Paresh Dave/Neon Tommy, CC 2.0
If we are to believe that all sexes and genders deserve equality, then we must hold the Al Frankens of the world to account as much as the Roy Moores.
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If you look closely around my home, you might see little hints of Minnesota’s Democratic Senator Al Franken here and there. In the second drawer of my buffet there are the baseball-style “Franken” cards that his campaign made and handed at the state fair in the summer of 2008. On the fridge is the thank you note that he sent me in 2007, a few days after he came to talk to Drinking Liberally Minneapolis, the progressive “beer and politics” drinking group I led for about four years in the mid-2000s. And there is the photo I keep of Franken kissing the ridiculously bald head of my then five-month-old daughter at a local backyard fund-raiser.
As a Democratic activist in 2008, Franken was my champion, especially during the never-ending recount as months passed as the Franken campaign and the campaign of Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman hand-challenged ballot after ballot as the seat remained unoccupied. As a progressive voter, I embraced him as he flipped the seat blue, got the Senate to the point where it could finally pass health-care reform, and pushed through much of President Barack Obama’s agenda until 2010, when the tea-party wave essentially ended bipartisanship and the Republicans made obstructing the president their only goal.
I publicly supported Franken’s candidacy, his work, and the many people on his staff that I interacted with. Privately, though, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about him as a politician. When he visited Drinking Liberally that February, I watched him move from table to table, chatting and even good-naturedly arguing with the vast spectrum of lefties there to meet him, yet I couldn’t shake a feeling that he was ignoring the few women who came to meet him in favor of his male fans. He had just started campaigning and I chalked it up to being new and quickly forgot all about it as I threw myself into supporting his candidacy.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering from time to time if he truly thought that women were his full equals. It was something I continued to feel as I attended campaign events or, after his election, as he would speak at fund-raisers and other progressive events. How it felt like he always gravitated first to the men in the room, how he talked to them a little bit longer, how we never seemed to get quite as much time.
Maybe it’s because they were more aggressive? I wondered. Maybe we were too patient? It could have just been me, I assumed. It’s not something you want to say and be wrong.
It was the summer of 2011 when I finally had my next chance to speak directly with Senator Franken. Netroots Nation—a yearly progressive conference—was being hosted in Minneapolis and all of the local bloggers and reporters who had covered the senator over the years were invited to do one on one interviews. By then I was covering abortion laws and restrictions for a reproductive-rights news site, and I was anxious to talk to Senator Franken about the Helms Amendment, which forbids abortion on military bases, considering his interest in military and veterans’ issues, and the right’s attempts to chip any abortion coverage out of Obamacare’s health exchanges.
But I couldn’t. Although he was co-sponsoring a bill to get emergency contraception on bases—something his staff told me he would be interested in speaking about—I felt like he was brushing off any attempt to talk in depth about abortion. He redirected the conversation to discussion of Medicare, food stamps, and the GOP’s fixation with ending social safety net programs. When I’d try to go back to abortion he talked over me. The second I hit my 10 minutes with him I was immediately dismissed. As someone still new to the job I was frustrated, but I figured it was my failing as a reporter and other than a couple of friends (and an apology to my boss for not being able to get anything for a story) I never talked about it.
Now, I’m learning that it wasn’t just me who saw it, either. As reporter Emily Crockett said on Twitter, there’s something about his behavior that just made his interactions with women seem slightly less genuine. “It’s hard to put a finger on it,” she noted. “It’s not like he’s actively creepy.”
Nothing that I witnessed—or think I witnessed—was life-altering, but if they were true, they were the acts of quiet, everyday misogyny that even the most publicly progressive and feminist men enact. The dismissal of women, the elevation of male peers, the subtle forms of gravitating toward and keeping men in power.
The old boys club in action, as it were.
And it’s those acts that leave us shocked, but not completely surprised, when it turns out that our own allies may be part of the problem when we push to harassment, assault and sexism 100 percent unacceptable, and hold ALL instigators up to public scrutiny.
Learning that Senator Al Franken allegedly used his power as a celebrity in 2006 to coerce a woman into an unwanted, open-mouth kiss, then later take a photo of himself pretending to grab her breast while asleep, is a horrifying thing to hear as a supporter. And, from what we know about power, about men, about the media industry and politics and about the culture of our country, it is completely expected. For too long, there has been no accountability when it comes to the uneven power structures between men and women. For too long, all men, regardless of their political leanings, the organizations they support, the spouses they have or the women or girls in their lives they say inspire their actions, have spent so much time viewing women as props, punch lines, accessories or sex objects that they still struggle with seeing all of them (not just the ones they have already established personal relationships with) as equals.
As #MeToo has shown us, all women have been on the receiving end of some sort of physical, sexual or emotional attack at the hands of a man, and the simple fact is that we have to accept that the predators will be our allies just as often as it will be our enemies. And when they’re our allies we must be just as vigilant about hold their feet to the fire and making them be accountable for their actions.
For every Roy Moore, boldly targeting and coercing teens into dates and parked cars there will be 100 Frankens taking advantage of their power over women, possibly without realizing the magnitude or effects of their actions. As people who believe that all sexes and genders deserve equality, it is our job to make sure that the 100 Frankens are held to account just as much as the Moores.
Senator Franken released a tepid, dismissing apology followed shortly by a far more sincere one in which he apologized to the accuser, the tour, every person he has ever worked with, and all of his supporters for disappointing them. “I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t,” he wrote. “And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.” Democrats both in and out of politics have also condemned his past actions, showing that despite this being one of their own, the party is ready to take strong, decisive action against their own, not selectively punish those on the other side.
That is a good start. Because if we’ve seen nothing else in the last month, it is that the hidden culture of abuse against women is finally and definitely out in the open. And if we can’t hold our allies to the same scrutiny as our enemies, it is never, ever going to come to an end.
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