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Why feminism didn't lose in 2016

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Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, and Hillary Clinton’s loss, was a devastating blow to feminism. America had a choice between its first woman president and an alleged sexual predator; between “women’s rights are human rights” and “grab ’em by the pussy”; between telling our daughters they can do anything they want, and telling them that anything can be done to them by powerful, entitled men.

We know which option America chose. We also know it would have chosen differently if “one person, one vote” were anything but a cruel joke under our Electoral College system — but that’s beside the point now.

“However freakishly contingent [Trump’s] triumph, it forecloses the future feminists imagined at least for a long while,” Michelle Goldberg argues at Slate. “We’re going be blown backward so far that this irredeemably shitty year may someday look like a lost feminist golden age.” 2016, Goldberg writes, might go down as “the year the feminist bubble burst.”

In some ways, it’s hard to argue with her conclusion. Federal policy on women’s issues is likely to become a train wreck over the next four years — from Congress defunding family planning services, to civil rights enforcers shrugging at rape on college campuses, to labor agencies dismantling the few protections there are against gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

It’s also a massive blow to morale, Goldberg argues, when an obviously qualified woman loses the presidency to such an obviously less-qualified man — a blow that “can’t help but reverberate through the culture, changing our sense of what is possible for women.” Goldberg says her nightmare scenario is a new anti-feminist backlash of the kind we haven’t seen since the Reagan years. She fears the dawn of an era in which men who have been “stewing about political correctness” can start mistreating women with even more impunity.

Part of me shares those fears. Backlashes to social progress are real, and they happen with depressing regularity. But, honestly? I have a hard time seeing this particular nightmare — men feeling any more entitled to women’s bodies than normal, or feminism being any more credibly blamed for all of women’s problems than normal — coming to pass.

Yes, feminist hopes have been dashed — but feminist efforts haven’t failed. The only “bubble” that’s been popped is the one that had some people convinced misogyny was already over, or at least well on its way out the door.

There were some deeply painful losses in the ongoing battle for women’s rights and equality this year. There’s no way around that. But Trump’s victory didn’t vanquish feminism. It just clarified the challenges that feminism is really up against — even now, still, in America in 2016. And the important part is this: 2016 proved that feminism is up to the challenge. And it’s steadily winning battles in a very, very long war against something even bigger than Trumpism.

2016 was still a year of reckoning for men who act with sexual impunity

2016 did, sadly and predictably, keep up humanity’s thousands-year trend of men committing sexual violence against women or otherwise behaving badly. Jezebel has a whole list of “Men Who Got Away With It in 2016,” where “it” ranges from criminal mischief to domestic violence to genocide, and where the men in question are all famous and still basically doing just fine for themselves.

But some of them didn’t get away with it, at least not entirely. And the reasons for that are reasons for feminists to be optimistic. It’s getting a little easier for victims of sexual violence to come forward, it seems, and it’s getting a little harder for perpetrators to escape consequences.

Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes became “former,” not to mention “disgraced,” thanks to the determined efforts of Gretchen Carlson — the former Fox anchor who sued Ailes for sexual harassment, secretly taped his advances (which Ailes still denies making) for a year, and inspired numerous other women to go public about similar experiences with him.

There were limits to this feminist victory. Carlson may have gotten a $20 million settlement and an apology from Fox, but Ailes got a $40 million golden parachute. Carlson faced public skepticism from her colleagues and attacks on her character, like so many women who go public about sexual misconduct. And how are ordinary women with ordinary support networks supposed to feel about coming forward when even a popular TV personality like Carlson is only vindicated after a year of dedicated groundwork, and only after an even more famous colleague (Megyn Kelly) also comes forward to back her up? (We may have a gender wage gap of 80 or so cents on the dollar — but when it comes to public perceptions of sexual violence, we’ll be lucky when a woman’s word is worth 80 percent of a man’s.)

Nonetheless, Ailes was one of the most powerful men in media. He made Fox News what it is today. It was never, ever a foregone conclusion that he could be taken down at all by something like this, much less that he’d lose his job over it.

Other high-profile cases of sexual misconduct in 2016 came with similarly mixed, but still powerful, feminist victories. Bill Cosby’s accusers were ignored for years until a male comedian said something in 2014 — but in 2016 Cosby faced criminal charges (which he may or may not be convicted of, but there’s damning evidence against him), and his reputation is in the toilet. Former Stanford student and convicted rapist Brock Turner only served three months of his six-month jail sentence — but after his victim’s eloquent plea for justice went viral, his light sentence became a national scandal.

As for Donald Trump, well, he won the election. But while many voters were able to overlook his blatant misogyny, that doesn’t mean they liked or approved of it. The Access Hollywood tapes, and the many women who came forward after that to accuse Trump of sexual assault, dealt a huge blow to his campaign — one that only the last-minute chaos of FBI Director James Comey’s letter about Hillary Clinton’s emails could really help him recover from.

All of these major stories have one thing in common: women’s voices, amplifying and being amplified by other women’s voices. One woman speaking out, inspiring a dozen others to follow suit because they know they’re not alone. One woman speaking out, and changing the story we tell about a powerful man — in public, instead of the usual whispered warning to other women behind closed doors, or the usual ashamed silence.

More women are speaking out, and more people are listening to them. This is a new normal that can’t easily be reversed.

Perhaps more than ever, 2016 was the year of women both speaking out and being heard. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, but it’s also not something we can take for granted.

In just the past decade or so, feminism has become mainstream, culturally hip, and politically savvy. Beyoncé, for instance, has made feminism both appealing (think the FEMINIST sign at the 2014 Video Music Awards) and challenging (think the proud black feminism of her 2016 album Lemonade) to mainstream audiences.

In 2016, women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour ran election stories that any other outlet would consider major scoops. And some people on the internet seemed shocked — shocked! — that Teen Vogue would feature hard-hitting coverage of the 2016 election and not just beauty tips.

But none of this is surprising, as Sady Doyle explained for Quartz: The rise of feminist blogs during the George W. Bush years ended up “training an army of female journalists and editors” who now write for major outlets like the New York Times, or who have found their home at successful new digital publications. Even though it still gets dismissed and made fun of, feminist news coverage has gone mainstream.

No wonder then, perhaps, that decades of rape allegations against Bill Cosby didn’t even begin to catch up with him until late 2014, or that this year featured a broader cultural reckoning on sexual assault, or that Hillary Clinton decided to vocally embrace her gender and feminist values in 2016 after having done the opposite in 2008.

Social media has also given women huge platforms and communities to discuss problems they might otherwise have stayed silent about — or that they may never have found the words for until someone gave it a name.

When Trump’s “pussy” tape inspired author Kelly Oxford to tweet about her first sexual assault, and encourage other women to do the same, she was inundated with responses at the rate of at least one per second for at least the next day. And when I wrote about her tweets, women I know started telling me about experiences they’d kept to themselves for years.

There are many reasons — stigma, shame, trauma, and so on — why women might not talk openly about assault, even though it’s so common. But we’ve also been raised to expect that this kind of thing happens all the time. That it’s no big deal if a guy casually gropes you at a bar, or that it’s flattering if he gives you a kiss you weren’t expecting. That the sick, hollow feeling you might get about it afterward is your problem.

If you get enough women in a room to talk about this, though, they might start realizing they all have the same “problem.” They might give that problem a name, like “sexual assault,” and decide there’s no good reason to put up with it anymore.

They might even start naming and stop tolerating some of “the small indignities that make even the most privileged female lives taxing,” as Goldberg put it — like “mansplaining” (a man condescending to a woman on a subject she knows better than he does) or “manspreading” (when men take up too much space on a subway, e.g., and crowd others out).

Can this get a little ridiculous or trivial? Perhaps. Then again, it’s not like sexism saves itself for the really weighty, serious issues. Sometimes misogyny is actually so ridiculous, so absurd, that the only sensible response is blowing raspberries and laughing in its face. Lord knows we’re all going to need a little levity under Trump.

Systemic sexism depends on silence — people who will look the other way, or who will shut up those loud women who don’t have the courtesy to shut themselves up. But once silences are broken as widely and deeply as they have been for women this year, this decade, it’s very hard to put all of that back in the bottle.

In 2016, loud women fought off an extreme abortion ban in Poland, led a fierce fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and smacked down the idea that women should ever be embarrassed about their periods. Loud women planned a massive March on Washington for the day after Trump’s inauguration that could be the largest-ever mobilization of its kind.

Women just aren’t shutting up, and it’s hard to see why they would start now.

The near future of feminism will be local and decentralized. That doesn’t mean it won’t be effective.

It’s important to remember that women still made historic national electoral gains despite Hillary Clinton’s loss; the number of women of color in the Senate is about to quadruple, from one to four. Plus, the symbolic milestone of Clinton’s campaign — the first woman presidential nominee of a major party, who won the popular vote by about 3 million votes — really does matter despite her loss, and is in some ways a feminist triumph.

Of course, a majority-Republican Congress and a Trump-Pence administration don’t bode well for advancing women’s health or rights at the federal level. But there’s tremendous opportunity and energy for progressives and feminists to make some serious gains at the state and local level in the meantime — which also happens to be a much better long-term organizing strategy than obsessing over presidential politics.

2016 was the best year yet in a promising fight to pass paid sick and family leave at the state and local level. The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t have national paid maternity leave, and the momentum to change that — at least locally, as long as Congress does nothing — is strong. Three states, one county, and 10 cities passed laws in 2016 that require workers to be able to earn paid sick days, and New York State and Washington, DC, both passed very generous family leave insurance programs.

And amazingly, reproductive rights may actually be on the upswing — in spite of everything, including a promise from Trump to appoint “pro-life” Supreme Court justices who could overturn Roe v. Wade.

The Supreme Court’s decision this summer to overturn two Texas abortion laws was a sweeping pro-choice game-changer; it’s already been used to strike down abortion restrictions in other states, and more court victories will probably follow in the near future. That decision also makes it much less likely that the Court would overturn Roe v. Wade in the near future — at least not unless and until Trump gets to appoint two or three new conservative justices.

Collectively, states also proposed about 300 bills that would expand, rather than restrict, women’s health and rights, including better access to contraception and better maternal health care. It’s a promising avenue to shore up women’s health at a time when comprehensive coverage under the Affordable Care Act could be in jeopardy.

There’s also at least one interesting, and very promising, state and local side effect of Hillary Clinton’s loss: She is reportedly inspiring a massive surge of interest among women in running for local political office. Driven by shock, fear, and anger over Trump’s win, many women say they want to be the change they want to see in government.

That’s incredibly important: Research shows that women’s political ambition, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest hurdles to getting more women in political office and working toward equal representation in government. Some women are qualified and driven, but have just literally never considered running for office as a serious possibility. Others feel intimidated by fears of sexism on the campaign trail, or don’t feel supported by their political establishment.

Either way, there’s a lack of qualified women in the pipeline to advance in political office. And if more women run and win, especially at the state and local level, they will not only set themselves up for more powerful offices later — they’ll also change how their government works.

With someone like Trump in office, it’s much harder to argue that sexism is a thing of the past. That’s a good thing.

It’s tempting to think of these developments as the start of a sea change — the last stand of the “good old boys” who used their power to abuse women with impunity and trust that everybody else would look the other way, for instance. But we shouldn’t start writing rape culture’s obituary just yet.

Younger generations may be more liberal than older ones in general, but research suggests that they’re not necessarily more progressive on issues related to gender equality and sexism. While there’s been some progress on these issues, the sexism that remains can actually be more dangerous — because people will be less prepared to believe it really exists, and thus less equipped to deal with it.

In a 2013 Pew survey of Americans, for instance, millennial men were the most likely demographic group to say that all necessary changes have already been made to bring about gender equality in the workplace. That’s nuts: Women face workplace discrimination in almost every imaginable way, from the very real gender wage gap, to pregnancy and parenting discrimination, to unequal representation in leadership, to America’s complete lack of any national paid maternity or family leave.

But complacency in the face of all of that could be tougher when your president is the kind of guy who thinks his own daughter should just change jobs if she were ever sexually harassed at work.

I think of the status quo on sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry as like living in a town built on top of a toxic waste dump. The barrels aren’t as well-sealed or deeply buried as people think, and your kids are still getting sick, and still only certain kinds of crops will actually grow in that soil. But city officials insist everything’s fine — and really you should count your blessings, because in the next town over everybody has to wear gas masks.

But then one day, Hurricane Donald comes along. It roars through and rips up the grass and soil, and all the barrels bob to the surface and ooze toxic black goo everywhere, the stuff you thought and hoped was long buried.

It’s a much bigger and more obvious mess, and nobody’s happy. But at least nobody’s fooling themselves anymore, and you know just how much hard cleanup work is still ahead.