women's march
Credit: Liz Lemon/Flickr

Recent events have reminded me of my favorite scene from the documentary “Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins.”

Both of those women were taken from us too young. If Richards were alive today, she would be 87, and Ivins would be two years younger than Joe Biden. More than anything I’ve ever seen or read about those two women, the story Ivins tells about Ann Richards demonstrates what trail-blazers they were.

Back in the 1970s, before the Anita Hill hearings, Bob Packwood’s resignation from the Senate for sexual harassment, the whole Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the election of a man who bragged about “grabbing p*ssy,” and the MeToo movement, Ann Richards was refusing to, as Ivins described, “gaze off into the middle distance, pretending not to be there” when men reveled in the objectification of women’s bodies. Instead, she gave as good as she got. Personally, I feel empowered simply listening to that story because I remember those days.

As the old saying goes, “we’ve come a long way, baby.” And yet, once again, we find ourselves struggling through yet another accusation of sexual misconduct by a prominent political figure. Jessica Valenti captured the dilemma very well.

[F]eminists are being put in a near-impossible position: Abandon our mantra to “believe women” and defend a man accused of serious misconduct, or speak out against him and in the process provide ammunition to a conservative movement fundamentally opposed to women’s autonomy.

I have already shared my thoughts about Tara Reade’s accusations, so I don’t need to go there again. But I do want to talk about whether a mantra to “believe women” is advisable.

There was, of course, a time when women were almost never believed when they spoke up about sexual misconduct. You might remember that one of the factors that led to Ann Richards being the governor of Texas was that, during the campaign, her opponent compared a sudden rainstorm to a woman being raped, saying “if it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” That is the kind of attitude that had to be addressed when women reported sexual assault, which was often followed by everything from denial to allegations that she was to blame.

Nothing about that kind of culture changes unless women not only speak up—but are believed when they do so. That is why “believe women” became such an important mantra. But it comes with a price.

Putting women on a pedestal to suggest that they always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is a lie that will eventually come back to haunt the feminist movement. While it is true that patriarchy affords men power that women have been denied, that doesn’t mean that women are always innocent victims. To assume that is to completely rob them of any agency. Applying that to matters of sexuality means recognizing that, not only is it conceivable that women might lie, but that it is possible for them to be sexual predators too.

One of the major themes of patriarchy is the Madonna/whore complex, which sees women as either “good,” chaste, and pure Madonnas or as “bad,” promiscuous, and seductive whores. I fear that the attempt to always believe women is the Madonna flip-side to a long history of casting women who spoke up about sexual abuse as whores. We fail to empower women when we put them on a pedestal and suggest that they are exempt from all of the flaws associated with the human condition, just as we fail to empower them when we cast them as evil whores.

What we must do when women come forward with allegations of sexual abuse is to listen to them and treat them with respect. That means following up with a rigorous investigation of their claims that doesn’t prejudge the outcome.

UPDATE: A lot of people on my Twitter timeline are reminding me why African American feminists haven’t generally bought into the “believe women” mantra: the terror and lynching campaigns waged against African Americans were often sparked by lies white women told about sexual assault.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.