Different kinds of sexism have played an outsized role in the 2016 presidential race on both sides of the aisle.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump has been on the defensive for the misogynistic remarks he’s made over the years, centered predominantly on women’s appearances his persistent attacks on Fox News personality Megyn Kelly and, most recently, his attempts to go after Heidi Cruz, Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife. After Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, was charged with misdemeanor battery after video was released confirming his altercation with former Breitbart report Michelle Fields, Trump continued to defend him despite the female conservative pundits who called for Lewandowski’s firing.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton — who is poised to become the first female U.S. president — has been chastised for shouting too much and smiling too little, and this past week, the former U.S. senator and Secretary of State was deemed “unqualified” by her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders. But still there is a tacit understanding that the entire election itself may be decided by the preference of women voters.
It is within this maelstrom of gender-related conversation that U.K. author and activist Laura Bates is releasing “Everyday Sexism,” the culmination of nearly four-year online project where she collected hundreds of thousands of testimonials from women (and some men) about the verbal, physical and emotional abuses they have either experienced or witnessed. The book, which cites a number of entries from online forums as well as startling statistics about the sorry state of women’s rights around the globe, could not have arrived at a more auspicious time.
“If you look at the kind of sexism Hillary Clinton is experiencing, it’s a microcosm of what other woman face on a daily basis,” Bates told MSNBC on Tuesday. From Bates’ perspective, despite having “an extraordinary career behind her already,” Clinton is living, breathing proof that “no matter how high a woman rises, we can still bring her down a peg or two using the same tired cliches.”
“We still live in a society where we treat women as second-class citizens,” she added, pointing out that male politicians are defined by their policies and their records, while female candidates are still seen as “a woman, first and foremost.”
The sheer breadth of institutionalized sexism can be overwhelming, and Bates’ book includes harrowing accounts of very young girls being indoctrinated with unhealthy body image standards and subjected to inappropriate sexual conduct on a regular basis. The statistics are just as damning: nearly 1 in 5 women have experienced rape or an attempted sexual assault, 87 percent of women between 18 and 64 years old have been harassed by a male stranger and on average, three women are killed every day by a current or former boyfriend. And yet, Bates has not allowed herself to become too discouraged.
A source of hope, and the impetus for her book, is social media. It has provided women of all ages with a platform to talk openly about issues like street harassment and body shaming, which has encouraged other people to come forward and demand change. Meanwhile, men have also had their eyes opened to a world they perhaps didn’t know existed.
“The more voices you get, the more people feel like they can add theirs as well,” she said. “Women all over the world standing up and saying enough is enough. What’s really incredible is to witness their resilience, their strength, their humor and energy.”
The 29-year-old Bates was a working actress before she embraced battling sexism as a full-time job. Curiously, the last straw for her former career came when she was cast in a music video and learned when she arrived on set that she would be expected to disrobe for no reason other than to be objectified. Today, she considers it to be an “enormous privilege” to serve as a conduit for so many women’s stories, but at the same time her outspoken stance has brought about hundreds of terrifying rape and death threats.
“It’s amazing how tenacious people are,” she said.
What she and other women like her have experienced is a form of “double victimization.” First, they are subjected to abuse or insults, and then they are blamed for the very mistreatment they received. Particularly when it comes to catcalls on the street, which comprise a significant portion of the testimonials in “Everyday Sexism,” Bates believes there are some huge misconceptions out there which have persuaded many men to defensively discount the problem.
She says people who question why anyone should focus on street harassment while female genital mutilation is happening are like people who would argue police shouldn’t prosecute fraud and murder at the same time. To a certain extent, her project is about helping to “create the connections between those more minor incidents and those more serious abuses” in the minds of skeptics.
“When they think about a catcall, they think it’s a single isolated incident, that it’s positively motivated but there are dimensions of fear, threats to personal safety,” said Bates. “These situations can escalate, to [a woman] being followed or sexually assaulted.”
“I’ve never met a woman who’s never had one of these experiences,” she added.
According to Bates, a lot of men don’t realize that girls as young as 11 have reported being subjected to sexual harassment on the streets, and as more men become aware of how pervasive and insidious this behavior is a change in thinking will start to occur.
“It has to be about a cultural shift, it has to be about changing what’s considered ‘normal,’” she said.
Entrenched sexism starts early, when parents teach their sons not the cry and tell their daughters that its unfeminine to pursue certain types of careers. While conducting interviews for the project, Bates discovered some deeply troubling values among many very young people of both genders who have been influenced by “porn culture” and led to believe falsehoods like “rape is a stranger in a dark alley” or that it is “normal for girls to cry during sex.” And she was particularly saddened to learn that many of these entries related to an incident that took place at home, involving personal relationships or family members.
What Bates hopes to accomplish with this book is reach out to the bystanders, who have not spoken up in the past when they witnessed sexist or threatening behavior. Her research has been shared with U.K. schools, workplaces, officers who work in public transportation and even politicians, in the hope of opening up more of a dialogue.
“This is something we could change tomorrow if we wanted to, we would just have to all agree to do it together,” she said. Part of the problem, she says, is that the problem of everyday sexism has long been an “invisible one,” but ideally her book can provide “lens” for closer inspection.
“We will all witness these kinds of moments of opportunity,” Bates said. “We each have to take responsibility.”