Last Friday, I was leaving work for the day when I ran into a friend on the street. My friend—let’s call her Maddie—is an editor at a major magazine and one of the most unflappable women I know. She is the type of person you turn to when you need someone trustworthy to tell you that everything is going to be okay. On this day, Brett Kavanaugh was officially going to be confirmed after weeks of sexual assault survivors being picked apart in the court of public opinion. When I asked her how she was doing, she didn’t try and hide her devastation—she admitted feeling exhausted and completely defeated. She expressed her pain for the women who had protested in Washington all week, and for women across the country. With this latest loss, where would we go from here?
Not that I, more than anyone else, should have the answer. But it was painful not to be able to say anything that could help. Right now women are worried about the future, but we are also worried about the now, and not just the policy implications. We are struggling to take care of ourselves and each other. I don’t know what to say to friends who confess that they lie awake in the middle of the night wondering if we’re headed into of a real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know what to tell my sister, who worries for her own infant daughter’s reproductive rights.
Nor do I know how to comfort the second and third wave feminist friends I’ve cultivated over the years. These are individuals who spent decades agitating for the right to be seen as fully human in the eyes of society and the law. It seems obnoxious and naive to say that it will all work out in the end because it just has to; this is no time to play Pollyanna. And so when Maddie wondered where we would go from here, I told her the only truth I have: that right now, no one knows. We hugged before we parted ways, and walked away lost in our own thoughts.
In the days since, the sound of Maddie’s voice, and the look on her face, have stuck in my mind. I keep thinking about what it means to feel defeated, and what it would take to feel anything else. As my partner often reminds me, history is a series of setbacks and small gains. What happens in the meantime is progress—for both better and for worse.
For every time they try to break us, there is another time when we have refused to break.
But while there are no satisfying answers to why a man accused of sexual assault has been elected to our nation’s highest court. Or why a self-professed pussy grabber—a misogynist-in-chief—sits at the head of the executive branch of government, those of us seeking solace might find some small measure of it in the ways that that justice has prevailed in the past, one tiny step at a time.
In two years, women will celebrate the 100th anniversary of our right to vote. The result of a suffrage movement that was decades upon decades in the making. It took years after birth control was introduced to the market for women to be able to access it without being married. We know that Roe vs. Wade, though always imperiled, was hard won after a young female attorney argued the case in front of the Supreme Court (back when the building was so male-dominated that it didn’t even have a women’s bathroom).
I think of women’s strides in history as a kind of rosary: beads to move through my fingers when I feel myself losing faith.
Real and rage-inducing as the gender wage gap still is, little more than half a century ago women were expected to be paid salaries incommensurate with their male counterparts. And we were supposed to be grateful to be allowed to work at all. Consider how long it took to pass Title IX and to pass marriage equality, but also consider the legacy of those laws in our culture today. A quarter-century ago, the Anita Hill hearings were a painful referendum on gender and race. But that hopelessness ultimately gave way to groundbreaking action: In 1992, the legislature saw female lawmakers make major gains in representative, ushering in what’s come to be called The Year of the Woman. There is a reason that the Women’s March has inspired a wave of activism and political engagement not only in America but across the globe: For every time they try to break us, there is another time when we have refused to break.
Is counting moments in history when women got their fair shake supposed to be the answer to the trials we’re facing now? Of course not. Short of a reversal of the Kavanaugh confirmation—or maybe a magic wand and a time machine that would take us back to 2015—nothing is. These are dark days. There is no use in pretending to others, or burying our heads in the sand. But I think of women’s strides in history as a kind of rosary: beads to move through my fingers when I feel myself losing faith. I think of the inspiring new generations of young women who are hell bent on making a better world. I try and remind myself that it is my responsibility to them to continue to hold space for hope.
I wish I would have had the words to say all this to Maddie, but I’m sure I’ll need to summon them again soon enough. For now though, to all the women feeling defeated: know that we are in this together. Also know that we have been here before, and we have triumphed. The road is long and paved with victories and defeat. But it only goes in one direction: Forward.