We have learned that when women aren’t trusted, they lose power

Jessica Valenti
Dec 13, 2018 · 4 min read
Illustration: Chloe Scheffe

BBefore abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in a Kansas church in 2009, he was known for wearing a button that simply said “Trust Women.” Of all the bromides we’ve heard about women over the past year — a year when feminism has continued to be the most powerful cultural force — it’s been this phrase, this word, that keeps playing in my mind: trust.

Whether you’re talking about #MeToo (which celebrated its first anniversary this year), inequality in the workplace, reproductive rights, or domestic violence, the foundation of how these issues are handled is trust: Who is given the benefit of the doubt. Whose word is considered more believable. Whose experiences and lives are thought to be the most important.

Who gets trusted determines who gets justice.

When a judge gave convicted rapist Brock Turner three months in jail, it was because he trusted that a young white man had a bright future ahead of him despite his horrific crime. When mostly male legislators write laws that tell women what to do with their bodies, it’s because they don’t trust that we can make those decisions on our own. Studies also show that attitudes about race can affect how a person’s trustworthiness is perceived — bias that can have deadly consequences.

This year more than ever, who gets trusted has been at the center of the national conversation. “Believe women” was the rallying cry for those who are furious over sexual violence, which soon morphed into “I believe Christine Blasey Ford, I still believe Anita Hill” buttons. The hearings over now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged attack on Ford were a referendum on who gets trusted in America: A red-faced, screaming, belligerent white man, or a composed, polite, deferential woman.

What was so incredible and horrific about this moment was that the culture has progressed enough that Republican politicians knew they could not call Blasey Ford a liar, especially when the public consensus seemed to be that she was not. So instead they did something even more insidious: They said they believed her, but that she was mistaken.

They believed her; they just didn’t trust her. It’s a feeling American women know well — it’s not that we’re told that we’re lying, exactly, when we talk about making less money or feeling harassed at work. It’s that men don’t trust that it’s the whole truth, or that it’s not all that bad.

When two sexual assault survivors confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, it was their desire to be believed — to be trusted — that came across more than anything.

“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Maria Gallagher said plaintively. “You’re telling all women that they don’t matter.”

Indeed, in the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, American women went through a mourning akin to 2016 election night, remembering once again that even when we lay our traumas bare en masse, we are not trusted. And to have our life experiences be so fundamentally dismissed is to feel like… well, to feel like nothing.

Even now, with a president who unabashedly tells easily debunked lies nearly every day, there are more than a dozen women who have accused him of wrongdoing. These women are listened to less and trusted less than perhaps the most untrustworthy man in the modern world.

Who we trust doesn’t just determine who gets listened to or believed — it determines the way in which the world and culture is built. I saw someone on social media recently write that the cultural context for “girls mature faster” is almost always meant to make allowances for boys’ immature behavior, rather than being a reason to tell boys to look up to girls for leadership and guidance. Who gets trusted is whose needs are centered.

There’s a reason why “trust women” is still one of the most relevant feminist touchstones and why “trust black women” has become a central part of organizing for reproductive justice. Dr. Tiller’s core belief — that true justice means trusting that women know what’s best for their bodies and lives — is at the heart of change and progress for all of us.

Because at the end of the day, who gets trusted is who has power. And there are a lot of us who could use a bit more of both.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

Jessica Valenti

Written by

Feminist author & columnist.

Words That Matter

Some of the year’s most influential writers, thinkers, and experts reflect on the words that matter most in 2018.

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