Four years after Tara Reade briefly worked as a staffer for then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden, I occupied a similar office in the same town. The summer of 1997 saw me tucked into one of a few polyester suits purchased off the clearance rack at Benetton, a pink “I-badge” hanging from my neck, heading for the Old Executive Office Building, where I worked as a White House intern. Through his Democratic Party connections, my father had arranged for me to spend the summer cooped up with Bill Clinton’s speechwriters.
I learned a lot that summer, but very different things than I’d hoped. I learned that D.C. staffers, interns and even chiefs of staff worship the men and women they serve with a desperation I have not seen equaled since. And I learned that the men in high office—D.C.’s version of Hollywood stars—often come to believe they are as god-like as the underlings tell them they are.
One morning, we interns were called together quite suddenly for an urgent talk, delivered by the woman who headed the internship program. She scolded us for seeking out opportunities to meet the President. She said we were not to act like groupies. In fact, if we saw Bill Clinton coming down the hall, we should turn heel and scurry back inside our offices. She reminded us to act like professionals and—swerving her speech toward the young women of the group—admonished us against wearing provocative clothing.
I found myself in line for the bathroom soon after. The college co-ed in line ahead of me turned her pretty black curls to face me: “I wonder what short-skirted vixen stole her man,” she said. It would be another six months before any of us would hear the name “Monica.”
Taking advantage of female staffers and interns seems to have been rampant practice among powerful men on Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill in the 1990s. A year before Reade worked for Biden, Republican Senator Bob Packwood was forced to resign after 19 women—19 women—came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, most of them staffers who’d worked for him. They were divorced women, women with children, secretaries who needed the job. Packwood later wrote in his personal diaries that there were “22 staff members I’d made love to and probably 75 others I’ve had a passionate relationship with.” Amazing how passionate a woman can be when the children at home depend on her paycheck.
Which doesn’t mean that every staffer who claims she was sexually harassed or assaulted ought to be believed, Tara Reade included. “Believe all women” was always a silly idea—almost as ridiculous as the current spectacle of Democrats scrambling to disavow it.
“’Believe All Women’ does have an asterisk,” Susan Faludi recently wrote in The New York Times, in reference to a slogan popularized during the rise of #MeToo. “It’s never been feminist boilerplate.” In fact, Faludi explains, “believe all women” was merely a strawman that conservatives constructed to ridicule and undermine the #MeToo movement, to trap feminists in hypocrisy when they predictably failed to ‘believe’ women who accused prominent liberal men. According to Faludi, feminists on the left never cried “believe all women.” We all know some women are untrustworthy.
“This is why the preferred hashtag of the #MeToo movement is #BelieveWomen. It’s different without the ‘all.’ Believing women is simply the rejoinder to the ancient practice of #DoubtWomen,” she writes.
It’s an interesting argument—ridiculous on its face, but perhaps pointing to important truths.
As a linguistic matter, there is no doubt that “believe women” means “believe all women”—just as “disbelieve women” means “disbelieve all women.” If “believe women” meant only “believe some women,” it would be too obvious to mention. Who would need to be told that some women’s accusations were worthy of credence? If the pledge meant only “believe those women with ironclad, corroborated claims,” it would be unnecessary. The belief would come naturally, following the evidence.
Indeed, “believe some women” is an edict as old as time, when it comes to claims of sexual assault. In the Book of Samuel, it meant believe your sister or daughter, Tamar. In other times, it meant believe white women, however untrustworthy their claims. A great many innocent American black men were lynched as a result of the evil application of this imperative.
In any case, as David French points out, whether the slogan was “believe all women” or just “believe women,” many supporters of #MeToo seem to have interpreted it as the former. National Public Radio tweeted on February 7, 2018: “‘Believe all women’ has been the rallying cry of the #MeToo movement—a mantra embraced by some but dismissed by others as naïve.” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney tweeted on September 26, 2018: “We stand with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez, & Julie Swetnick. #BelieveAllWomen @HouseDemocrats.”
But it’s also true that those who sought to ridicule such cant tended to use the more capacious formulation in order to expose it as nonsense: How could one even “believe all women”? Maddeningly, women themselves do not always agree. Very often, there is a Christine Blasey Ford, and also a Leland Keyser. The attempt to believe contradictory claims by various women at the same time can only end unhappily, in paradox.
I would venture that many Democrats who will nonetheless vote for Biden do believe Tara Reade’s accusations—or at least some portion of her story. The era was right, and so was the guy: Joe Biden is famously “handsy.” No eyewitnesses corroborate the event, but then, that is the norm with sexual assault. And unlike Christine Blasey Ford, who had no one confirm that she spoke of the alleged event at the time, several people have said that Reade told them about bad experiences at her job soon after the assault allegedly happened—including her neighbor, Lynda LaCasse (who intends to vote for Biden anyway), an unnamed friend interviewed by journalists, and even perhaps her mother, who appears to have called in to Larry King Live on August 11, 1993, five days after her daughter left Biden’s office. Reade’s ex-husband referred to her sexual harassment in Biden’s office in their 1996 divorce proceedings.
The PBS NewsHour story by Daniel Bush and Lisa Disjardins, based on interviews with 74 former Biden staffers (62 of them female), claims the conduct alleged by Reade, in the words of Cathy Young, “was dramatically at odds with Biden’s usual behavior.” In the years after Monica, would it surprise us if politicians, Biden included, began cleaning up their formerly messy acts? Bill Clinton, as beloved a Democratic president as America had seen in generations, provided this object lesson for every man in high office: If even Teflon Bill met disgrace for having fooled around with the interns, mere mortals didn’t stand a chance.
Turning to Reade herself: She is no ideal accuser designed by political consultants; she’s a real person with a messy biography. Reade seems to have been plagued by money troubles; always pleading for rent breaks or failing to pay on time. A trail of excuses and lies follow her—about when she would pay, and whether she had the credentials for a job. They mark her as irresponsible, unlucky and just beaten down. But those who still believe her might argue that these are precisely the sort of circumstances that would lead a man to think he could exploit her without repercussion. Who would stand in her corner?
It’s hard to miss the classism that inheres in our current discussion of these weaponized claims of sexual assault. Several media outlets have published the comment by Ben Savage, who worked closely with Reade at the time, that she “just didn’t seem to fit into office culture.” Among that battalion of shellacked Ivy Leaguers, all of them outfitted with a patina of perfection, how many would?
Last week, it was reported that Reade had misrepresented her educational background, though that, too, might be excused by her remaining defenders as something that might be resorted to by a single mom struggling to make ends meet. In the real world, women who get assaulted often don’t lead pristine lives. They mark themselves as prey in so many ways they don’t intend, which doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our support.
Perhaps this is what “#BelieveWomen” was getting at—not what Faludi claims, that it was a rejoinder to the “ancient practice” of disbelieving women. “Believe women” frames a woman’s account as an “admission against interest,” to quote the rules of evidence—a story likely to be credible, because who but the truthful would disclose it?
Bringing such claims forward involves a loss so significant—in privacy and dignity—that it merits a presumption in a woman’s favor. Perhaps #BelieveWomen was—or should have been—a reminder that when women make these claims, it is usually because something bad happened to them.
Usually, but not always. And here we need to introduce the “election-year moment”—the identical twin of the “Supreme Court confirmation” exception. In these dramatic and fraught national psychodramas, where women are breathlessly lectured that so-and-so’s election or confirmation will inexorably lead to back-alley deaths and women-as-chattels under the law, there are alternative explanations as to why a woman might falsely accuse a man.
And let’s not forget the allure of celebrity granted to women who make accusations at these particular moments. Few remember the name of Matt Lauer’s main accuser. But everyone knows the name “Christine Blasey Ford,” startup feminist icon. The “Believe Women” presumption, in the case of a high-profile nominee from the other political party, may not apply.
This does not exonerate those feminists who refused to stand with Tara Reade from the start—a cynical, hypocritical move if ever there was one. But perhaps it gets us to the right result. Perhaps allegations of sexual assault from 27 years ago, even if plausible, are not enough reason to deny one’s vote to a man who’s otherwise treated female staff decently over a long career.
Perhaps, given the stakes, you examine the moral bank account of a candidate: so many deposits and withdrawals. You weigh a serious, unproven accusation against everything else you know about a man. Feminists never extended this courtesy to Kavanaugh—who had a nearly forty-year track record of treating women kindly, against a vague episode alleged to have occurred when he was seventeen. Listen to Tara Reade, but also, listen to the many others (like Meghan McCain) who vouch for Joe as a very good man.
And perhaps the woman who delivered that tough talk about short skirts to our intern class all those years ago wasn’t merely protecting her boss, whose swiveling head was so easily spun. She wasn’t only thinking of the young women in front of her either, all of us more pliable than we wished to believe. Whether she fully realized it or not, she was looking out for a country that had made it through the Nixon years while still managing to regard its presidents, not as priests, but not as a class of scoundrels either. A country that could still be addressed from the Oval Office and feel a measure of pride, and look upon the pristine architecture of that very White House with something approximating hope.
Abigail Shrier is author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, forthcoming in June. Follow her on Twitter at @AbigailShrier.