Ten years from now, do you think we’ll be talking about where we were when Al Franken announced he was resigning from the Senate?
You never can tell.
It was a historic moment that had virtually nothing to do with Franken himself. In the grand cavalcade of sexual assault charges we’ve been hearing lately, his list – from fanny-gropes to tongue-thrusts – is appalling but pretty minor league. And the picture of Franken feeling up the well-protected breasts of a sleeping colleague on a tour could have been subtitled “Portrait of a Comedian Who Does Not Suspect He’ll Ever Run for Senator.”
“Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others I remember very differently,” he said in a rather bitter farewell address.
Franken was a good politician, and many Democrats hoped he might grow into a presidential candidate. But it was his destiny to serve history in a different way. He was caught up in a rebellion of epic proportion, one that was not just about unwanted groping but a whole new stage in the movement of women into the center of public life.
For most of the long span of Western civilization, they were consigned to the home. (Back in the 1860s, the A.T. Stewart Dry Goods Store in New York City installed a ladies’ restroom in what was possibly the first acknowledgment that respectable women might be outside their homes long enough to need to go to the bathroom.) A century ago, they won the right to vote, but it didn’t come attached to the right to walk down the sidewalk alone.
Over the past 50 years or so, the rules about a woman’s place were shattered. It’s still hard to appreciate how vast the change was. It began at a time when, in many states, jury duty was regarded as an inappropriate task for women since it would take them away from their housework. They almost never worked in the outside world unless they were too poor and desperate to stay in their proper place.
Now we live in a world where men who were hoping to hand over their business to the next generation, or maybe have a doctor in the family, look at their new baby girl without a shred of disappointment. I saw all this happen, and it knocks me out whenever I think about it.
But it’s a revolution still in the making. The struggle for equal opportunity is far from over, and men haven’t all adapted to the presence of women at the next desk, in the conference room or driving together to the big meeting in Dayton.
Some are lecherous bosses who think their power gives them a version of the right of the old lords to sample the favors of every girl in the neighborhood. Some are otherwise nice people under the deeply mistaken impression they’re so attractive no woman would mind a surprise hand up her skirt.
It was inevitable that sooner or later, we’d need to go through a huge social trauma that would firmly establish the new rules. And here we are. We’ve had three resignations from Congress this week. (One involved a lawmaker asking female staff members if they’d act as a surrogate mother. Try to imagine a female representative inquiring whether men in the office want to be sperm donors.) There are sexual harassment crises in state legislatures from Alaska to Florida. The entertainment and communications worlds are rocking.
“This is our moment,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, the San Francisco Democrat who’s been one of the leaders of the anti-harassment forces in Congress.
The moment won’t really have arrived until the same thing is happening everywhere from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to fast-food franchises. But it’s a start.
“It does feel like a tipping point,” said Estelle Freedman, a Stanford University historian who’s written extensively about the way earlier generations of American men cheerfully recast rape as “seduction” and sexual harassment on the streets as “mashing.”
The critical combination, Freedman said, was a new ethos combined with the movement of women into positions of power. Franken was forced out of the Senate because there were female senators who could lead the call for him to go. “And it was women journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein story,” Freedman noted. “All these strains are coming together.”
Franken thought he was one of the leaders of the revolution. And he was, on a political level. But he’s an excellent example of why the uprising had to be extreme and dramatic. As the accusations mounted, he often claimed not to have remembered the incidents. It’s been a pretty common response in the recent uproar.
But we have to have elected officials – and movie stars, and journalists, and professors and choreographers – who, when confronted with charges of feeling up a constituent or forcing a wet kiss on a co-worker, can honestly and instantly say: “Good Lord, no. I’d never do that.” Just as they would if they were charged with stealing cash from the register or kicking a puppy.
We haven’t had many opportunities lately to contemplate the world moving in exactly the right direction. But here we are. I’m sorry about Al Franken, but still – savor the moment.