(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)
The New York Times had an interesting article today on how female politicians are leveraging offensive and sexist remarks by Republicans to mobilize their base and help with fundraising campaigns. It’s an empowering and deeply satisfying act of political judo, using your opponent’s attacks against them so their smear campaigns only leave them covered in muck themselves.
But more than that, it says something very important about where we are as a culture, something worth reflecting on as we kick off Women’s History Month. Because the reason these judo tactics worked in each of these cases is that the national audience recognized that what was being said was fundamentally wrong. When Erick Erickson calls Wendy Davis “Abortion Barbie,” we know it’s not okay to refer that way to an elected representative who stands and speaks eloquently for an entire eleven-hour filibuster to ensure the rights of her constituents. When Todd Akin talks about “legitimate rape” and his belief that women’s bodies “have ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to prevent unwanted pregnancies, we are outraged and disgusted because we know that most rapes are not committed by strangers in dark alleys, and we know that pregnancy is a matter of biology, not willpower—we’ve known these facts for so long and from so many sources that someone who doesn’t know them seems dangerously out of touch.
Here’s the thing, though: forty years ago, we didn’t know these things. Women didn’t deserve equal pay because they had husbands to support them. They didn’t deserve promotions because they would be taking jobs away from men. We didn’t talk about rape, or unwanted pregnancies; they only happened to bad girls and were hushed up to avoid further scandal. If a female politician was called a Barbie doll of any stripe in 1970, the American public wouldn’t have rallied behind her, they would have laughed and dismissed her.
These political judo tactics work because we’ve absorbed decades of “No means no,” “Equal pay for equal work,” and even, “This is what forty looks like.” They work because the Women’s Movement did what the Anti-Defamation League did: calling people to account for hate speech and hate crimes, but also patiently educating the public about the difference between stereotypes and reality until we knew better, until some jokes just weren’t okay.
Words matter. Information matters. Stories matter. They shape the reality we live in. This Women’s History Month, dare to call someone out on bad behavior. Laugh. Let how far we’ve come inspire you to take a risk in your own life (or for a friend, or for strangers a world away) that will seem like no big deal a few years down the road. Learn something that surprises you about a woman of the past, or one of today. Share ideas. Shape the world you live in.