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Joe Biden’s Tired Feminist Shield

How Tara Reade’s allegations bring us back to a familiar cycle of denial and complicity

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tara Reade, an aide to Joe Biden in 1993, says that while working for him, Biden sexually assaulted her. Joe Biden himself has said nothing; his campaign’s position is that this never happened. It’s a strategy that, reportedly, Biden’s people think is working out for them, believing voters’ support will not be swayed, nor will they find Reade’s allegations to be credible. (History considered, these are safe enough bets.) So the presumptive Democratic nominee for president maintains his strategic silence, while Reade has been made the story—but one that has little to do with her.

Since Reade first went public in March, reporters have been able to find multiple people who back up her allegations against Biden. What seemed to make the difference was a Business Insider story with accounts from several people who say Reade told them about Biden’s mistreatment at the time—and it was by Rich McHugh, who previously worked with Ronan Farrow to investigate sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Shortly after this was published, Rebecca Traister, a writer at The Cut, expressed profound disappointment in what this story meant for the presidential race. “Especially in light of McHugh’s recent persuasive reporting on Reade’s assault claim, Democrats and feminists are in a terrible bind, and that includes those of us who never thought Biden should be the nominee.” It’s a sentiment that very accurately captures this moment. It’s one with a depressingly familiar feel.

This is hardly the first time in my lifetime, or in the lifetimes of many of these feminist commentators, that a Democrat has made things difficult for the movement because women have accused them of what is too-politely called “sexual misconduct.” Some feminists were introduced to Hillary Rodham Clinton as the woman whose job it was, in part, to remain by the side of her husband, the president, as he defended himself from sexual harassment allegations. That these things recur is also part of this story. When Senator Al Franken was accused of groping and forcibly kissing multiple women, many recalled his portrayal of bow-tied Senator Paul Simon in the Saturday Night Live version of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. With him is Kevin Nealon’s Joe Biden, and compared to Biden’s real-life questioning of Anita Hill at the 1991 hearings, the show gives him a toned-down pass.

While feminists are trying to make meaning of Reade’s allegations relative to Biden’s presidential campaign, the campaign has been leaning into feminism to protect the candidate. In a set of talking points obtained by Ruby Cramer and Rosie Gray at BuzzFeed News, the campaign has advised Biden supporters to state that “the truth” is “this incident did not happen.” Look to Biden’s record, the talking points continue. “He has spent his life fighting to end abuses of power against women and using his voice to advocate for women across the country and around the world.”

Leave aside for the moment the truth that there are certainly liberal and leftist men out there who say they support women’s rights, and have, nevertheless, sexually harassed and assaulted women—and, in the case of one prominent Hillary Clinton donor now between sexual assault trials, have also apparently lied about it. If Biden’s campaign would like us to look at his record, even assess Biden as feminists, there is plenty of evidence of where Biden stands, none of which requires us to weigh the truth of Reade’s allegations.

The Biden campaign, in response to Reade, specifically highlighted his role in passing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This was part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which poured billions of dollars into state and local law enforcement, including policing and prosecuting rape and domestic violence. The community-based anti-violence programs it funded in the name of “crime prevention” had their roots in a feminist anti-rape movement, which saw law enforcement as part of the problem, for disbelieving victims, for criminalizing victims who fought back in self-defense, and for being perpetrators themselves. They understood violence against women as an expression of male dominion—that confronting it wasn’t about fighting crime, but fighting patriarchy and (for some) white supremacy. Victoria Law systematically laid out how VAWA was part of a larger turn in the women’s movement, towards a carceral feminism which pressed police and prosecutors to be tougher, to make more arrests, to lock up more people.

Being “tough on crime,” for Biden, was a way for Democrats to appear more palatable to Republicans. As Naomi Murakawa, associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, recounts in her book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, during debate over the 1994 crime bill, when Republican Senator Orrin Hatch accused Democrats of “bowing to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” Biden responded in defense, “Let me define the Liberal Wing of the Democratic Party. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill.” He went on: “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops.” For “125,000 new state prison cells.”

Today, VAWA remains the most unimpeachable element of that legislation, even among liberals now disenchanted with the larger crime bill. “Biden engineered it so a vote against the crime bill was a vote against women,” as Diana Moskovitz observed at Jezebel. Biden wasn’t just proud of the crime bill; he took pride in what it helped him to do to his party. This is who was running for president before Tara Reade came forward. Biden has used women and causes feminists support as a defensive measure long before this current campaign.

It’s a strategy that is working for him, and one that some prominent feminist political commentators helped make more credible. Before denial was the campaign’s official talking point, those seeking to discount Reade used lines of attack familiar to almost anyone who has experienced sexual violence: her story changed over time, she didn’t report it to the police at the time. Political commentators on the left have asked why more prominent feminists weren’t standing with Reade, and when a handful did address the allegations, they complained that they were being pressured unreasonably to respond to them.

“Most troubling to me about this whole story—besides Reade’s obvious pain over whatever happened—is the way folks on the left are using it to smear feminists and Democrats who have a hard time believing her charge,” wrote Joan Walsh, political commentator at The Nation and CNN. Any injury done to Reade, who Walsh spent the rest of her column characterizing as a liar, is offered as a literal aside.

Around the same time, Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times opinion columnist and MSNBC contributor, assessed Reade like this: “Personally, I’m just left with doubt: doubt about Biden and doubt about the charges against him. But the one thing I have little doubt about is the bad faith of those using this strange, sad story to hector feminists into pretending to a certainty they have no reason to feel.” (After McHugh found additional corroboration, Goldberg called his Reade story “the most persuasive corroborating evidence that has come out so far.”) The Tara Reade story Walsh and Goldberg chose to draw attention to was how Reade’s allegations had created fraught uncertainty among feminists, and enabled “smears” and “bad faith” arguments aimed in their direction.

These demands that feminists address Reade’s story were to be expected; for the last several years, stories of a feminist resurgence expressly in response to high-profile men—liberal men, too—accused of sexual violence have dominated all media. Whether such demands sounded more like recycled left-liberal political beef than calls for solidarity among women, either way, the lack of an “official” feminist response to Tara Reade was made part of the story by some of the feminists who have the kinds of media platforms which can set a narrative into motion. They could have waited for more reporting before weighing in, as others have—like Sarah Jones at New York, and like this piece now. They could have used their column space to tell a more complex and accurate story: that women don’t “believe women” because we are women, that women have always reserved belief for women it is easier to believe.

Reade’s allegations aren’t a parable of feminist faith or hypocrisy, or an opportunity to lament how poor our choices are right now. Both of these responses turn us away from those who made the choices that got us here: Joe Biden, and Joe Biden’s supporters, people who presumably saw no other dealbreakers with him before—if they even do now.

No one “did” this to us. We are not in our present circumstance by some accident or unexpected set of circumstances. Biden opponents had choices, too. “I’m just going to keep saying this unpopular thing: lots of the prominent feminists now telling us patriarchy gives them no good choices are leaving out an important choice they had,” author and activist Naomi Klein wrote on Twitter. “After Warren was done, they were all asked to stand with Feminists for Bernie. Most refused.”

Responding to Biden’s alleged assault by focusing within—how you believe the allegations made people treat you, how the allegations shape your political choices—feels, if not deliberate, safe. Reade is, like anyone who comes forward with sexual violence allegations, a person who is not defined exclusively by an assault. If her politics and her timing are seen as an inconvenience, if not disqualifying, it’s easier to look away. So when the injury that may have been done to Reade was too difficult to approach directly, some women sidestepped her story, and instead made themselves—or the generalized movement—the injured party.

All this makes this wave of liberal feminist disappointment at this current state of things feel so misplaced, tepid, even self-serving. “Reade has given public feminists an ideological test. Many are failing,” Jones writes. And it’s not limited to their reluctance to deal with Reade’s allegations. Feminism as a movement, she continues, “exists to critique power: to identify its abuses and demand its redistribution. Accept that, and you don’t serve the political class; you’re in tension with it. That’s uncomfortable. That’s inconvenient. That’s the point.” If feminists with large public platforms can’t make sense of that discomfort, can’t find and hang onto their politics within the mess, then they will only add to it. That’s a choice, too.