April 5, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Women Are Explaining
Unthinkable that Democrats would turn back now.
The stories about Joe Biden and the (so far) eight women he has discomfited with his brand of “tactile politics” seem less about the former vice president and more about the Democratic Party’s reflection of women’s experiences and women’s interests.
The stories demand effort. They question norms and they offer new ones. They require an open mind and empathy, and willingness to see shades of meaning. The stories ask for patience, as they mull over women’s behavior, over men’s, and over how each is informed by the other and by cultural forces larger than both. The stories aren’t about righting a wrong so much as holding men accountable, as if to say: I am a human being who will be honored even if you did not intend to dishonor me. Got it?
These stories about Biden aren’t about Biden.
I got that sense after reading Sofie Karasek’s account, in the Post, about the time, when she was a 22-year-old advocate for sexual assault survivors, when Biden grasped her hands, leaned forward, and touched his forehead to hers. It was an emotional moment, Karasek said, that sent a message to survivors of gun violence that they are not alone. A picture of that moment went viral, and that picture went on to do real good in the world, according to Karasek. But Biden’s approach left her feeling conflicted.
I averted my eyes, hoping my body language could shorten the interaction. I didn’t think he was going to kiss me, but it felt like if I met his eyes, it wasn’t out of the question, either. It was unwelcome, uncomfortable and strange. At the same time, I was glad to convey this serious message to him, glad it seemed to resonate with him.
As time passed I began to feel a sense of shame and belittlement every time I saw the photo. I had displayed it on a bookshelf in my room, but I eventually took it down because people would make fun of it — “It looks like he’s about to kiss you!” It brought up too many conflicting feelings.
Aides posted a short video to Twitter on Wednesday in which Biden conceded that he’d made some women uncomfortable, as he has tried over the years to connect personally with each and every person he meets. He understands, he said, that: “Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying.”
“But I’ll always believe governing—and, quite frankly, life, for that matter—is about connecting, about connecting with people,” Biden said. “That won’t change. But I will be more mindful and respectful of people’s personal space.”
He didn’t apologize, but even if he had, I don’t think it would have mattered to his presumed White House bid. These stories about Biden aren’t about Biden. Not really. They are about these women’s experiences, about conflicting values and emotions, about rethinking the lines of appropriate behavior. Their stories were waiting to be told. If it wasn’t Biden, it would have been someone else. It’s probably hard for Biden to imagine Democrats having a conversation without him, but that’s what this is.
That these stories were waiting to be told suggests something else: how far the party has come in the politics of gender. There’s no more tolerance for Bill Clinton types. But that’s only the most obvious threshold. The party purged a popular Democratic senator. It attacked a Supreme Court nominee so fiercely over allegations of sexual misconduct that his approval rating cratered before being confirmed. Then it won the 2018 midterms in a landslide thanks to women raging against Donald Trump.
As someone smarter than I am said: “The Democratic Party shouldn’t underestimate how many pissed off women (and women of color, especially) will be furious if there’s no woman on the ticket when there are so many qualified women running—women who are much more qualified than Beto [O’Rourke] or [Pete] Buttigieg.” She added:
It would literally be the story of our professional lives played out again.
Which brings us to the specter looming over all this: Hillary Clinton’s defeat to a man who admitted to sexual assault, paid women to keep quiet about sexual affairs with him, and otherwise smeared his rival as “a nasty woman.” The Democratic Party has evolved from defending Bill Clinton’s stupid infidelities to debating the finer points of gendered personal space. That’s an amazing and welcome progression! So it’s rather unthinkable that the party would turn back that progress by nominating Joe Biden.
Don’t for a minute think Trump won’t attack Biden on women’s issues. He will and he already has (see below). If Biden is the nominee, we can expect an endless cycle in which Trump accuses Biden of something horrible, Biden weathering it, while the press explains again that Trump is horrible. Most of us will hate it, but Trump will love it, because it will lower the entire election into the gutter. No issues debated. No policies. No substance. Nothing but heat and no light. Trump’s perfect milieu.
This is what 2020 will look like
Only times a million. Bank on it. —JS
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.