We lovingly tell little girls that they can become anything they desire.
Parents, teachers, mentors and the entire apparatus of popular culture repeat this mantra: any career you conceive, my darling. Any goal you set, my child.
Now is the era when little girls lucky enough to be born in America can grow up equal in stature, esteem and opportunity to the little boys they go to school with.
Too bad it’s a pack of lies.
Adults never tell the full story — the one that admits that little girls will be expected to endure putdowns for being female. That they will hear degrading catcalls about their bodies. That they will have to rebuff unwanted sexual advances and will be expected to remain silent because their hurt can be so easily twisted into their shame.
The proof is playing out before us, live and televised daily. The 2016 presidential campaign has turned into a sordid chronicle of the misogyny of the GOP candidate. But this isn’t about him.
Even more telling is how every new revelation that Donald Trump groped, fondled and kissed women as a matter of entitlement is met with pushback, excuses and blame placed on the heads of the women who are talking about his treatment of them.
As more women come forward with their stories, each is summarily dismissed, diminished or diluted by the absurd forensic cartwheels of his surrogates.
They tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting the obvious: Trump cannot distinguish between lascivious drooling and the action of sexual assault. Locker room talk consists of crude words. That’s not the concern. Trump bragged about actions, specifically sexual assault.
The fact that this still confuses certain people — that the distinction is so easily denied — is how sexism maintains its power. It’s that simple.
This is why Michelle Obama’s speech on Thursday resonated for so many women. It wasn’t just her passion and emotion as she spoke at the Hillary Clinton rally in New Hampshire. It was the way the first lady cut to the core and admitted that she is frightened by what she is experiencing this election cycle. And not just as the wife of the most powerful man in America, but as a woman, as a mother to two daughters.
Obama admitted that such rampant pushback against seeing women as worthy of human decency is painful: “It hurts.”
“We are drowning in it,” she said. “And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water. Just trying to get through it. Trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us.”
Obama tapped into the experiences of every woman.
“It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body.”
The next morning, vice presidential running mate Mike Pence clung to the excuse of cluelessness. Of Obama’s speech, he said, “I don’t understand the basis of her claim.”
I’ll share. There was a young man who routinely entered the small ice cream and dairy store that I ran as a teenager. He’d wait until I was alone. Then he’d take his penis out of his shorts, and sit in a chair by the door, staring at me. I never told anyone until a few years ago.
I never considered telling someone an option. That might cause me to lose the job and would surely cause my parents anxiety. I needed the job to save money for college.
Now, I worry my hesitancy allowed this stalker to escalate his behavior into physically harming another young girl.
Telling women to be defiant does nothing to alter this reality. Women know this too. Sure, strong sisterhoods develop where we console and steel each other to persevere. And the growing numbers of men who are standing with us is uplifting. But all of the messaging of female empowerment shouldn’t be necessary: leaning in, shattering the glass ceiling, Rosie the Riveter girl power and, now, the hilarious spinoffs about pussycats warning about what shouldn’t be touched. Playful, provocative shutdowns of misogyny can only go so far.
Sexual aggression — the behaviors, the attitudes, the excuses that support them — has to stop.
So, yes, young girls, go ahead and dream your dreams. But there will be hurdles and pitfalls and snakes in your path. We can’t deny it any longer because the damaging examples are too numerous and too perfectly framed by the current election.
America is deciding now if it has the courage to fight back on your behalf.