Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Three words resounded out of the election of Doug Jones to the US Senate: women’s stories matter.
And three more rose up right behind them: America is listening.
Tuesday’s Jones victory marks a dramatic departure for the nation – one with the potential to reach well beyond America’s politics to the redefinition of how we see the stories of half the country.
This election is a herald. In America, the silence is over and the sexual abuse allegations about Roy Moore, denied by the candidate, only brought that even more sharply into focus. Women came forward to tell their stories about what they say they faced as children and as young people – and they were heard. These women shaped the race’s narrative. People heeded them.
That is a step – a big one.
Because here is the reality: It is not just the harassment and worse that more than half of American women say they have experienced. It is that men have long decided for America which topics bear intellectual heft, which are worthy of playing a central role in America’s national discourse. Which are serious…and which are not.
In the “not” category – until only recently – sat women’s stories. Women’s experiences. Their realities and plights and priorities. Women’s stories had little place in intellectual discourse, aside from the occasional International Women’s Day nod, and, consequently, no weight and minimal presence in the shows and pages largely run by men.
Just one illustration: Several years back I was about to go on a US talk show panel to discuss America’s post-9/11 wars. As I stepped through the entrance and walked to the “green room” to meet the other guests, a helpful producer – who wanted me to do well and had pushed to put me on the broadcast – quietly gave me the following advice: “Don’t talk about women.” It wasn’t that the producer didn’t care about women in Afghanistan and Iraq. The show’s host – a man – did not. At all. And the producer knew I wouldn’t succeed on the show if I raised issues we see as “women’s.”
I reassured her: I could speak about troop levels, counter-insurgency and internal Washington policy battles, instead. I also could talk about what was happening with women. But I wouldn’t. I knew it wasn’t on the day’s agenda and that bringing up women would be career harmful, not helpful.
The message was clear and I had gotten it long before that morning: to be serious, to be taken seriously, you had to talk about policy in the abstract. Not the realities facing women on the ground and how their experiences absorbed and influenced America’s decisions. Half the population had no place in the policy discourse.
Women who talked about women’s lives did not possess gravitas. Women who talked about men did.
Look at the 2015 numbers, according to the VIDA Count: the New York Review of Books reviewed 366 men authors and 89 women. The New York Times Book Review reviewed 589 books written by men and 396 by women. As a piece written for The New Republic noted last year: “book reviewers are three or four times more likely to use words like ‘husband,’ ‘marriage,’ and ‘mother’ to describe books written by women between 2000 and 2009, and nearly twice as likely to use words like ‘love,’ ‘beauty,’ and ‘sex.’
Conversely, reviewers are twice as likely to use words like ‘president’ and ‘leader,’ as well as ‘argument’ and ‘theory,’ to describe books written by men. The results are almost too good in their confirmation of gender stereotypes.”
But not in this election story. In the defeat of Roy Moore, women’s lives stood center stage.
We will only see real change, lasting change, however, if the whole spectrum of women’s experiences are no longer viewed as a sideshow, but instead as central to America’s present and its future.
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Women are taking charge of their own narratives, not waiting to be called upon. Moore’s accusers reshaped this vote, and they helped determine its outcome. A slew of gatekeepers for whom women’s stories held little value and even less interest are now out the door. The question is: who replaces them?
The time has come for women to push their own stories forward. And to not wait to be taken seriously, but to instead speak for themselves, and show just how much heft their stories hold.
“Gravitas” is not a synonym for “male.” And women’s stories matter – to all of us. Alabama is leading the way in showing us just that.