By Meghan Morris*
I was one of the many young women who bristled at the idea – largely espoused by women in our parents’ generation – that I had to vote for Hillary Clinton because she was a woman. When former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appeared at a Clinton rally, stating that there was “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” I was outraged. There were so many issues more important to me than gender in this election – the U.S. war machine, health care, foreign policy, climate change, immigration. The list went on.
Plus, gender wasn’t really my issue anyway. I had long worked on questions of property and land in Colombia, and gender had played only a rather peripheral role in my research. While feminist theory was very important to me as a critique of power, gender as a focus of research or advocacy was not my thing. I considered this decision something of a gift granted to me by the many women who had come before me and worked on gender so I didn’t have to. Not that I thought that we had solved the question of gender equality – far from it – but it seemed we had gotten far enough that it didn’t require everyone’s focus.
Then along came the Trump campaign. Suddenly, we were assaulted with almost daily reminders of just how far we were not only from gender equality, but even basic respect for women. Trump boasted of sexual assault (downplaying it as “locker room talk”), critiqued women who accused him of groping for being too unattractive to even want to sexually assault, and criticized Hillary Clinton for not having an attractive backside (Trump “wasn’t impressed”). As if that wasn’t enough, Trump responded to the “locker room talk” incident by simply accusing Bill Clinton of being an even bigger abuser, hauling out his female accusers to attend the presidential debate following the incident. Along with reviving the national political scandal that had marked my coming of age, Trump seemed to also resurrect and inspire forms of sexism and homophobia that in my supreme naiveté I had presumed were largely confined to the past.
Meanwhile, the gender news was no better in Colombia, a country I consider to be a second home. A national referendum to ratify a historic peace agreement between the government and FARC guerrillas failed by a narrow margin on October 2 (though a revised agreement was later ratified by Congress in November). Opposition to the agreement had been spearheaded by former president Alvaro Uribe, who rallied supporters around the “No” vote in part based on the argument that the agreement did not impose sufficiently severe prison sentences on the FARC. But the “No” campaign also enrolled supporters, including Christian conservatives, to vote against the agreement based on the notion that it included “gender ideology,” a concept that the campaign linked to a supposed assault on the traditional family.
As colleagues at Dejusticia have analyzed, this argument was not based in fact. The agreement contained language protecting the rights of women and the LGBT community, as well as attention to the violence exercised against them, which the campaign spun as “gender ideology.” But the effort to demonize the agreement was wildly successful, building on earlier anti-gay mobilization to garner sufficient “No” votes to contribute to the referendum’s unexpected failure.
While gender operated in different ways in each of these campaigns, both used gender to mobilize prejudice (in the Trump campaign, sexism; in the “No” campaign, homophobia) in the pursuit of other political aims. While supporters of Trump and the “No” campaign were clearly not all sexist or homophobic themselves – supporters of each campaign had a variety of reasons for backing them, many having little to do with their gender discourse – the campaigns created a permissive environment for those with such views to express and act on them. The fallout in both cases has been tremendous. In the U.S., hate crimes against the LGBT community (as well as against racial and religious minorities) are on the rise. In Colombia, the prospect of true peace hangs in the balance, with Uribe opposing the new peace accord ratified by Congress in November, and gay rights activists warning of a new wave of discrimination. Both the U.S. and Colombia are countries where significant rights for women and the LGBT community have been achieved through legal advocacy – rights that some argue may be subject to reversal in the new political climate. In a matter of a month, the hard-won cultural and legal victories of decades seem to be in peril.
If one thing is clear, it is that these victories are not – and never were – to be taken for granted. What has seemed to be a slow and difficult but steady march toward increased equality for women and the LGBT community may in fact be turned around, and quickly. As a number of commentators have recalled over the past several weeks, philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that this precise moment would come in the United States. He anticipated that eventually, the working class would become resentful and look for a “strongman” to govern, warning that when this time came, “[o]ne thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.”
It has been difficult in both the U.S. and Colombia to figure out how to grapple with what comes next. I don’t really have an answer to this, even for myself. But in reflecting on the striking commonalities between the ways the U.S. election and the Colombian referendum unfolded, I have a sense that I have long been wrong to think that gender was not my issue. I took for granted the hard-won gains of others before me, giving myself the luxury of the decision to not pay attention to it, simply because I was more interested in other kinds of politics, or other questions of peace. But then it turned out that in order to begin to understand my national politics or the opposition to peace, gender could not be ignored. Even where it didn’t seem to belong, it kept appearing.
I don’t believe, as some feminists would contend, that gender or patriarchy are necessarily the primary defining structures of society. And I still don’t believe that there is a special place in hell for women who don’t vote for the female candidate, even the historic one. But I have come to believe that in this moment, we ignore questions of gender at our peril. Rather than being on the slow and steady track toward greater equality, we may be on the fast track toward Rorty’s prediction. And we need to not only understand how we got here, but also make a claim on where we’re going. We cannot do that while making gender someone else’s problem, someone else’s issue. In these times, gender is everyone’s issue.
*Meghan Morris is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).