I am struggling with what it means in 2017 to be a woman in America.
It wasn’t all the men being accused of (and/or admitting to) sexual misconduct of late that was the tipping point for me (although they certainly contributed). It was a random series of events that caused me to end up sitting through a continuing legal education requirement with an attorney-friend that motivated me to finally sit down at the computer and write.
I was surrounded by about 50 attorneys in a 1-hour class on legal ethics. (Were you aware that attorneys have ethics?) The question was raised regarding the case of Mark Giannini, a Memphis businessman who was accused of raping a woman. Giannini’s defense attorney made the following statement during his closing argument: “People can be very good at lying. Women can be especially good at it because they’re the weaker sex.”
From the Tennessee professional rules of conduct for attorneys, this is an excerpt from rule 8.4: “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to . . . (d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” In the comments to the rules (which are meant to explain the intention of the rules), it says, “ A lawyer who, in the course of representing a client, knowingly manifests, by words or conduct, bias or prejudice based on race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status violates paragraph (d) when such actions are prejudicial to the administration of justice.” (You can look these up here: http://www.tba.org/info/tennessee-rules-of-professional-conduct).
Yet, in this room of about 50 attorneys, there was a great deal of skepticism that the defense attorney had violated this rule. What struck me most painfully was the moment when the presenter said, “What if his comment would have been about race?”
I imagined that quote again. I imagined it saying: People can be very good at lying. African Americans can be especially good at it because they’re the weaker race. My gut did a flip. The kind of flip that your gut does when the core of your being is reacting to something you know innately is horribly, horribly wrong. I imagined that quote revised one more time to say: People can be very good at lying. Jews can be especially good at it because they’re the weaker race. My gut flipped again.
I’m glad my gut flips when I think about people having such ridiculous, prejudiced beliefs based on someone’s race and/or religion. What I found so disturbing was that my gut DIDN’T do the same flip on the actual quote. Intellectually, I was outraged. But in my belly, the true test of what I really feel, I remained calm. Why? Why would the core of my being feel OK with being accused of being better at lying? Or, of belonging to the “weaker” sex?
I have given some thought to this question. One thing that occurs to me is that in the 2 alternate examples, I cannot be a victim of this thinking as I am neither African American nor Jewish. Is it the innate sense of duty to protect the rights of others that causes my gut to flip? But if that is the case, shouldn’t my gut still flip for the sake of all women? Do I not have the same duty to protect women regardless of the fact that I am one? What scares me the most is the possibility that deep down in my unconscious feelings I feel helpless to protect my own gender.
Is it possible that what I really feel is that it’s every woman for herself? I believe in supporting other women. I believe that women must band together in the face of prejudice and fight it together. I believe in the strength of numbers. Yet, every election, I watch women doing things I cannot explain nor comprehend. In the face of our president being exposed as a self-described grabber of women’s genitalia, I saw women “friends” post things on Facebook like, “boys will be boys.” This is consistent with my personal experience in life–I have found gender to be an unreliable predictor of who will be the biggest supporters of women.
Perhaps then it is a prejudice of a different sort to be emotionally aghast at the thought of someone saying something so offensive about minorities to which I do not belong. To assume that they need me to be aghast. Ultimately to view these categories of people as a whole, homogenous category rather than unique individuals who can also fend for themselves as individuals.
Or, is it possible that our culture is so permeated with subtle messages of misogyny that we rarely notice or, when we do, it seems so normal that people feel compelled to defend such behavior?
I do not have great insight as to why this is. But I am not alone in my gut doing a bigger flip over race than over women. The implication to me is that we, as a culture, are less able to protect women from sexism than we are to protect other groups from other forms of prejudice. And you know what? We really suck at protecting other groups. Where does this leave women?