Joe Biden has been accused of sexual assault, and conservatives are having a field day, exultant that they’ve caught feminists in a new hypocrisy trap. A woman, with no corroboration beyond contemporaneous accounts, charges a powerful man with a decades-old crime? Hmm, doesn’t that sound mighty close to Christine Blasey Ford’s complaint against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh? Yet this time, many liberals who have championed the #MeToo movement seem skeptical?
Tim Graham, executive editor of NewsBusters: “Where is the #MeToo movement on this story? What happened to their rigid ‘Believe All Women’ boilerplate?”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson: “The infuriating, the sickening hypocrisy of the media and the professional feminist movement. ‘Believe All Women!’ No they don’t.”
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway: “Three magic words, ‘Believe All Women.’ I didn’t hear an asterisk; I didn’t see a footnote, ‘Believe All Women so long as they are attacking somebody aligned with President Trump, Believe All Women so long as they are — have a college degree or better or are — are for abortion in the ninth month.’ ”
In fact, “Believe All Women” does have an asterisk: *It’s never been feminist “boilerplate.” What we are witnessing is another instance of the right decrying what it imagines the American women’s movement to be.
Spend some mind-numbing hours tracking the origins of “Believe All Women” on social media sites and news databases — as I did — and you’ll discover how language, like a virus, can mutate overnight. All of a sudden, yesterday’s quotes suffer the insertion of some foreign DNA that makes them easy to weaponize. In this case, that foreign intrusion is a word: “all.”
“All” insertion was all the rage during the Kavanaugh hearings. When senators from Kamala Harris to Mazie Hirono had their regard for Dr. Blasey’s credibility elevated by Fox News pundits to universal gender credulity, their actual words, “I believe her,” became “believe all women.”
“That’s literally the hashtag,” former Fox News contributor Morgan Ortagus said in February 2019. “There’s a great search function on Twitter, and you can search the #BelieveAllWomen. For those of you who don’t believe that’s what the Democrats had in the case of Kavanaugh.”
Is there “literally” a hashtag? Well, kind of.
Meaningfully tracking hashtags on Twitter is a confounding chore, even for the professional data scrapers I consulted. “It’s a very interesting rabbit hole,” Pablo Morales Henry, digital archivist at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library, which maintains a collection of more than 30 million MeToo-related tweets, told me.
Nevertheless, let’s take the Ortagus challenge. As she noted, Twitter has a search function that, while hardly “great,” does at least crudely reflect the site’s use — especially by its most popular users who are most likely to spread a hashtag far and wide. For instance, type in #BlackLivesMatter or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain” for 2016, and you get a bottomless well of references. Type in #BelieveAllWomen for 2017, when the #MeToo movement took off in October, and you get several dozen references, followed in 2018 (the year of the Kavanaugh hearings) by many more. But here’s the thing: I found that the hashtag is, by a wide margin, used mostly by its detractors.
It seems that #BelieveAllWomen first appeared on Twitter in late 2014, in three tweets — by an Ontario midwife, a Toronto educator and “lifelong learner” and “Jenna & Kayla, twins from Ottawa who plan events in their spare time.” Combined following: fewer than 4,000 followers.
Then, in the fall of 2015, Hillary Clinton posted a tweet: “To every survivor of sexual assault … you have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” To which Juanita Broaddrick, who alleges that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, responded on Twitter on Jan. 6, 2016, “Hillary tried to silence me.” Conservative editor David French, who has a large Twitter following (more than 209,000 followers as of this writing), retweeted Ms. Broaddrick at once — attaching the hashtag #BelieveAllWomen, followed by four question marks.
The breath was on the ember: “Where’s the #BelieveAllWomen crowd on this?” “#Believeallwomen … unless the case damages the leftist narrative.” “This puts the #BelieveAllWomen Liberals in a bind, should be a good show.” And so on.
As happens, the canard, blown into a bonfire by the right, became accepted truth in mainstream media, from NPR to the New York Times to the Globe and Mail in Canada, with pronouncements characterizing #BelieveAllWomen as “the rallying cry of the #metoo movement,” “the order of the day” and “a formula for miscarriage of justice if ever there was one.”
It all came full circle last week, when Megyn Kelly said in her interview with Tara Reade, “Some of those who touted the ‘we must believe all women’ line the most, during, for example, the Kavanaugh hearings for the Supreme Court, certainly seem to have changed their tune when it comes to you.”
In my online searches, I encountered some feminists who seemed genuinely to subscribe to the phrase. But overwhelmingly, the Twitterati deploying the phrase were conservatives, wielding it as a whip. Why?
Because the right knows what #MeToo activists do well to keep in mind: Peril lies in purity. If the pluralism of the women’s movement can be reduced to rigid boilerplate in the public mind, then the future of #MeToo will have more to lose from a single untruthful woman whom it’s sworn to defend than from boatloads of predatory men.
This is why “Believe All Women” is not an amplification of “Believe Women,” but its negation. As Morales Henry at the Schlesinger Library told me, after several days of analyzing the use of the two hashtags, “It looks like #BelieveAllWomen, especially recently, is being used in opposition to #BelieveWomen.” Its use spikes on occasions when allegations are made against a liberal politician — often with companion hashtags decrying a double standard.
The double-standard purity test operates in one direction only. Conservatives are unfazed by their own brazen hypocrisies; that’s not the game they’re playing. Kellyanne Conway claiming it’s “pro-woman” to “believe all women,” before walking back into that White House?
Conservatives have been oddly immunized by their shamelessness. How do you fight, to quote W.B. Yeats, “with one/Who, were it proved he lies,/Were neither shamed in his own/Nor in his neighbours’ eyes”? The right, being averse to principle, has long known how to turn the left’s expressions of principle into Achilles’ heels. Even when it has to make up the expression.
So, where does this leave feminists?
Feminism has, indeed, believed many things about “all women.” That all women are deserving of equal treatment under the law, equal pay in the workplace, reproductive health, freedom from domestic violence. And feminists have long held that “all women” should be believed when the “all” refers to all categories of women — i.e., equal regardless of race, religion or economic status. This is what Anita Hill meant when she said in a CNN town hall in 2017, “And until we can believe all women, every woman’s voice has value, none of us really will be seen as equal.” Read her comments in full, and it’s clear she wasn’t giving equal credence to every individual woman, but equal standing to women of “all races, all ages, all sizes, all backgrounds.”
Good luck finding any feminist who thinks we should believe everything all women say — even what they say about sexual assault. History offers ample evidence of the horrors that can ensue when a woman or a man is believed who shouldn’t be: Remember the Scottsboro Boys?
Since at least the late ’90s, gotcha conservativism’s specialty has been condemning feminists for failing to live up to their dogmatist label. First, caricature feminists as a bunch of groupthink totalitarians, then accuse them of hypocrisy every time they are not in lock step. But guess what? Feminism has never, for five minutes, been about lockstep. If anything, we tend to be at each other’s throats more often than we’re marching in ranks. And that’s on subjects from comparable worth to women in combat to pornography to #MeToo, where feminists from Margaret Atwood to yours truly have argued for proportion and due process. The broad spectrum of opinion within feminism is one of its strengths, not a frailty. If feminists see distinctions between Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Christine Blasey Ford and Tara Reade, I’d say they’re doing their jobs. That’s not hypocrisy, that’s integrity.
The ultimate hypocrisy would be a women’s movement that rallies behind the banner of reductive hashtags about what every woman thinks. Feminism was birthed out of a desire that women be treated as individuals, not as a cookie-cutter ideal or a faceless stereotype. When I searched databases for women’s actual statements on “believe all women,” what I found were appeals by women not to be defined in universal terms — “I do not believe all women are born with the desire to reproduce” or “I don’t believe all women’s interests are the same” — and outrage at attempts to categorize their sex.
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.
For to be disbelieved has consequences, as women have witnessed, time out of mind. As one person wrote on Twitter in 2017, concerning a case in which an ex-husband murdered his two young daughters on Christmas, “You know what else people should #BelieveWomen about? When they tell authorities about their abusive ex and have concerns about their safety and the safety of their children. RIP precious girls.”
Or another who implored the “skeptic culture” to “give it a try” and “#bw,” in a stricken reply to the news of a woman beaten to death by her husband after a doubting judge denied her a protective order. The accounts of not being believed are too legion to list, and the list grows longer. A woman, responding to press reports of a student stalked and murdered by a convicted sex offender — after her appeals to campus police and 911 went unheeded for weeks — wrote, “When we say #believewomen, it’s because this can literally be a matter of life or death for us.”
And not having its message and mission hijacked and distorted can be life or death for the women’s movement. Feminism’s bedrock reason for being is to free every woman from the concept of “all women.” Its future rests on a full-throated defense of that belief.
Susan Faludi is a journalist and an author, most recently of the memoir “In the Darkroom.” She wrote this article for the New York Times.