“There is but one thing in the world worse than a shameless woman, and that’s another woman,” wrote Aristophanes, a man. Twenty-four centuries later, in their thousands the shameless march.
Mid-February at a coffee shop in Plymouth, Mich. The author and star of the most impolitic and effective campaign advertisement so far in the 2018 cycle is here. Her video has been called “the single most astonishing political ad I have ever seen” by a noted Washington pundit. (The pundit’s a man, of course.) It certainly has established its creator—a first-time office-seeker named Dana Nessel, the mother of twin 14-year-old boys—as a prominent voice in what is being called “the year of the woman” in American politics, as if every year is not, or shouldn’t be.
“Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?” demands this Michigan lawyer and married lesbian in a 90-second soliloquy that establishes her as strident, sarcastic, furious, fed up and far from the only one who is. “Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis?” she continues, as her words are fonted on screen in stinging, yellowjacket letters. “I’d say so.”
A little defensive, yet proudly offensive, Nessel is contending for the Democratic Party nomination to become the attorney general of Michigan. Three other women are striving to be the state’s governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state. This quadfecta, Nessel says, has kicked up even more dust than a woman promising—as she does in that same arch, delicious video—“I won’t sexually harass my staff, and I won’t walk around in a half-open bathrobe.”
“All I hear is trashing the all-female ticket,” she says. ”I don’t go a day without hearing that.”
This has happened before. In the comedy Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes, written circa 411 BCE, the women of Athens gather at a girls-only temple to emulate the rituals of democracy—casting ballots, making speeches—that are the exclusive province of men. A flamboyantly gay man in women’s clothing is sent to infiltrate their congress. It all ends hilariously, except for the fact that women in Greece do not actually receive the right to vote until 1952 CE.
Back to Nessel in Plymouth. “I don’t see my video as anti-male,” she argues. “I don’t mean ‘don’t vote for any man.’ I see it as a bold way to talk about issues that are increasingly important in society. Only 20 per cent of elected officials in Michigan are women, and when you don’t have women in positions of authority, you will see discrimination against female employees.”
“The president of the United States uses ‘pussy’ to describe women’s body parts. He calls countries around the world ‘shitholes.’ He uses ‘asses’ in his daily tweets. The fact that I used an anatomically correct word and got so much blowback proves the double standard.”
The president won Michigan in 2016 by 10,700 votes out of nearly five million. On Election Day, Nessel and her spouse and their children were at a party called to celebrate the expected triumph of Hillary Clinton, and, by extension, the ultimate victory of all women of all places and of all times from ancient Athens onward. “My wife and I wore all white to the party like suffragettes,” Nessel recalls. “We brought the boys, but as the reality sank in, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be in public anymore. I don’t want the kids to see me falling apart.’
“I cried more profusely that night over that election than I ever cried in my life. There was this notion that I was going to lose my country. In one evening, I could see it all slipping away. Since the election, all my fears have been actualized. Every one of them.”
Nessel is no amateur at high-stakes political poker. In 2012, she was one of the lead attorneys in the matter of DeBoer v. Snyder, in which the United States Supreme Court eventually affirmed the right of same-sex couples to adopt children and, after DeBoer was combined with other related cases, to marry in all 50 states. “I never planned on running for office,” she says. “I was making a real impact as an attorney. But then you watched this happen and instead of throwing things at the TV screen, I realized that instead of suing the attorney general, you could be the attorney general.”
She recalls the women’s march in Lansing, Michigan’s capital, as the turning point: “I coordinated with a group of women who were deeply involved in these issues. This year, every single one of us is running for office.”
Before she can become attorney general, Nessel must defeat Patrick Miles, Jr., an African-American male who was a classmate at Harvard Law School of another African-American male: Barack Obama. There will be no primary election, just a party convention in April. She has promised not to display her sons—her twin badges of matronhood, should such a thing be necessary in the 21st century—on the campaign. Nor does she wave the five-letter word from that video around the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
“I’m using that other P-word,” Nessel declares. “ ‘Policy.’ If I’m the person who can deliver safety, deliver clean drinking water and fresh air, and stop their family members from being deported, I don’t think I will be defined by having the audacity to say the word ‘penis.’ ”
Then there is the other party to contend with should she earn the Democratic nod. One of the candidates running for the Republican nomination for attorney general is a state senator and asparagus farmer named Tonya Schuitmaker. One of Schuitmaker’s campaign videos shows her striding confidently through her cornfields, alert for vermin, carrying a hunting rifle.
“I saw that video, and do you know what I thought?” asks Nessel. “Don’t they have scarecrows?”
* * *
A coffee shop in the hipster/Hispanic Pilsen district of Chicago, Ill.: Sol Flores, activist for the marginalized and the homeless, self-described apostle of love and justice, and candidate for the U.S. Congress, in a fuchsia sweater and flowered scarf, sipping rooibos tea across the street from a punk clothing store called the Anti Trump Social Club. Like Nessel and Trump, Sol’s a rookie pol.
“I respect the office of the presidency, but there’s no way I can respect this man,” Flores says of the shirt shop’s namesake. “He’s racist, he’s mean-spirited, he’s foul-mouthed—he’s just not a nice person. But believe me, I wouldn’t want a nice racist either.”
Flores is running for the nomination of the Democratic Party in the fourth district of Illinois, which may be the most gerrymandered riding in the nation. There are two chunks to the fourth: one on the heavily Mexican Southwest Side, the other on the largely Puerto Rican Northwest Side, connected only by a screaming freeway on which not a soul resides. They call it “the earmuff.”
The delegate from the earmuff to the U.S. Capitol for the past quarter of a century has been a Democrat named Luis Gutiérrez, who recently announced his retirement and—in the tradition of Chicago politics—anointed a county commissioner named Jesús “Chuy” García to succeed him for the next quarter of a century.
Enter Flores, whose first name means “sun” and whose last name means “flowers.”
“I started getting these calls: ‘We think a strong woman should run,’ ” she says. A former management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, she had been serving as executive director of La Casa Norte, a housing and support centre for Chicago’s homeless population, since it was founded in 2002.
“Yeah. But who?” Flores would respond.
“You, fool!” they’d say.
On the face of it, running against García would seem to be a low-percentage shot. As one motors through the Mexican flap of the earmuff, all one sees in the windows of the dollar stores and the Michoacáno groceries are placards that say “Chuy Chuy Chuy Chuy Chuy Chuy Chuy.”
But then Flores spent a big chunk of her cash on a video called The Door, set in the woodworking shop of a Chicago public school in 1984, and everything changed. In the clip, you see a girl carrying a wooden chest on the subway and you hear Flores say:
My art teacher asked why I was building a chest. I was 11, and I didn’t tell anyone that a man living with us would come into my bedroom when I was asleep and lift my nightgown.
Well, I filled that chest with the heaviest things that I could find, and I put it against that door to wake me up so I could fight him off. I’m Sol Flores, and I’ve dedicated my life to youth who need help…
“After that ad came out,” Flores says now in Pilsen, “I started getting a different kind of call. I had other women who are running for public office call me and cry. I’ve had women call me and say, ‘You had a box? I had a bell.’
“It’s a sea change. It will be forever different. Women are waking up and realizing that we’ve got to share our stories regardless of the consequences. This is about women saying, ‘We are done.’ This is about women saying, ‘How do we stop this? How do we protect women?’ And the answer is, we’ve got to have women at the table.”
Flores describes her childhood as a scene from West Side Story. Her grandfather picked tomatoes in New Jersey, then moved west to work as a short-order cook. She is the daughter, she says, grinning, “of an 18-year-old mother and the first boy she slept with.” Her parents fostered the orphaned and the abandoned. “Three a.m., a knock on the door, and somebody hands over a baby. The next morning I’m playing with that kid—‘Hey! She’s my new prima.’ ”
She made this bestowal of unquestioned, universal love her career, after PricewaterhouseCoopers downsized her out of a job and into a calling. “Running La Casa Norte has been an intensely personal experience,” Flores says. “People are trusting their lives to me. The voters need to know who I am, and they need to know what made me the woman that I am today . . . The families that count on us have never counted me out, and I’m not counting me out,” she continues. “Not even against Jesús.”
Yes, but. There is a woman in Kansas who had to drop out of her bid for Congress last December when it was revealed that she allegedly pressured a male workmate for amatory favours in 2005.
Yes, but. There is a state assemblywoman in California—and a leading #MeToo crusader—who went on unpaid leave in February after it was alleged that she had too much to drink one night in 2014 and tried to force a male colleague to play a game of spin the bottle. And that, another time, she got drunk and groped a different guy.
But yes, there is a woman in Kentucky—a Democrat, no less—who won a seat in the state legislature last month in a district where 72 per cent of voters pulled the handle for Trump in 2016. She will assume the seat of a politician and pastor who shot himself to death after it was alleged that he had fondled a 17-year-old girl.
The year of the woman.
A coffee shop in Tiffin, Ohio, a little town that is big enough for two four-year universities. Wide-eyed, sharp-featured, athletic, sinewy: Rachel Crooks, former scholastic volleyball and basketball star, willing national cynosure, incipient politician, director of foreign-student recruitment at one of the colleges in town—Heidelberg University—and one of Trump’s “19.”
On Jan. 11, 2006, Crooks has claimed, over and over and over and over again, she was working as a receptionist at Trump Tower in New York City—“city of opportunity, city of culture… and city of cockroaches!” she laughs—when Trump clenched her arms and kissed her on the cheek, the cheek, and then the mouth, right by the elevator.
Twelve years later, back in the Buckeye State, Crooks is running for the Ohio state assembly against a well-known automobile dealer named Bill Reineke, who won his seat unopposed last time. (Reineke recently was promoted to assistant whip of the Republican majority in the statehouse, replacing a man who moved on to the state senate to replace a man who resigned when he was charged with the sexual harassment of a female staffer.)
“He’s well-liked,” the gracious and guileless Crooks says of Reineke. “His name is everywhere. He can be charitable.”
Crooks asserts that her own candidacy—and those of so many other women in this nation, in this year—“is a direct recoil against Trump.” Certainly she has not been shy in joining (at least) 18 other women of similar experience in condemning the president as a smarmy serial smoocher. (When Crooks heard that others had been grabbed and kissed, she says she felt “relief; disgust.”) Trump has threatened to sue them all for slander, but not a writ has been written. Meanwhile, Crooks is working on her Ph.D.
Crooks’s campaign manager is a 26-year-old politico named Christopher Liebold, who already has won election to the council in the city of Fremont, Ohio, which was the hometown of Rutherford B. Hayes, who became the 19th president of the United States, which goes to show you never can tell. “Two great names for politics,” the pair giggle. “Liebold and Crooks.” (They are not a couple, though they did attend the same elementary school in the village of Green Springs, Ohio.)
At the coffee shop in Tiffin, Liebold and Crooks take out their phones and watch, for the first time, Nessel saying “penis” and Flores building her wooden chest to block the bedroom door. At this, the Trump accuser is wide-eyed, suddenly awake to how this game is played.
“Please, by all means, share the footage from the hallway outside the 24th-floor residential bank on the morning of Jan. 11, 2006,” she tweets the next day at the president. “Let’s clear this up for everyone. It’s liars like you in politics that have prompted me to run for office myself.”
“What if you win?” a reporter wonders. (What if all these women win, because Trump is in the White House, because Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, because enough already with penises peeking from bathrobes, because it’s 2018?) We will know in November. “Oh! Almighty Zeus!” the women cry in the works of Aristophanes. “See to it that the gods protect us, albeit we are but women!”
“Should we only have women in government?” asks Crooks in Tiffin. “Of course not. But how long have we only had men?”