December 12, 2016
There is a bar in my neighborhood that I used to go to several times a week. The walls are covered in wood paneling; a long, shiny wooden countertop spans the length of the room, and in the soft light, the mirror reflects the sparkling bottles and their thickened promises. It’s the kind of place where the bartenders have been working for decades and they know all about my new job, and the job before that didn’t work out so well. They’ve read my articles, and even commented on them. It's in that bar I found out my sister had a baby, and where my best friend called to tell me her fiancée, whom I loved and admired so very much, had died suddenly.
I'm not the only regular. There’s a colorful cast of characters who sit together every night, and when I walk in, everyone cries out, “Hi, Batya!” and wants to know how I'm doing. Lately they’d taken to crying out “Hi, Hillary!” because, as I used to brag to my liberal friends who live in neighborhoods where they never encounter people they disagree with, it’s Trump supporters as far as the eye can see in this bar—except for one couple, an 80-year-old Vietnam veteran and his lovely wife.
The vet and his lovely wife still go to the bar. But I don’t.
I live in one of New York City’s rare red zones. At the gym in my neighborhood, there was recently an altercation. I was talking to one of the trainers about the ridiculousness of the Pussy Grabber in Chief, and a man walked over to me and told me that Hillary Clinton is a liar.
“I don't know you,” I said. “Why are you talking to me?"
He yelled back that he can talk to anyone he wants, wherever he wants, and if I don’t want to hear it, I should work out at home. “I don’t know you,” I repeated, my heart pounding in my chest. “Why are you talking to me? Don’t talk to me.” He kept yelling; I didn’t want to hear the truth about Clinton, clearly, and who was I to talk smack about his president.
The trainer calmly asked this man to walk away, but he wasn’t having it. He turned on the trainer and began insulting him horribly. Then the trainer and the man were yelling at each other, and someone pushed someone, and then the gym manager came and the guy who started it all demanded that they call the police.
“Do not call the cops!” I screamed, because the trainer is the only black man in a gym full of white people, in a red zone no less. I thought to myself, I know how this scene ends. But everyone ignored me.
All the other white guys at the gym were walking quickly toward the trainer, crowding around him, a big white mass. They surprised me. I could hear them saying, “We got you, man; he pushed you first. We all saw it.” I had assumed the worst of them, but here they stood, backing him up in the face of the angry white Trump supporter.
When the cops arrived, they asked me what happened. “Sounds like the trainer did the right thing,” they said. “Oh, yeah, see, you’ve got the Hillary T-shirt,” one of them said, pointing to my chest. “That’s what set him off. Can you imagine? Over politics?”
The cops told the infuriated Trump supporter that they would not be filing a report. “Everyone in here is saying you started it,” the police told the man.
"Who? That woman? She's lying, just like women always lie!"
The cops said, “Okay, we're done. The only report that's getting filed is if you don't stop yelling at us, or if she wants to file one against you for harassment.”
But the police never asked me if I wanted to file a complaint. In fact, the whole episode apparently just resolved itself because by the time I left to go to work, the Trump supporter and the trainer were joking around again. They had emerged—both of them—with their dignity intact.
Me, not so much. Because while I was waiting to be interviewed by the police, I cried. I worried that by wearing a Hillary T-shirt after she lost, and subsequently refusing to engage in a conversation I had no interest in, I might cost someone his job, might even get him arrested. I was overjoyed that the consensus by the cops and the other white men in the gym had been to support the trainer, that they had clearly done the right thing. So how did I come away feeling like everyone ultimately blamed me—or my shirt—for inciting the incident? I found I was even blaming myself—isn’t wearing this T-shirt a provocation in a red zone? The whole ugly scene and its resolution seemed like a best-case scenario for Trump’s America.
If you’re thinking that this is a ridiculous story, and that a white woman in mourning is a ridiculous sight because there are larger civil-rights issues and economic anxiety is more important than representational politics, then this story is not for you. But that’s the real problem with what happened on November 8—everything else still is.
Like many of us, my identity is made up of many different valences. I’m a Jew, a survivor of sexual abuse, an immigrant who repatriated. I was an academic, then a reporter. I was raised very religious and am no longer religious at all. I’m someone’s partner, an older sister, an aunt. But none of these identities is part of my regular consciousness. When I think, “What am I?” the answer is always, I am a woman.
To be a cis-gendered woman today is not ipso facto to be part of a marginalized group. It’s certainly nothing like being an African-American male, where you are regarded as a criminal by American institutions. There are avenues open to women who wish to have power. But if you grew up as I did, in a hyper-sexualized society, those avenues have a lot to do with wielding sexual power in the right way. It was a way you could get some of your wishes acknowledged and granted. If you use your weakness to ask men for things, they can give them to you without lessening their own standing in this world. No one likes giving up power, so you manipulate men into thinking they want to give you things, and they can do so because you’re so weak you could never really threaten them anyway. It’s the way of the chronically disempowered.
This what I would think about at the gym, until I started wearing my “I’m With Her” T-shirts. In those ridiculously hopeful days of September and October, after the Pussy Grabber in Chief had been revealed in all his glory but before he had captured the presidency, I would think, Your turn is over, white guys. I don’t have to smile at you anymore, or convince you that I’m not a threat to your sense of your own power. Come November 8, you’re out. Your president is going to be a woman and from now on, we’ll all know that we, too, can have the ultimate power achievable on this Earth. We who have had our pussies grabbed will stand up tall and proud and say, "Your Pussy Grabber got owned, assholes.'"
And those of us who didn’t vote for him will forever harbor a secret contempt for that tiny minority who did. We will forever know that you thought a man could be president who called a reporter “a disgusting human being” for asking him about a woman who accused him of groping her just days after it was revealed that he himself bragged about it. We will have contempt for you who voted for a man who called a woman “Miss Piggy,” for a man who routinely busted in on teenage girls in their underwear. But we would also open our hearts to your economic anxiety, for in victory one must have compassion. Only kindness, I would remind myself, my motto as victor. Soon I, too, would be able to extend to disempowered white dudes the kind of patronizing kindness they had extended to me my whole life. I, too, would flirt harmlessly, and grant small favors, as the victor, the winner, the empowered.
That’s how I imagined 2016 playing out while I worked out at the gym and the sweat poured between my eyes and “Fight Song” played on a loop.
The regulars at my bar include a heterosexual couple who are sometimes asked not to come back for a while because they drink too much. Once, the man in the couple told me that Hillary Clinton was clearly a lesbian who was sleeping with Huma Abedin. I laughed and said, “If you had to pick between sleeping with Huma Abedin and Bill Clinton, who would you choose?” Because, when I was the winner, I could make jokes like this. Because I knew their day was done.
Another one of the regulars is an immigrant from South America—also for Trump. And there’s a pro-Trump factory owner with a Ph.D. And a former cop, and a former salesman. Everyone is employed; no one is without the means to spend every night drinking in a bar. I struggled to understand what they saw in Trump. I wanted to be kind.
It was easy back then. My bar friends knew I was Jewish. They had been very friendly to my Black friends who came to visit me at my bar. When I asked about Trump’s support from the KKK and his courting of neo-Nazi groups (who are now calling themselves the alt-right), and his stoking the flames of racism, they simply shrugged. “Don’t take him so literally,” they would say. “I don’t believe he is a racist; he’s just saying those things. Anyway, who are you going to vote for—that liar.
I've never felt unsafe in this bar. The men rarely hit on me, I've never had to suffer unwanted attention. Even when it became clear that Hillary was my hero,the male denizens never once treated me with anything less than the utmost respect. Once I spoke curtly with a fellow barstool warmer, and he responded somewhat angrily. Three bartenders immediately and silently left their posts and rallied behind me. I knew I had to take it down a notch, because they were on the line, not me. And while I believe these particular Trump voters when they say that their vote for him wasn't personal, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. Because while they didn't vote for Trump because he courted white supremacists or boasted about his sexual exploits or rape allegations, none of these facts kept them from pulling the lever for him either. And that is personal—to me, and to Muslims and women and immigrants and people of color, who are under threat by this administration.
One of those bartenders—I miss him a lot. He misses me too—we texted about it. What I couldn’t bring myself to text him is the words that have been ringing through my head since November 8: Those of us who had our pussies grabbed over and over, against our will, as children, as teenagers, as adults, now have to call that animal our president. And despite the rallies and the hashtags, Donald Trump is about to be my president. That’s what democracy means. While nearly 3 million more people voted for Hillary, because of our Electoral College, more Americans in three key states voted for him. That’s why I can’t go into the bar anymore.
And they didn’t just want him. They were outright rejecting her.
I didn’t come out in support of Clinton right away. Like many democratic women, I was shamed by the lefties whose economic values I share, by and large. But they didn’t share mine. Clinton’s famous statement, that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, is still patently not true, not just on the right, but on the left too. Over and over throughout the primaries, I thought to myself, how could voting with your vagina be a bad thing? Isn’t that what we fought for? Aren’t our vaginas still under threat?
But my excitement went beyond the thought of having an advocate for women—and an actual woman—in the White House. I wanted that woman. Clinton has spent thirty years absorbing huge amounts of sexism, for us. Every criticism that’s been leveled against her I’ve heard at least once in my life. And she’s taken it, and taken it, and taken it, like a tank running at the front of an army, absorbing most of the hits so that the soldiers marching behind only have to deal with the stray bullets that make it through.
There are certainly things I don’t like about Clinton—her position on Israel, her position as a member of the board of Walmart, the lack of transparency (earned, but still…), the money in politics. But I’m an adult; my hero can be imperfect. I also believe that Clinton would have been incredible on the social issues I care about—the prison industrial complex, and immigration. I believe Clinton would have been more progressive than Obama, and that there has been a thirty-year campaign to discredit her, one that finally ended with the ridiculous email controversy—emails!!—that probably cost her the election.
But beyond the policy questions, the question of her femaleness, and the power she insisted could be—must be—co-existent with that femaleness yet crucially not defined by it, not of it, was a guiding beacon of light. And though she had to modulate her tone and her face and her clothing and her terror at being stalked on stage by an admitted sexual predator, to me, she was still always the woman who wouldn’t bake cookies, the woman who wouldn’t stop trying to wrest power from men, the woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. The woman who had managed to achieve non-gendered power, and who would now lead the free world.
At a rally in Brooklyn on the night Clinton cinched the nomination, I wondered what I would say if I got to meet her. I thought, I will tell her that when I was a little Orthodox Jewish girl who was told often to stop speaking my mind because who would want to marry a feminist, I would look at her in the news and think, there is one woman in the world fighting for my right to be whatever I want to be, fighting so that I don’t have to be on my knees letting some man decide my fate. That’s not being shot in the streets, or free healthcare. But it’s not nothing.
The day after the third debate, I wrote on Facebook, “Woke up with a smile on my face and joy in my heart because Women's Warrior HRC is going to keep the Republican Party's hands outta my pussy.” What joy, what jubilation, to see Clinton come to life talking about a woman’s right to bodily integrity. Somehow, in 2016, even among Democrats, I was in the minority in my jubilation.
One thing 2016 stole from me is the precious belief that you can convince anyone of anything.
Only one of the men at the bar I used to love ever flirted with me. He is an engineer with a handsome, weathered face and a shock of white hair. He used to call me his future wife, which is I guess as respectful as flirting ever gets. During the election, he friended me on Facebook, though I warned him it was a mistake, that I was very pro-Hillary.
One night at the bar about a month ago he said out of the blue, “Oh, by the way, I love your Facebook posts.” I was incredulous. “Yes, really,” he insisted. “I never agree with you—I’m a conservative guy, that’s just who I’ve always been. But you say things in such an interesting way, and I always go, Huh! I didn’t think of it like that!”
I was flattered. But another part of me knew what was up. It was the kindness of a white man who knew deep down that his dominion was not and would never be truly threatened, not by me, not by any woman, not in his lifetime.
How am I supposed to be kind now? I wish I knew.
On Veteran’s Day, I schlepped the veteran and his lovely wife to some other, charmless spot so I could buy him a drink. I made them climb two flights of stairs because I cannot go back into that bar.
I’m no longer trying to convince anyone of anything. This is just a screed, an emotional appeal, charmingly rendered. It is the language of the disempowered. It’s one I know well.
(for Sandra Macpherson)