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“Believe Women” Can’t Be Used to Score Cheap Partisan Points

The phrase “believe women” was coined to demand that women’s experiences of sexual assault be taken seriously. Elizabeth Warren’s defenders cynically using that rhetoric to attack Bernie Sanders isn't just dishonest — it hurts the movement against sexual harassment and assault.

2018 Women's March in Missoula, Montana. Montanasuffragettes / Wikimedia

When #MeToo exploded on the national consciousness, I felt like I could breathe. I wasn’t yet ready to tell my own story of sexual assault but found healing in others speaking openly about theirs. Years of the rhetoric of “she was asking for it,” “what was she wearing?” or “I saw her flirt with him once” convinced me my assailant’s words would be believed over mine. A movement built around believing women’s experiences of assault felt desperately needed.

That demand was powerful. Which made the deployment of that demand in service of Elizabeth Warren’s recent bad-faith attacks on Sanders, claiming that he told her in 2018 that he didn’t believe a woman could be elected president, so invalidating. This isn’t just shockingly cynical — it’s a perversion of feminist principles in service of scoring cheap political points.

When people questioned whether or not Sanders had said that a woman could not win the presidency, Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden conflated the skepticism to women being disbelieved for reporting sexual violence, tweeting: “Believe Women. Except when it doesn’t work for your ambition, apparently.” This coming from someone who outed a sexual harassment victim in front of her entire staff. The victim said she was retaliated against within the organization for reporting.

Feminist writer Moira Donegan drew parallels between reporting one’s assault and Warren’s claims. But journalist Julia Ioffe had perhaps the most insulting take of all, tweeting: “Still thinking about the Warren-Bernie squabble and I have a question to people who have accused Warren of lying: isn’t the lesson of #metoo and the last few years that we believe women and don’t call them liars?”

#MeToo arose out of the recognition that survivors’ experiences weren’t taken seriously while perpetrators’ were. The movement has focused on power differentials that produce this epidemic — not contending that women are incapable of any kind of wrongdoing.

What makes these kinds of attacks so infuriating, aside from their basic dishonesty, is that women are still disbelieved, smeared, and blacklisted for speaking up about sexual assault. We’re lucky if all we get from the experience is doubt and consternation. Our experiences in reporting assault often make us into victims all over again.

The slogan “believe women” was supposed to push against that — to demand we address sexual violence without perpetuating further harm. The weaponization of “Believe Women” by Warren’s defenders has rendered the phrase politically impotent, a cheap weapon of partisan politics instead of a clarion call against sexual assault.

When “believe women” comes to mean “believe women can do no wrong,” and commentators use rhetoric that reflects trauma for their own or their favored candidate’s personal political gain, it gets a little easier to discount women’s experiences of sexual assault and sexism as a whole. No feminist should use such rhetoric this way — and no feminist should put up with others using it, either.