Texas Republicans passed in their state.
Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, the Republican Party, its attendant ideologues, and the Supreme Court Justices it appoints do much to deny rights to women and many other Americans.
But if we only look at Republicans, we miss diagnosing the ways that what these gymnasts relate and what just happened in Texas were enabled by a persistent and seemingly acceptable mainstream sexism in American culture, society, and politics.
And Facebook, as we learned with their recent scandal and as I wrote about for PoliticusUsa, knew its Instagram platform was harmful to teenage girls but was fine sacrificing them for a $100 billion in profits.
And Consider this recent history. In elections in November 2019, Democrats in Virginia took control of the state legislature for the first time in 25 years. These election victories renewed hopes that Virginia could become the necessary 38th state to ratify the ERA so it could be sent on to Congress where it would go nowhere, which is what has happened.
And put this supposed moment of hope in the context of more recent history. Back in the 1990s, Democrats also controlled the legislature in Virginia and could have ratified the ERA.
They didn’t. Hmmm.
And here’s the statement in the ERA this nation trembles to validate:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”
Refusing to recognize women as constituting persons and as entitled to equal protection under the law effectively enables and validates sexism and violence against women.
Sexism is bi-partisan, indeed, but I hope not the kind of bi-partisanship Americans have been hoping for.
Indeed, take the statement by Garrison Keillor, generally considered a liberal voice, in October 2020 regarding Roe v. Wade, a decision fundamental to sustaining women’s rights. He basically capitulated on this fight, sacrificing women’s rights on some liberal political altar:
“I don’t think Roe v. Wade is worth fighting for anymore. It’s an issue that’s torn the country asunder and to what good? We can accept a system of states’ rights, whereby abortion is legal in some states, illegal in others, same as you have a death penalty in some states, nor in others.”
Could we accept a system where racial discrimination and Jim Crow were ok in some states?
But yet sexism is somehow more palatable.
We need to understand this denial of equal rights as more than simply Republican politics; the tendencies are deeply embedded in American culture and politics.
If we want to stop extremism, we need to uproot the fundamental values and behavior that underpin it.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.