What Do We Tell Our Daughters?

An ACLU mom explains to her daughter that the things Donald Trump boasted of doing to women are illegal, but back when she was a girl, that wasn’t the case.

By Lenora M. Lapidus, Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project

In an exceptionally moving speech in New Hampshire last week, Michelle Obama summed up beautifully the feelings so many of us have been wrestling with since the tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was released. The first lady spoke as the conscience of our country, saying publicly what many of us have been saying in private: Enough is enough.

We cannot take any more of the sexism and misogyny that this election is spewing. We refuse to be silent anymore, as evidenced by the conversation taking place fast and furiously on #NotOkay and across social media platforms. Indeed, complaints of sexual assault to RAINN’S National Sexual Assault Hotline increased 33 percent in the aftermath of the Trump tape.

For me, the conversation began about six months ago, when my 14-year-old daughter came home from school and asked, “Did you hear that Donald Trump said he wanted to date his daughter? Isn’t that gross?” In interviews in 2004 and 2006, which were reported on last spring, Trump not only said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter perhaps I’d be dating her,” but also responded affirmatively when Howard Stern asked, “Can I say this? [Ivanka is] a piece of ass.”

My conversation continued after my daughter saw news coverage of Trump’s bantering with Billy Bush aboard the Access Hollywood bus. When she asked about Trump’s remarks, my heart crushed. Why must my young teenager, whose body is just beginning to transform from that of a child to that of a woman, be confronted with this ugly and demeaning portrait of what her body means to some men?

But there was a teachable moment here. I responded not only as a mother, but as a women’s rights lawyer and advocate who has devoted my life to fighting for women’s equality, including challenging laws and social norms that treat women not as full agents of our own destiny but as second class citizens whose bodies exist for the pleasure of men.

I explained to my daughter that the things Trump said he had done and intended to do to women, if proven, would probably be illegal. His words and actions might constitute sexual harassment or sexual assault. And I noted that when I was her age, much of this was not illegal.

Indeed, it was not until 1975 that the term “sexual harassment” was coined by three Cornell University professors. And it was not until 1979 that law professor Catharine MacKinnon identified the two main types of sexual harassment claims in the workplace: “quid pro quo” harassment, where women who reject a supervisor’s sexual advances are punished or fired, and “condition of work” harassment (now known as hostile work environment) where women are subjected to offensive sexual comments and behavior regardless of whether they suffer economic harm.

And it was not until 1986, in the landmark case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, in which an African-American woman bank teller was coerced into an abusive sexual relationship with her boss but continued to receive positive evaluations and promotions throughout that the Supreme Court established that women could bring claims against their employers for creating such an “abusive working environment.”

Law reform efforts to name sexual assault as a violent crime also took off in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1962 the Model Penal Code — influential model legislation that many states look to in crafting their criminal codes — passed Art. 213 on sexual offenses (although the provision is now very dated and is being revised). Creative ways of supporting and empowering survivors emerged, from the opening of the first rape crisis centers to demonstrations of women fearlessly taking back public spaces at night.

In 1994, Congress passed the milestone Violence Against Women Act, which improved the criminal law system’s response to gender-based violence and increased services for survivors. But despite these gains, still today two-thirds of sexual assaults are not reported to the police and even fewer are prosecuted.

That conversation I began with my daughter last spring, and the continuing conversations I have had with her throughout this campaign, present a microcosm of the conversations mothers are having with their daughters and friends are having with each other all over the country. We are at a watershed moment in the public discourse around sexual harassment and sexual assault. This political moment is reminiscent of that moment 25 years ago when Anita Hill bravely stepped forward to tell her story of the sexual harassment she suffered from her boss Clarence Thomas at — ironically — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hill sat before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee recounting how the Supreme Court nominee allegedly harassed her. She stated that Thomas made uncomfortable suggestions: asking her out during private conversations at work (offers that she declined), speaking to her about acts he saw in pornographic films, and telling her of his own sexual prowess in graphic detail. When she left her position at the EEOC, Hill said Thomas suggested he would ruin her career if she told anyone about his behavior. Joe Biden, then presiding over the hearings as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, did not permit other witnesses to testify and Thomas was confirmed.

But we live in a different time now. The law on sexual harassment and assault clearly prohibits the kind of behavior that Anita Hill alleged Thomas had exhibited and about which Trump bragged. Hill’s testimony helped change the culture, which in turn, solidified the law and the public’s understanding of the law. After Hill testified, complaints of sexual harassment more than doubled across the nation.

Michele Obama’s eloquent denouncement struck a nerve across the country, and millions of women have come forward to share their stories. Male athletes have stood up to proclaim that such language is not acceptable “locker room talk.” And men have reported standing up to their male friends and co-workers and calling them out for sexist comments and behavior. If we keep this conversation going and speak up when we witness sexual harassment or assault, we can change the culture so everyone knows this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

So, while I am sorry my daughter had to hear these vile remarks and witness this ugly treatment of women over these past many months, I grasp for the silver lining that shines as more people engage in the discussion and commit to making these comments and actions finally a thing of the past.


Lenora Lapidus is the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.