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American Witch Hunts: Hillary, Megyn, Debbie

American Witch Hunts: Hillary, Megyn, Debbie

American Witchhunts: Hillary, Megyn, Debbie

Homophobia, transphobia, and racism are on the tip of everyone's tongue lately. Too bad misogyny gets so little lip service.

Two positive yet ugly things happened recently. First, Fox News founder Roger Ailes resigned in the midst of a ballooning sexual harassment scandal. Second, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz stepped down from her position as chair of the Democratic National Committee after hackers released a trove of unflattering emails that exposed party bias for Hillary Clinton. The way these scandals developed and the reporting on them show that women in modern America still have to contend with an almost medieval brand of sexism. And if they want to reach the top, they have to face a degree of scrutiny that most men simply don't.

Decades before Ailes founded Fox News, he was reportedly assaulting women in the workplace. If the accounts of the 25 women who have come out against him are to be believed, Ailes attempted to extort sexual favors from young reporters and models in exchange for helping them with their careers. At least one accuser was underage at the time. Ailes agreed to step down last week, denying each allegation as he left.

The most striking aspect of this case, and every case involving a male celebrity and sexual assault, is that the apparent priority has been to salvage the image of the accused. And the best way to do this is by suggesting the accusers are unreliable, as Donald Trump demonstrated here. Luckily for people like Ailes and Trump, men in positions of power have centuries' worth of experience with this. The moment Eve was written as particularly susceptible to persuasion, the female gender and reliability became incompatible. In 17th-century France, women's weakness of mind became a perfect tool for a Catholic Church floundering in the face of the Reformation: A string of demonic "possessions" of young women provided the spectacle the church needed to scare the population back to mass. Even in Victorian England, male scientists excused male adultery as a hapless response to the sexual entrapment of hypersexed, lower-class women, none of whom could be trusted to control their urges.

When Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly made public her allegations of harassment by Ailes, there were many who asked, "If she was as strong as she seems, why did she put up with it?" or "Why didn't she do something sooner?" Even in the face of insurmountable evidence, there is always, always room for suspicion and judgment, as long as the evidence is provided by women.

It's true that Ailes is innocent until proven guilty. But the insistence on this point sometimes comes hand in hand with hypocrisy. The people who will defend Ailes' innocence by citing a need for legal due process are the same ones to discount the legal due process that exonerated Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing in her use of a private email server at the State Department. (Donald Trump is the perfect example of this type of thinking.) "Innocent until proven guilty" underpins our legal process -- but for women politicians, even proven innocence isn't enough. This raises the question, when it comes to American politics, who tends to benefit from the benefit of the doubt?

The way people talk about Debbie Wasserman Schultz, you would think she committed mass murder. But she is probably used to such treatment at this point. In her five-year term as chair of the DNC, she has been the near-constant target of vitriol, as often for her "naked ambition" as for her appearance. The recent email leaks have summoned a new wave of criticism, and yes, a redoubled scrutiny of her distinctive curly hair. She is the "neurotic," the vain, the unreliable paragon of liberal cattiness. And her professional relationship with Hillary Clinton is being written up to sound more like a coven than a political partnership.

This is because, according to conservative thought, Debbie Wasserman Shultz and Hillary Clinton are the very crones of the medieval imagination: impure, self-centered, overpowered, and -- this is an important factor in how we treat them -- ugly. Like the ladies of Loudun or Salem, they are particularly prone to corruption, and their words are never to be trusted. They can be seen through and exposed by their male rivals and must be subjected to day-long tribunals in order to properly assess their guilt. They are guilty from the get-go, guilty of weakness and fragility and susceptibility to emotion -- that is to say, they are guilty of being female and having power at the same time. And in America, that is still a capital offense.

DREW KISER is an editorial intern for The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @DrewKiser666.

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