I don’t even remember his name. Though he was someone on the periphery of my friend group. I do remember the heart-pumping shock of being thrown to the ground. Of struggling to push him off me. His breath smelled of the cheap beer that was flowing at a spring-fling event at the community college in Watertown, New York, where I’d spent freshman year.
We were on a path in the woods, just off the main field where most people were gathered. It was not a remote, untraveled path. No one happened to be nearby at that moment. I wriggled, I flailed, I yelled. The 70s rock music—I think it was a live band—drowned out my cries.
I eventually escaped. My relentless fighting and his drunken sloppiness combined to fuel my getaway. I patted the dirt and debris off my jeans and shirt. Picked at the dried leaves and pointy twigs in my hair. Walked off with an attempt at sterling posture because that’s what good girls are taught. Pretend it didn’t happen. Look unscathed. I mean, I wasn’t raped, was I? I re-entered the crowd with its inviting sounds of easy laughter and friendly voices. All I wanted to do was blend in, be safe again. I told my best friend what had happened. Felt lucky. I’d avoided true harm.
Not long after, I went out with friends to a local disco bar named Twilight 22. The dress I was wearing fell just below my knees and had a double-slit skirt made for twirling on the dance floor. As I was standing next to a boyfriend at the edge of the small dance floor, several men behind me lifted the back panel of my skirt. One grabbed the slit on the left side; another yanked the slit on the right. They peeled me.
I turned around to laughing faces. They had the short haircuts and indifferent attitudes that gave every appearance of being soldiers from Fort Drum, a local Army base. I’d learned to spot them young. These were the kind of soldiers my parents warned me about ever since I could remember; the ones eager to show the flip side of valor to local girls they’d never see again. (My father, a five-year veteran of World War II, was a reliable source in such matters.) Embarrassed and ashamed, I simply moved away to another part of the dance floor, which seemed less saturated with groups of men holding beers at rakish angles.
I’ve been reliving these stories the past week, along with dozens of more insidious, less vivid ones that center on heckling, groping, and leers—the run-of-the-mill harassment that comes with being female in America in the late 20th and early 21st century. Despite the appearance of women “having it all,” or possibly because of it, nasty comments and subversive attitudes are never far away. If you are female and have escaped these behaviors, lucky you. But the legions of #MeToo posts on my social media feeds throughout the last week indicate that most women of virtually every age know exactly how this feels.
Sharing these experiences as part of a global community of women felt important. Hearing men on my social feeds say they took our messages to heart, felt significant too. This meant they heard us, believed us, didn’t question us, and wanted to change the culture.
Then came chief of staff John Kelly, who marched through the #MeToo campaign with a machete. In the White House briefing room, from a position of power, he inserted himself into the controversy surrounding President Trump’s remarks to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four serviceman killed in Niger. Representative Frederica Wilson (D-FL), a family friend who was traveling with Johnson, heard the conversation on speakerphone and made public statements about Trump's clumsy remarks to the grieving widow. Myeshia Johnson, six months pregnant with the couple’s third child, later confirmed Wilson’s account of the conversation and said that the president’s comments made her cry even worse.
Most presidents would have cleared up this controversy quickly, taken ownership for the miscommunication, and offered a heartfelt apology to the widow of a fallen soldier. But that’s not Trump’s style. He engaged in a Twitter war with Wilson, then deployed General Kelly for a battle round, trading on the chief of staff’s personal experience of losing a child in service to our country.
Kelly has undeniable qualifications on this topic. His perspective was meant to clear the air while providing cover to Trump for the president’s less-than-perfect condolences. But an emotional Kelly made some critical missteps from the press podium. He lied about Wilson’s remarks at the dedication of a FBI building in Florida and accused her of politicizing a Gold Star family’s grief (when it was Trump who'd started this particular war, commenting on how previous presidents handled communications with the families of fallen soldiers). Kelly, known as a man of integrity, made a blatant attempt to discredit Wilson whom he referred to as an “empty barrel.”
Here’s what I took away from Kelly’s remarks: he didn’t believe a woman’s version of events and he intentionally dishonored her by spreading falsehoods. At the pinnacle of the #MeToo campaign, it was a smackdown.
Kelly, ironically, went on to lament the good ole days in which women were treated as sacred. As he put it: “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases.”
Kelly had just confused everyone, as he smeared a female member of Congress for aggrandizement, while absolving a president who has a track record of disrespect for women.
The battle lines were set up to squelch the female perspective. On one side were two powerful men: Trump and Kelly. On the other side, were three women: Myeshia Johnson, Rep. Wilson, and Cowanda Jones-Johnson, La David's aunt, who'd also heard Trump's call and confirmed its tone and content. Kelly could have met the women at least halfway, honoring their feelings and judgment, but that did not seem to be an option. There appeared to be an instinct to slur and silence them.
During a week in which the #MeToo sisterhood emerged like a resurfacing submarine from the dark recesses of society, Kelly’s comments about women were tone deaf. The millions of oral histories unleashed by the #MeToo campaign were often decades old, proving that there were no “good ole days” to be a woman in America. Kelly’s attempt to rewrite history as most women know it felt like a betrayal.
While most of us will never understand what it feels like to be the parent of a fallen soldier, Kelly seems unaware of the threats that women in America face, and have likely always faced. Nor does he understand what modern women really want. Being treated as sacred has never been the point. Women want respect, to be treated as equals. To be honored as friends, partners, colleagues, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. In this case, to be believed for telling the truth—wasn’t that what the #MeToo campaign was all about?
We can also handle the truth, and this administration should start telling it more often about topics that matter. For starters, American women would like to know why are we fighting in Niger? How did these four servicemen lose their lives? Where are the other military hotspots in the world that we should know more about, and what are the risks?
Many of us expected so much more from General Kelly. Because a man of honor knows when to admit he made a mistake. It’s not too late for him to restore lost credibility. He would be wise to make a public apology to the American people for his misstatements about Rep. Wilson. He should also make a private, personal phone call to Myeshia Johnson to express his deepest condolences and apologize for the added stress she's been forced to endure. Without taking responsibility for his missteps, he uses his own position of power to slash and burn women to make his administration look good. Feels just like old times.