Sexual abuse cases bring new era in American history

The battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court forms a chapter in a new epoch in American history.

Like other countries, the U.S. has dealt slowly with the rights and roles of women.  Now, the country is undergoing major change, and allegations about Kavanaugh are part of it.

His nomination and the careers of other men in the public spotlight have been affected by allegations of sexual crimes.  Long hidden or ignored, some men have exercised their power – political, theatrical or physical – over women more often than many had suspected.

Decades ago, Margaret Chase Smith, the Mainer who was the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House and Senate, urged caution in too readily accepting allegations.  In her famous Declaration of Conscience speech, she said that the Constitution speaks of “trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.”

The danger in relying too heavily on allegations alone is that they might become a standard tool of political opposition.

Still, much evidence, including some only circumstantial, has made it impossible to deny certain gross misdeeds.  Cases emerge after decades of the system intentionally ignoring them.

Some men have admitted assaults.  Some charges have escaped prosecution, only because the actions in question may have occurred too long ago or victims have suppressed the trauma.

The Washington Post recently revealed a long-hidden case of a Texas high school girl who was raped.  Despite firm evidence, her attacker was not prosecuted, and she was hounded out of town.  No wonder she said nothing for years.

However charges of past abuse are resolved, they have led to one clear result. The #MeToo movement has caused an increased awareness among women that abuse can no longer be ignored and among men that abusive behavior may be judged well into the future.

Even more important, revelations of sexual abuse have led to a greater recognition of historic discrimination against women.

To a surprising extent, charges of sexual abuse against then-candidate Donald Trump, comedian Bill Cosby and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have promoted the political future of American women, by graphically calling public attention not only to past abuse, but also to their unequal treatment.

The #MeToo movement is only one element of change and needs to be transformed into a “We,Too” way of life.

More women are running for Congress than ever.  Some may gain votes simply because they are women.  But support will come also because voters are coming to understand that women are as capable as men to direct the affairs of state. They should be elected based on ability, not sex.

It remains to be seen how many of these candidates will succeed.  What’s most important is that they are on the ballot.  Women will undoubtedly play the leading role in the future political process, and the races this year are a step in that direction.  Two women are running for Maine governor this year.

Maine has sent three women to the U.S. Senate.  One now serves, and one of the state’s two House members is a woman.  Perhaps they benefited from women’s votes.  But the case can be made that they were elected by both women and men on their merit.

President Trump has appointed women to important posts, though not to head any of the top four departments, as both of his predecessors did.  But his boasting about groping women still rankles.  Could a woman have been elected after bragging about having groped men with impunity?

Women are beyond doubt ready to lead.  In universities, law schools and other professional schools, they are becoming the educated majority.  They clearly know how to manage their personal and professional lives.

But “We, Too” must act on such change.  At the Supreme Court, since the appointment of the first woman in 1981, there have been 16 nominees, but only four have been women.  The chief justices in Maine and the United Kingdom are women and Canada recently also had a woman leading its top court.

The need to recognize women as leaders extends beyond government.  In the private sector, a woman still does not receive equal pay for doing the same job as a man.  Women lead only about five percent of the five hundred top companies on the Fortune list.

The problem of discrimination against women goes back to the beginning of the human race.  What is happening now in the U.S. is thus even more historic, more difficult and more important than most Americans, female or male, may imagine.


Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.