I should have started earlier.
I began making calls for Barack Obama, during his first campaign, the summer before the election; I was absolutely certain he was the president I wanted and I knew he faced an uphill battle. When campaigning kicked off for the 2016 election, I leaned towards Bernie Sanders; like Bernie, I too am a socialist who has spent many years in Vermont. When Bernie bowed out, I toyed with supporting the Greens, but I knew the Greens stood no chance of winning, so I did my homework— I spent an afternoon reading up on Hillary’s platform, I delved into Hillary’s history, I read the endorsements of Hillary by people I respect— and I settled on becoming a Hillary supporter.
Until eleven days before the election, I felt confident that Hillary would win. Then FBI director James Comey released his now-notorious statement on Hillary’s emails, and my political bones felt a storm coming. I signed on as part of Hillary’s call team and made some calls, from my home in southwest London, to voters in Ohio. A few days after Comey’s letter, the email scandal revealed itself as not really scandalous at all, and the polls returned to predicting a Democratic victory. I was lulled into thinking everything would probably be all right— surely people would see sense and keep that horrible man out of the Oval Office— until Election Day itself. About midday on November 8th, I stopped by the cafe at the superstore for coffee. The lanky young white man at the counter noticed my accent when I placed my order, and he was intrigued.
“American or Canadian?” he asked.
“American,” I said. “It’s a big day for us.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “So if you could vote, who would you vote for?”
“I can vote, and I voted for Clinton weeks ago,” I said proudly.
“Hillary, huh? If I could vote in your election, I’d vote for Trump,” the man-boy said.
I could feel my nearly fifty-year old heart straining under the sudden pressure spike. “Why on earth would you ever want to do that?” I asked.
“I’d do it just to watch the world burn,” the barista answered with glee. “That’s one pound seventy please,” he added, as he sealed the lid on my takeaway coffee.
Just to watch the world burn. I came home, hurriedly unpacked the groceries that required cold, opened Hillary’s call tool, and began dialling Ohio with far greater single-mindedness and urgency.
Louise, our eleven-year old, arrived home from school first. “Are you calling for Hillary again?” she asked.
I put my hand to my lips in the “sh” shape and nodded.
“Can I sit next to you?”
A voicemail machine clicked on at the other end and I hung up. “Do you really have to?” I said to Louise. “It can be a bit nerve-wracking calling complete strangers to tell them to vote.”
Louise pouted. “Please?”
I caved in. “OK, but you have to be very, very quiet.”
“I will be,” Louise assured me. She was good on her word, and said not a peep while I dialled number after number, reaching only a handful of voters and affecting even fewer. My best call was to a woman whose caller ID recognised the UK country code.
“Why does it say you’re calling from England?” she asked, after spilling the good news that she was about to go work the polls for Hillary in Youngstown.
“Because I’m calling from London,” I said.
“From London? Really? Wow!”
“Well, I’m trying to do what I can. It’s kind of an important election.”
The woman laughed. “I’d say. Thanks for calling.”
“No problem. Thanks for working the polls. Fingers crossed.”
“Fingers and toes,” the woman said seriously.
Our fourteen-year old son Chris came home. “I’m home!” he announced loudly from the hall.
“Shhh! Mum is calling voters!” Louise hissed.
“Isn’t it a little late for that?”
“Well, it’s true that I should have begun weeks, or really, months ago, but it’s definitely not too late,” I said. “Today is all about making sure known Hillary supporters get out and vote.”
“Oh,” Chris said, and went to play Clash of Clans.
After dinner, Louise, who had watched all three presidential debates from start to finish, asked me to wake her up at four in the morning to tell her the result of the election.
“No,” I told her. “If Trump wins, I don’t want him to have the added victory of destroying what will hopefully be a good night’s sleep.”
Horror flashed over Louise’s face. “You don’t really think Trump will win, do you?”
“The experts don’t think so, but after Brexit, you just never know,” I said, in my calm-not-calm voice.
“Stupid Brexit. Stupid Trump,” Louise, who leans towards black and white thinking, said.
“Mmm… Anyway, so I’m not going to wake you up, and I don’t want you waking up early. You’ll find out in the morning, just like me.”
I stayed up until the results began trickling in, at nearly midnight London time; the first two states reporting were New Hampshire and some midwestern state. I confess which midwestern state is lost to me because when I saw that some counties in New Hampshire, the state that shares its entire western border with Vermont, my home state, were voting for Trump, a tidal wave of doom broke over me. I went to bed fearful. When I woke in the morning, padded downstairs, and saw this message from a dear friend— “Sorry… [sad face emoticon]”— I knew Louise’s righteous anger would be ringing through our home before long.
And it did.
“What?” Louise shouted, when I gingerly told her the news. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Who in their right mind would vote for him? After the things he said about women?”
I hung my head. “I know, sweetie. It’s horrible.”
“It’s not horrible! It’s insane! Who voted for him? Who?” Louise demanded, pushing her tousled hair back to reveal green eyes flashing with fury.
Markus, my husband, answered. “Mostly older white men.”
“Old white men! The same people who voted for Brexit! I’m sick of old white men! I really am!”
With that, Louise threw herself onto our double bed and began to cry real tears. I was not prepared for real tears. I had been gauzily political as a child; when Jimmy Carter— my candidate— lost to Ronald Reagan, I was disappointed, but I certainly hadn’t sobbed like Louise was doing now.
“Not every old white man voted for Trump,” I pointed out. “Grampy supported Hillary, and even Grampa, who is normally a staunch Republican, didn’t like Trump. And Pappa wouldn’t be caught dead voting for Trump.”
“Pappa isn’t old, and he’s not even American!” Louise wailed. “It’s still the fault of the old white men! Don’t tell me it’s not!”
At that moment, early on November 9th, I hadn’t yet learned that in fact, it was not just older white men, but also older white women that voted Trump into office, so I left Louise uncontested on that point, but tried another tack.
“It may not be such a bad thing to learn what you’re up against,” I said, patting Louise lightly on the back as she carried on crying. “It just means that we have to fight harder. It’s fantastic that you’ve joined the debating club. Someday you’ll be able to grind Trump into the ground.”
“But Hillary did grind him into the ground! She won all the debates! He couldn’t even give sensible answers, and he acted like a bully, but he still won! How is that fair?”
“I didn’t say it was fair, Louise. Just the opposite. It shows how far women still have to go in America. But we have to carry on with the work of daily life, and you have to get ready for school.”
“I can’t go to school today.”
“Yes, you can. In fact, you really must, because today is your Immersion Day on bullying, and nothing could be more appropriate.”
I haven’t slept well since the election. Trump has infiltrated my dreams, turning them into nightmares. This past Saturday, nearly two weeks after Trump was declared the president-elect, I went grocery shopping. No sooner had I walked in then Trump’s image assaulted me; if it wasn’t his reviled face leering on the front page of a newspaper, it was his fashion-model wife simpering from the cover of glossy magazines. I strode into the produce department in irritation, relieved to swap the spectre of Trump’s orange face for the sight of actual satsumas. But when the time came to pay for my groceries, I was cornered. Three magazines were on display above the conveyor belt: Time, Good Housekeeping, and Country Living. Time featured a close-up of Donald giving his trademark “thumbs-up” with “The Age of Trump” in tall, bold letters printed above him. It was late afternoon; everyone was buying dinner, so the queue at the till was moving slowly.
“If I had a Post-It note, I could write, ‘This man is a misogynist, racist, con man— his election is a travesty,’” I mused silently. “But that might be a criminal offense, defacing goods. What I could do is turn the magazine around so I at least don’t have to look at his horrid smile, but then the cashier may get in trouble as she may be responsible for making sure the display is tidy…”
The woman ahead of me carried on placing her groceries on the belt. Unable to bear it any longer, I reached over and turned Time around. My reward was a smaller picture of Trump behind a lectern at a rally, surrounded by a sea of his acolytes waving Trump/Pence signs. I began to wonder at what point I would snap and run through the grocery store full of well-heeled southwest London dwellers shouting, “Can’t you see where this is going? First Brexit and now Trump! Fight back!” while tearing the covers off of all the printed matter emblazoned with Trump’s name and tossing it deep into the frozen vegetables.
The husband of the woman in front of me had been paying attention. When I furtively pulled the Good Housekeeping in front of Time, hiding Trump’s name and face, the husband was watching, and he glanced at me curiously.
I set my jaw and pulled my shoulders back. Yes, it was a ridiculously tiny act of civil disobedience, but it was a start, and I had to start somewhere.
I know it was racism that really swung this election, aided and abetted by Russian interference, unchecked and irresponsible social media, voter suppression, Democratic missteps, and a frenzy of anti-elitist sentiment whipped up by elite old white men posing as anti-elitist men of the people. It may ring false for me to speak to racism, as a white woman. But as a woman, regardless of skin tone, I can confidently speak to another key element of Trump’s win: misogyny.
Trauma affects the biology of children, and even grandchildren, of survivors, studies have indicated (see Judith Shulevitz’s excellent article The Science of Suffering in the New Republic from November 16, 2014), so I was born with an understanding of the torment of sexual assault coded into my very genes. On childhood visits to the home of the relative responsible for this state of affairs, I have no memory of being touched, but I do distinctly remember feeling watched. There were many doors in that relative’s home— too many doors— and the doors sometimes opened unexpectedly, leaving me vulnerable. The master bathroom was particularly unusual as it had not one, not two, but three possible entrance doors. I couldn’t have been more than eight when I had the uneasy sensation that the relative in question had observed me in the bathtub when he shouldn’t have, or more exactly, that he had looked at my body, the body of an eight-year old girl, in a particular manner: a manner that led me to feel ashamed, although I had nothing to be ashamed of. I was not alone in that bathtub— one of my younger siblings was in with me. But I was alone one night, albeit clothed in a flimsy nightgown, when I was jolted awake by the sixth sense of prey under surveillance. I had been sleeping in the spare bedroom just next to the master bedroom, when I sensed— even through sleep— that I was not, in fact, alone. When I woke suddenly, I did so with the vision of a human child, not that of a gazelle, so will never know for certain if the swish of a closing door etched in my memory followed someone’s hasty exit. I can’t be sure if the threat I registered was real or imagined, but not long after that night we stopped visiting that particular relative; though I never set foot in that house of doors again, the fear, whether direct, transferred, or both, stayed with me, and my later experience as a woman in the world justified its continued presence.
There was the second boy to French-kiss me, whose tongue felt like it would choke me. There was the popular boy who asked me for a date; when I said no, he called my house (these were the days long before mobile phones) and demanded to know how I could refuse such an offer when it was common knowledge that I had never had a proper boyfriend. When I answered that I just didn’t want to go out with him, he argued that I actually did, seemingly convinced that I hadn’t fully understood my own position, and that “no” actually meant “yes.” I remember the boy’s baffled laugh when my “no” finally clicked, as though he truly couldn’t believe he hadn’t talked me into acquiescence. There were the boys who pushed their erections into my thigh unbidden during slow dances. Yes, we were slow dancing, but no, I hadn’t asked for that level of contact. There were the two boys who kissed me forcefully when I had no desire to be kissed; one had pronounced, when I extricated myself from his unwanted embrace, that he had kissed me because I “owed” him after years of platonic friendship— when friendship began coming with a “redeem for kisses regardless of consent” label, I do not know. There was the boy who took my best friend’s keys at a party he hosted, supposedly to keep my best friend from driving home drunk; when my best friend insisted on driving home anyway, she had to physically fight the host for the keys. That boy grew into a man, a man who, years later, was sentenced to life without parole for the brutal rape and murder of a young girl.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I am aware— and thankful— that I have suffered much less than many women that I do know and countless women that I don’t know. But the list is long enough to illustrate that misogyny has not left me untouched; indeed, the fingerprints of cultural attitudes towards women are all over every picture of me taken after I became a fully autonomous thinker and asked my mother to cut my hair.
When I was a young child, I had beautiful, long, golden hair, the sort of hair that grown women would pay vast sums of money to replicate. When, as children, my siblings and I acted out the story of Rapunzel— complete with spinning wheel— I always nabbed the lead role (it may have helped that I was also the oldest, but because of my hair, the siblings couldn’t argue the casting choice). The year I travelled to third grade by bus, as soon as I plonked myself down on a green vinyl seat I ceded ownership of my hair to the girls on the bus, who would brush it, plait it, or just run their fingers through it. My picture once appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, ponytail disappearing down my back, as I cuddled a doll for sale at a craft fair. During the annual holiday weeks I spent on Cape Cod with my Boston family, my hair, at least once each summer, would come undone by the ocean waves, leaving me gasping for air, vaguely cognisant of the irony of possible death by hair suffocation. It was my hair, beyond a doubt, that landed me another role, that of Mary in the living Nativity, which required me to stand beside an actual manger— with hay— outside my childhood Congregational church, cradling a doll meant to represent the Baby Jesus, for an hour or so one cold Vermont December night while congregants and townsfolk milled past.
I began to develop. I got my period, I started secondary school. Then one day my foot-long honey-blonde ponytail lay on the floor, a fallen witness to my simultaneous acknowledgement of both my imprisonment and my liberation.
“That’s a lot of hair gone,” my mother, who had wielded the scissors, said. “How does it feel?”
“Lighter,” I answered, swinging my head from side to side.
A girl’s father is the most important man in a girl’s life, and the impact the change in my appearance had on my father was unexpected. I hadn’t thought to mention my haircut to my father by letter or over the phone, so he was unprepared when we walked into the Howard Johnson’s in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he was waiting to drive my siblings and I the rest of the way to Boston for our weekend visit. Dad had only recently quit smoking, and his hands were at loose ends where he sat on his own, nursing a cup of coffee. When he caught sight of me, his face, normally composed in a tentative welcoming smile for such meetings, was overtaken by shock. Unusually, for my dad, he was not able to recover; the pain of loss remained there, exposed beneath the bushy eyebrows that I had inherited, as he said slowly, “You didn’t tell me you had cut your hair.”
“I forgot,” I said simply.
“It would have been good with some advance warning. I just quit smoking,” Dad said, in a tone mostly-factual but garnished with a tiny sprig of aggression. I knew, as children always know, that the aggression was meant for my mother, not for me, so I ignored his comment and left Mom to answer.
“Doesn’t it look nice though? Beth was drowning under all that hair,” Mom said, and again, the pointed implication that Dad should be complimenting my new look rather than mourning the shorn locks fell into my “disregard” category.
“Can we get an ice cream?” I asked.
Dad pulled himself together. “We can have ice cream for dessert in Boston, and it won’t be a long drive from here,” he said. I resigned myself to delayed gratification and set my jaw for the goodbyes.
When my siblings and I were alone with him in the car, Dad attempted to right his wrong. “I’m sorry I reacted the way I did to your haircut,” he said, as he navigated the three-lane Massachusetts highway that always seemed so fearsomely and fantastically busy. “You’ve just always had long hair, and I was somewhat taken aback. I’m used to it now, and it’s true, it’s easier to see you, rather than just your hair.”
I was well over forty before my father made sense to me, so his apology gave me the odd squishy feeling I always had as a child when he exposed any vulnerable emotion.
“It will be good for swimming,” I said, thinking of our next summer trip to the Cape.
Dad laughed. “I suppose you’re right,” he said, and with that, the chapter was closed, but not before I had witnessed, and duly noted, the cataclysmic effect of my haircut on my father’s mental state.
My hair grows quickly, and during my teens and twenties, its length went up and down cyclically, depending, I now suspect, on a complicated equation with many variables, such as economy, desire, perceived threat, and self-confidence. I had my first “boy cut” at seventeen— my hair is shorter than my husband’s in our prom pictures— and for the most part during those years, with the notable exception (perhaps not surprisingly) of the year I lived at my father’s house while at graduate school, I kept my hair short. At least twice my hair was razor-clipped, once so severely that my mother was visibly shaken.
“Please don’t cut it that short again,” my mom pleaded. “You remind me of the cancer patients I used to see on the ward.”
Point taken; I avoided unduly angry razor clips from then on, but my hair remained short enough that once, when I was nearly at the top of a one-rope demo indoor climbing wall in the middle of a sports store, I overheard a child shout to her mother, “Look at that boy! Is he gonna fall down?” I was the only person on the wall at the time, so I knew the child wasn’t referring to my husband, the actual “boy”. I shifted my weight and turned my body away from the wall, peering down at my husband many metres below. Like the responsible belayer he is, he was watching closely, and when our eyes met, we grinned at each other.
The mother had been watching too. “That’s not a boy,” she corrected her daughter. “That’s a girl up there. It’s a girl climbing.”
While I wasn’t sure I enjoyed being mistaken for masculine, I was grateful for the reprieve from unwanted male attention shorter hair afforded me. When I became pregnant at thirty-five, I let my hair grow in conjunction with my belly, and when our son arrived, I found it easy to keep my hair long and tied back. Then our daughter was born; life became even busier, so the ease of the ponytail continued to appeal. I stayed home with our children, so for six years straight I did not go out in public without proof of my motherhood in the form of one or both children. By the time our daughter started preschool, I had entered my forties; my hair, while long, was shot with grey, my unaltered face bore the wrinkles of years of forgetting to wear sunglasses, my body was irrevocably altered by childbearing and age, and I felt confident that only the very desperate or the very committed would find me attractive. It felt safe to do whatever I damn well pleased with my hair.
Until my daughter entered her penultimate year of primary school, when a particular street cleaner began working in our neighbourhood. We lived some distance from the primary school; Louise and I walked up a long hill every morning and down the same hill every afternoon, and the street cleaner in question seemed to always be stationed somewhere along our path. The street cleaner was not much taller than me, with very little hair on either his head or his face, he had small, deep-set eyes and hands that seemed at once out-sized and overly fleshy. As someone raised in a small town, my natural inclination when walking, provided I am not in a large crowd, is to acknowledge every individual— with a slight nod, with a spoken greeting, or at the very least, by meeting their eyes. Normally the individual will respond with a greeting in kind, but this street cleaner did not. When I nodded perfunctorily in his direction, he said, “Hello, Madam,” in a thick accent and kept his eyes fixed on me. After perhaps ten such interactions, all at different coordinates along the grid of our walk to school, I succumbed, and began to mumble a gruff “hello” when Louise and I came upon this man. I didn’t want to say hello— not really. I would have preferred not to interrupt whatever game I was playing, whatever conversation I was having, or whatever silence I was keeping with my daughter, but the man made me uncomfortable; I disliked how he looked up from his work too far in advance of our paths crossing, how he sought and held my gaze, and how he spoke to me in that langourous, syrupy tone.
What raised my hackles the most, beyond the man’s demeanor when our paths invariably crossed, was just that— the inevitability of running into him even in places which would make his street-cleaning turf impractically large. I would see him on the way up the hill, in the gardens overlooking the scenic view at the top of the hill, on the road down the hill by the secondary school, on the sidewalk outside our closest primary school, at the foot of the path into the park, at the mouth of the alley between the cemetery. The only place I knew I would be free from his “Hello, Madam,” was the park itself, where I may need to contend with rutting stags, but as we all know, the most dangerous animal on Earth walks on two legs, and I would face the stags over a human of questionable intent any day.
During my daughter’s last year of primary school, Louise began to walk home alone, like most of her year group. We reviewed safety tips and Louise was given a phone and keys; Louise wasn’t keen on walking past the nearby pub’s outdoor patio, but I assured her that the regulars nursing their pints at the picnic tables behind the flowerboxes were nothing to fear. What did give me pause was the thought of Louise meeting the street cleaner on her own. Louise, however, is not me; she is a city girl, and feels no obligation to greet strangers— in fact, she sometimes needs to be told to greet friends. Furthermore, Louise had asked for and been given a very short bob, and I didn’t know much about the street cleaner, but I knew, in that way girls have to know, that what revved his engine was hair. It would be fine, I told myself; after all, the man was missing the information that would make him an active rather than a passive threat— he didn’t know where we lived. There had been that morning I had caught sight of him very close to our house, but I had confused our dog, and hopefully the man, by walking away from our house. I lengthened my walk by ten minutes rather than allowing the street cleaner to observe me entering my own home.
Overreaction, you may say. Paranoia. Prejudice against street cleaners, against foreigners, against men in general. Ask any woman though, and if she is being honest, she will tell you that women, when they take leave of each other after a night out, will, if possible, walk in pairs. If we must walk alone, we try to keep to well-lit, busy streets, we prime our bodies for fight or flight, and we hold our keys in our hands in our best approximations of deadly weapons; in short, we act like prey, because we know, through our own or other womens’ experiences, that far, far too many men act like hunters.
Louise walked home for several months without incident, and I continued to reluctantly acknowledge the street cleaner, until the morning that my daughter and I left our house for the walk to school in the morning and saw the man by the small triangle of grass direcly opposite our home, where Markus and I sometimes took our dog for his late-night constitutional. The jig was up. When I came home, after my hour in the park with our dog, I made an appointment with the hairdresser a friend had recommended. Later that week, a good ten inches of hair fell to the floor, and I emerged, shorn, free of the literal and figurative baggage of my long tresses, but simultaneously captive to the societal norms that had both led me to regard my hair as a vulnerability and that would now dictate that I would be seen as another sort of woman.
My ploy worked. The first time I passed the street cleaner after my haircut happened to be without Louise in tow; he did not even recognise me. Although he still knew where we lived, I felt a whoosh of release: my daughter and I were just two bobbed feministas now, and he wanted a Rapunzel.
That street cleaner left our patch a few months after I cut my hair, and guess what? I’m letting my hair grow long again. The man had been an anomaly; for the most part, my status as a middle-aged woman with an un-threaded, un-painted, un-Botoxed face, a middle-of-the-road figure, and a frizzy halo of silvering hair means I am now refreshingly free from male overtures. My daughter, however, is just entering her years as a target, and confronting misogyny on her behalf is still worse than dealing with it for myself.
Take travel. When our son, Christopher, entered secondary school, we offered him two possible ways to take himself to school: he could either walk up to the main road and catch the more pleasant and significantly more crowded bus, or he could walk over the railroad tracks via the footbridge just behind our house to access the two less-crowded bus routes. Londoners will be well familiar with the syndrome of the bus so full that it misses out stops; Christopher, who values consistency and punctuality, opted to make taking a bus from across the footbridge into his morning routine. In the afternoon, when time was not a consideration, Chris varied his travel method home based on which bus came first and on whether or not he had met classmates at the bus stop.
After Christopher had been taking himself to and from school for a few weeks, our elderly neighbour George, a kind-hearted Jack Russell enthusiast with thick glasses, a bum knee, and a penchant for curtain-twitching, stopped me on the footpath close to our house.
“Your boy,” George began. “How’s he getting on at secondary school?”
“He’s doing well, thanks,” I replied.
“Is he walking over that footbridge to catch the bus?” George asked, opening his watery eyes wide.
“He is,” I confirmed.
George moved closer, as if to tell me a secret. “Bad things happen on that footbridge, you know,” George said conspiratorily.
I was not completely taken aback. If coming home from London at night, I would choose to walk further, or wait longer for the more desirable bus, rather than cross the footbridge after eight o’clock. The street on the wrong side of the tracks that led to the footbridge was poorly-lit, and was infrequently-travelled by either vehicles or pedestrians at night; a tall hedge bordered one side of the street beyond which loomed tower blocks of council housing, on the other side, the road ended in a dark corner planted with overgrown bushes. Then came the footbridge itself, with the added thrill of the possibility of being tossed over the four-foot cement walls onto the train tracks themselves.
“I think it’s OK in the morning,” I said to George.
“That may be, but I don’t trust it. I’ve seen some things happen there…” George let his words fade into silence, apparently not wishing to elaborate, but nonetheless wanting me to comprehend the risks.
“Mmm,” I mumbled, nodding my head.
“Just tell him to be careful,” George said pointedly.
“Thanks, I’ll do that,” I said solemnly.
And I did tell Chris to be careful, but when Christopher’s dance lessons started up again and Christopher needed to get himself to the dance studio as quickly as possible, I let him take his scooter across the footbridge. It was a calculated risk, but when I input the variables— Christopher’s speed on his scooter, his desire for travel efficiency, the guessed-at statistics of undesirable events, and most importantly, Chris’s status as a boy— it seemed a risk worth taking.
Christopher had been travelling, without incident, to school and to dance lessons via the footbridge for three years when the time came for Louise to travel independently to her secondary school, which was not the same school as her brother’s. I say “without incident” but that is not completely true— Chris came home from dance one evening dishevelled and shaken, with a tear in his trousers and a bleeding knee.
“That’s it,” I thought, when I caught sight of my son in the doorway. “They’ve mugged him and beaten him up.” The anger at my son’s oppressors rose up like a cobra, out of its basket and ready to strike.
“I fell off my scooter,” Chris said, in answer to my unspoken question. The snake collapsed back into its basket, and I moved on to channelling Florence Nightingale.
Beyond that self-inflicted injury, nothing untoward had befallen Christopher, and for Louise, the only sensible route was to cross the footbridge. I knew I would never permit my daughter to walk over the footbridge in the dark, but I was less certain how I felt about Louise crossing alone in daylight. I was sure George, our neighbour, would shake his head vigorously at the mere suggestion, but Markus, my Swedish husband, considered it reasonable to expect Louise to use the footbridge alone during daylight hours. Torn, I turned to an expert: Samantha, a good female friend whose parenting skills, local knowledge, and forthright manner I admired. I posed the question to her as objectively as possible, although the mere asking revealed some doubt about answering in the affirmative on my part.
“So, Samantha, do you think I should let Louise walk over the footbridge behind our house by herself in the morning?”
My normally unflappable friend looked aghast. “Are you referring to the ‘rapist footbridge’? If so, I think not!”
It was my turn to look alarmed. “What do you mean, the ‘rapist footbridge’? Did something really happen there that I don’t know about? Our resident Neighbourhood Watch-neighbour implied that the footbridge had a chequered past, but he wouldn’t give me the lowdown.”
Samantha dropped her look of shock horror and laughed. “Oh, I don’t know if anything has ever actually happened there, but that’s what we’ve always called it, because it just has that air, doesn’t it? Of course you shouldn’t let Louise walk there. I won’t even let my eldest walk that way; she has a friend who lives on that side of the tracks, but if they want to get together, I walk her over. And my oldest is fourteen now— Louise is only eleven.”
That settled the matter. I would wake up an hour earlier than I had woken up during Louise’s primary school years so that I could walk my daughter to the bus stop every morning, in a perhaps miscalculated attempt to ensure her personal safety. I was fine with the early start. What galled me, though, was that Louise would be denied a freedom we had given to her brother years ago. Perhaps with a year of secondary school under her belt we would permit Louise to cross the footbridge in the daylight, but I would tell her, in no uncertain terms, that as soon as the sun disappeared, the footbridge was off-limits.
I hated that I needed to have that talk with my eleven-year old. Louise was still young enough, before starting at secondary, that she could believe herself invincible; if she was Achilles, though, I was about to mention her heel. Wouldn’t it be better if she could carry on thinking she was equal, powerful, and safe until the brokenness of the world demanded she reconsider? How would Louise’s path to adulthood differ from Christopher’s when I told her she may want to keep glancing back over her shoulder and that she should be prepared, at any point, to run, scream, or fight? I wanted my daughter to celebrate herself in her entirety, but I would be giving her a valid reason to not only hate herself, for being born female, but also to hate men for their age-old and ongoing history of hating women.
I have read many accounts of American parents of black sons having “the talk” with their children— a discussion about the dangers associated with the happenstance of being born with high-eumelanin skin in the United States, particularly in relation to law enforcement, and how to best cope with those dangers. I recognise that “the talk” I held with Louise is but a mere shadow of that talk, because Louise, thanks to both the comparative absence of melanin in her skin and her identification as female, would be exponentially less likely to experience mistreatment by the police. I wish, though, that I had watched this video (https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003575589/a-conversation-with-my-black-son.html) before I had spoken to Louise about her route to school, because then I would have known to counterweight my message of fear and loathing with affirmations of fortitude and love.
Louise seemed neither surprised nor bothered that rules never applied to her brother’s travel were set for her. Maybe that’s because she had already soaked up enough awareness of misogyny from her eleven years as a girl, or maybe Louise just liked the idea of me accompanying her in the morning. When, a month after she started secondary, news broke of the Trump bus tape—the hidden camera recording of Trump boasting about his habitual sexual misconduct towards women— Louise may have inferred, in her characteristically logical manner, that if a man running for President could brag about grabbing women without their consent could go on to actually win the Presidency, then she had every reason to take sensible precautions against men who held no such lofty aspirations.
Before the bus tape was released, I had read that Trump had a history of alleged sexual misconduct. The most shocking of the allegations I had read about was that Trump, in the company of his friend Jeffrey Epstein— a billionaire convicted in 2008 of soliciting sex from an underage girl— had raped a thirteen-year old at a party in 1994. This particular charge has since been dropped, and the way it was handled suggests that it may have been fabricated to begin with (http://www.vox.com/2016/10/12/13234224/donald-trump-jill-harth-sexual-assault), but Trump’s friendship with Epstein is indisputable and backed up by this quote Trump provided for an article on Epstein in New York Magazine in 2002: ““He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” (http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/09/the-friendship-between-trump-and-a-billionaire-pedophile-that-nobody-wants-to-talk-about/, see also http://www.dailywire.com/news/5556/7-things-you-need-know-about-trump-and-sex-slave-amanda-prestigiacomo for further discussion of Trump and Epstein’s friendship) Untried allegations cast doubt, but the graphic deposition statement given by Ivana Trump, Donald’s first wife of nearly fifteen years, during their divorce proceedings unequivocally brands Donald as a sexual assault offender (see again Libby A. Nelson’s Vox article of October 12, 2016 quoted above). Even Ivana’s testimony, however, can not be deemed watertight, as it was procured and published by a writer, Harry Hurt III, who stated to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker that he had thrown out the physical copies of the deposition when cleaning out his house (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/documenting-trumps-abuse-of-women). Nonetheless, the number of accusations of sexual misconduct, especially when combined with the twisted and violent details of Ivana’s report, had already combined to make me strongly suspect that Donald Trump was a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist.
Then came the bus tape. I rarely watch television, so my first exposure to the Trump bus tape—— was through Facebook’s automatic video streaming; I could not avoid watching Donald and Billy Bush walk from the Access Hollywood trailer on the NBC lot, but I could avoid listening to them talk. I was horrified by Trump’s words when I read them in print. I find it doubtful that anyone who has read this far is unaware of exactly what Trump said, but just in case, here was Donald’s most sickening quote, as reported by The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/07/donald-trump-leaked-recording-women):
“Whoa!” Trump responds. “Whoa! I’ve gotta use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
“Whatever you want,” Bush replies.
“Grab them by the pussy,” Trump replies. “You can do anything.”
After about a week, I thought the shock had worn off to such an extent that I could safely listen to the audio of the bus tape. I was mistaken. Hearing Trump’s swaggering, vainglorious voice say words so offensive and threatening caused me to undergo a now all-too-familiar physiological reaction: my heart raced, my muscles tensed, my field of vision narrowed and its edges began to blur. I couldn’t even watch through to the end of the short tape. I chalked my outrage up to offense taken on behalf of all women at first, but when I stumbled across a piece by Katie Koppel for Cognoscenti entitled “Dear Melania, Your Husband’s ‘Boy Talk’ Triggered My Sexual Assault PTSD” (http://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/10/19/donald-trump-locker-room-access-hollywood-katie-koppel) I recognised that I was personally affected by the Trump tape as well. My own physical and historical experiences of sexual misconduct, while no doubt negligible compared to Ms Koppel’s, sufficed to ensure that my body, when exposed to Trump’s felonious braggadocio, responded by kicking into fight-or-flight mode, just like Ms Koppel’s, but to a lesser extent.
I was devastated, but not surprised, when I woke in London on November 9th, 2016, to the news of Trump’s win. I immediately vacated Facebook, knowing that to be there— subjected to countless news stories analyzing how the election had gone wrong and to the posts of a handful of friends, mostly from my hometown, celebrating how the election had gone “right”— would be detrimental to my mental health. Just as with the Trump bus tape, however, time did not prove healing. When I did return to social media, I found myself thrown into an unsustainable panic. I frenetically signed petitions aiming to alter the outcome of the election, I binge-read articles offering their explanations as to how Trump’s election had managed to become reality rather than nightmare, I flailed like a wild animal against the cage of Trump’s impending Presidency.
A few friends were right there beside me. One very dear friend in particular seemed to be on my same roller-coaster, riding to heights of anger and conviction to act only to then lurch into anguish and paralysis; she mentioned her state in a Facebook comment, and our paraphrased exchange went something like this:
“Why can’t I let this go?” my friend wrote. “When George W. was elected, I was upset, but it was nothing like this. I could still function.”
“I think the problem is that you and I feel like Trump is a clear and present danger,” I told my friend. “For whatever reason, we can’t get any distance. He’s not really coming for us as individuals, but we’re reacting like he is, like he’s banging our doors down and will soon force himself upon us, because we know that’s what he does. We’ve heard him say so.”
After a pause for reflection, my friend responded, “You might be on to something.”
I have lived in London since the turn of the last century. Trump, his cabinet, and his policies will not affect me to nearly the same extent as Theresa May (the incumbent Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), her cabinet, and her policies. Yet the United States of America remains the only country to which I formally belong, and it is not at all unthinkable that, should my Swedish husband divorce me or suddenly pass away, I would be left with no alternative but to return to my motherland. In addition, I have an entire network of family and friends who will be at the front line as Trump takes aim at women, at immigrants, at people of colour, at people with disabilities, at people who are Muslim, and at pretty much every other minority group you can think of barring Trump’s own minority group, that of obscenely rich white men who have unburdened themselves of any sort of moral compass, who carry no cross of responsibility towards the poor, the suffering, or the outsiders. Many of my liberal friends are hoping for Trump’s impeachment. While I agree that with Representative John Lewis, the civil rights activist and congressman, that Trump is not a legitimate president, I fear that his removal as President would not do enough to alter the arc of the next four years; during the time it would take to complete the impeachment process, most of Trump’s cabinet would have been confirmed, and in almost every instance, Trump has tapped someone who seems uniquely qualified to tear apart the department or position to which they have been assigned. Trump’s cabinet will damage America regardless of whether Trump or Pence is at the helm (see this article by The Guardian for further explanation: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/09/donald-trump-administration-cabinet-picks-so-far). It is fully rational to oppose Trump and his entire administration; indeed, it would be lunacy not to resist the perversion, or at worst, the dismantling of much of what constitutes the democratic fabric of the United States.
What is not fully rational is my lack of objectivity. Even after my Facebook conversation with my close friend, when I had identified the toll Trump’s election had taken as a problem of perspective, I could not shake the sensation of being violated. Because what matters most to me personally is that Trump, in that hidden mic tape, proudly asserted his right to treat women as objects. The chain of command between me and now-President Trump (how it pains me to write that) is very long indeed, and crosses the entire Atlantic Ocean, but it is indisputably present; what that means, if you follow the chain’s links, is that I am under the control of my would-be abuser. By electing a man with Donald Trump’s history as President, America has not only sanctioned, but has elevated misogyny and sexual misconduct. Unlike in the case of casual street harassment, or, as with the street cleaner, low-grade stalking, no amount of modification of my personal appearance will lessen the hatred Donald Trump and his incoming administration have already exhibited for me and for all of my sisters. Yet in truth— remember truth?— I have it easy. The next four years will be far more frightening for my immigrant sisters, my sisters of colour, my sisters with disabilities, my sisters of faiths other than the American sort of evangelical Christianity to which Trump claims to adhere, my sisters within the LGBTQIA community, and my sisters in pervasive poverty. And for my sisters— our sisters— who belong to more than one of those subsets of sisterhood, the spectre of the next four years must be harrowing indeed.
I can’t even remember when I first learned of the trinity of best responses to personal safety threats, but I have since come across them so often that I’d like to think they are now hard-wired: “Run, scream, or fight,” I told my daughter, who would not be crossing the “rapist footbridge” alone, but would be walking home alone from the bus stop up the hill. “Or better yet, run, scream, and fight,” I corrected myself.
Louise nodded sagely. “No problem,” she said. “I’m fast, loud, and strong.”
I grinned. “That’s the spirit.”
The advice I gave Louise works when faced with the Abuser-in-Chief as well. For the overwhelming majority of my family and friends, “running”— at least by leaving the United States— is not a viable option. Although a few friends asked, in the days following Trump’s election, if we would be willing to put them up while they found their feet in England (we were), I knew, and they knew, that they weren’t serious. My family and friends don’t really want to leave the United States— they just want America to head in a direction diametrically opposed to the direction in which the Trump Administration, judging from the maps we’ve seen, plans to travel. There are other ways to run from Trump without leaving the country. Refuse to buy Trump-branded products or stay in Trump hotels. Don’t watch Celebrity Apprentice or any other programme with Trump’s fingerprints on it. Better yet, kill your television entirely; read the news via news sources or people that you trust instead. Scores of Democratic lawmakers plan to run from Trump by choosing not to attend his inauguration. Refusal to engage can send a powerful message. I would also encourage people to unfollow Donald (now POTUS) on Twitter— the less love he gets, the better. We should delegate following his offensive and abusive tweets to a handful of trusted sources. I have taken to turning off the radio if I hear his voice.
I’ve limited full-on “screaming” to the confines of my own home since the election, but I’ve been vocal in person and on social media about my reaction to Trump’s win. Facebook, at first, was a comfort; the Trump supporters on my friends list— almost exclusively people I knew from my small hometown in Vermont— didn’t gloat (much). As the weeks went on, however, animosity between those who supported Trump and those who didn’t became more pronounced. I looked on as one childhood friendship disintegrated; when a childhood friendship of my own seemed destined for a similar fate, I opted to fall back on the first line of recourse— “run”— and I logged out. I haven’t scrolled through Facebook for over a week now— a personal record. My cowardice is not sitting well, however; I know that for all its faults, Facebook has brought me more joy than sadness, and when I am strong enough, I plan to return under more stringent self-regulation. My experience of pushback when I speak out against Trump is laughable compared to what has been thrown at many of Trump’s more eloquent and powerful critics (witness civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis, Gold Star parent Khizr Khan, all of The New York Times, etcetera). I have done what I can to support those who are casting themselves into the ring, and I’m not the only one; when, with the objective of following him, I found Damien Love— the journalist who wrote the excellent sarcastic preview for the airing of Trump’s inauguration for the Scottish Sunday Herald— on Twitter, I noted that we had only one follower in common: Barack Obama’s personal account. (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15024879.World_reacts_to____brilliant____Trump_inauguration_synopsis_in_Sunday_Herald_TV_listings/)
But what I need to do— what we all need to do— more than anything else is “fight.” Not with weapons, but with our actions and our resources. We need to be like the muskoxen of the Arctic who literally can not run because their weighty coat would lead to overheating— when wolves threaten their young, the muskoxen form either a line, if the wolf is acting alone, or a tight outward-facing circle, if the wolf has friends along. A single muskox is no match for several wolves, but together, the muskoxen are capable of fending off hungry predators. (http://samanthasinterestinginsights.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/wonder-of-musk-ox.html) We must make a stand, turned towards Trump and his pack, and those who are more able must especially see to it that those who are least able are surrounded with protection on all sides. The wolf and his pack are literally at the door— tomorrow Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America— so there is not a moment to lose. We can form our circle by joining or supporting any of the worthy organisations that will be fighting our corner during the next four years, as they have since their inception: Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center. We can campaign for women’s rights, for voting rights and against the electoral college, for the rights of undocumented immigrants, for protection of the free press; the list goes on, and on, and on.
We can campaign for politicians who do not share Donald’s values in 2018, or even consider running for office ourselves. When I first came across a list of Democratic lawmakers skipping Trump’s inauguration, I did my best to find all of them on Twitter; I wanted to follow them and thank them each personally for their act of resistance. If they had made an official statement, I read it; in several cases, I watched their statement videos. I came away buoyed. For all but one of the twenty-odd lawmakers I looked up that evening, the decision not to attend was weighty, and had been carefully considered from all angles (the exception being Representative Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon, whose remarks were either off-the-cuff or satirical); all of the lawmakers had done their best to explain their thought process to their constituents. If their Twitter timelines are anything to go by, it turns out most politicians seem to be in the business because they actually care.
I was especially moved by Representative Luis Guiterrez’s video about why he will not attend the inauguration, because for him, as for me, Trump’s misogyny is a game-changer. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DYNCLHjed0&feature=youtu.be) I can not understand why any self-respecting woman would have voted for a man with Trump’s both alleged and publicly documented history of misconduct towards our sisters. Maybe many women look at Trump the way Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager-cum-White House counsel, suggested we should after Donald’s deplorable mockery of Serge Kovaleski, the New York Times reporter. During a discussion with Chris Cuomo of CNN, Kellyanne said, “You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than what’s in his heart.” (http://www.salon.com/2017/01/09/kellyanne-conway-wants-people-to-look-into-donald-trumps-heart-not-whats-come-out-of-his-mouth/) I’m sorry, Kellyanne, but that sentiment has been keeping women under the thumb of their abusers since time immemorial; should any man ever mistreat my daughter the way Donald J. Trump has mistreated women, you better believe that I won’t be advising Louise to look at what’s in his heart. I’ll be telling her to run, scream, and/or fight her way out of that relationship as quickly as she can.
I know how Louise reacted to the news of Trump’s election— with tears and anger—but I don’t yet know how living through a Trump presidency will affect Louise’s self-esteem and her beliefs about the world and her place in it. All I can hope to do, as Louise’s mother, is to show my daughter, through my own words and actions, what I believe in— what is in my heart.
Tomorrow I will join many thousands of demonstrators for the Women’s March on London, one of the worldwide marches to be held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. It will be my first-ever protest march. I am thrilled that I will be starting the year that will mark my half-century on our beautiful planet by forming a tight, global circle with my sisters. In a pink, hand-knit hat.