Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29's weekly column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
This past week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made it clear that she doesn't regret calling for Al Franken's resignation, despite the how-dare-she anger from prominent Democratic donors, conservative political columnists, and bored men on the internet. On campaign stops and in phone calls with supporters, as well as in Facebook ads that asked for donations, the New York senator and 2020 presidential candidate said she is fighting for sexual assault survivors to be heard and doesn't care if she pays the price for it.
Gillibrand, who announced her run in January, was the first Senate Democrat to publicly call for Franken to step down from Congress after eight women, including one congressional staffer, accused him of groping, forcible kissing, and other inappropriate behavior. More than two dozen Democrats joined her, and the Minnesota senator made the decision to resign shortly after, in December 2017.
Despite the fact that Franken alone is responsible for his behavior — he chose to act inappropriately, and he chose to resign — Gillibrand has faced wrath from both Democratic donors and (mostly male) voters who feel that she somehow let Franken down. Political pundits have speculated whether the scandal "haunts Gillibrand’s 2020 chances." But now, she's trying to turn the blame and accusations into a feminist rallying cry on the campaign trail, and there is evidence it's working.
"I will stand up to our own party if I need to," Gillibrand told supporters this week at a bar in Iowa City, IA. "And that's what Al Franken's about. And I know Democrats are very sad about Al Franken, I'm sad about Al Franken. But the truth of this issue is very clear, he had eight credible allegations against him that were corroborated in real time, by the press that were investigating it. ... Enough was enough."
For calling out her colleague's misdeeds, Gillibrand has been labeled "opportunistic," a "traitor," and accused of "throwing Franken under the bus" too many times to count. In perhaps one of the most ridiculous, borderline parodic anti-Gillibrand rants on Twitter, a former Democratic Party state official (and member of #TheResistance) wrote: "I am not a fan of her's [sic] either. She cost Al Franken a senate seat, I can't stand her voice, it is like nails on a chalk board [sic]. She won't make it out of the Iowa caucuses with a high percentage which will not help her in New Hampshire."
Logic and reason pale next to the societal impulse to punish women, including powerful ones, for speaking up against powerful men. Kate Manne, an assistant professor at Cornell University, argues in her research that women who challenge men in positions of power tend to be viewed as taking away something to which the man is entitled. This is evident in how abusively much of the public treated Christine Blasey Ford for accusing Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. The double standards are glaring: Sen. Chuck Schumer personally met with Franken and urged him to resign — so why is Gillibrand the scapegoat?
"[Gillibrand] was not the only person to call for his resignation; she was among a group of Democratic senators who called for him to step down," Manne told Refinery29. "But Gillibrand is the one who is singled out and blamed. When what she did was take a principled stance — her overall platform is prioritizing the interests of women and being quite progressive on gender politics — she was called an opportunist and a betrayer. I thought that was pretty misogynistic."
Gillibrand may have upset some big donors, but her honesty about sexual assault seems to have boosted her standing with millennial women. This could help when it comes to small digital donations to her campaign, which according to Politico comprise about 30% of the funds she's raised. Plus, her very first Iowa endorsement was a direct result of her call for Franken's resignation, BuzzFeed reported in January. Kyla Paterson, the young, transgender chair of the Stonewall Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party, said she was inspired to endorse Gillibrand after seeing how she handled backlash from her own party.
"People said it was an opportunistic thing, it's not," Paterson said about Gillibrand's criticism of Franken. "Either she was going to stand with the rest of the party or she was going to stand on principle. And she stood on principle."
Zoey Jordan Salsbury, a 21-year-old who lives in Seattle, said that her calling for Franken to resign is part of what drew her to Gillibrand's campaign, along with the senator's proposal on affordable childcare. "It's how much she empathizes with assault survivors, it's a big part of her career. I think it was important what she did with Franken, we have to hold people accountable."
Rebecca Brubaker, a 22-year-old living in L.A., said she supports Gillibrand because, "She has been a champion for sexual assault victims. That made me have immense respect for her." Sexual assault on college campuses and in the military were part of the core of Gillibrand's legislative agenda in the Senate.
Both of the young women said they appreciate how much Gillibrand stands out among the other candidates by making her identity as both a mother and a feminist a central part of her campaign. While these identities may come naturally to her, it's a revolutionary approach in a field which so few women have entered before.
Being a woman running for office, Gillibrand has her fair share of internet trolls. After she tweeted that she's running "unabashedly as a mom," Donald Trump Jr. decided to respond that running as a mom is not as "edgy" as she thinks it is. Again turning lemons into lemonade, Gillibrand used his rude tweet to call for donations.