My mother and I have a very special relationship. We both write poetry; we have similar goofy personalities that sometimes annoy other family members; we have the same celebrity crushes; we both enjoy wine and own too many shoes. Each of us mourned Jon Stewart’s departure from the Daily Show.
Despite these benign similarities, we have had different life experiences. And this last November, I voted for Hillary Clinton; she voted for Donald Trump.
I struggled with my mother’s decision. Both of us are sexual assault survivors, and I have spoken on a national platform about sexual assault and how to combat it. I have always stood firmly on the belief that how someone talks about groups of people is a very clear indicator of how that person views that group. So when Trump continued on his tirades of racist, xenophobic, misogynistic comments, I began to feel angst that so many disregarded such prejudice as him just being “unfiltered.” My mother said his comments bothered her, but not enough to sway her.
I had to work hard to not look at her differently. I had to remind myself that this was the same woman who cleaned houses for a living when I was in middle school and high school so she could be home with me in the afternoons. I had to remind myself that this was the same woman who comforted me when I came forward to her about my first rape and who held me when I told her about my second. I had to remind myself that this was the woman who flew to Florida and packed up my apartment after I left an extremely unhealthy relationship. This woman had seen me at my highest of highs and lowest of lows. She was my advocate, someone I admired, and someone who gave me every opportunity that she never had.
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So when it came time to ask her why she voted for Trump, part of me felt scared to ask why she had done so: I was afraid to view my mother in a different light, to lose trust in her, and to lose respect for someone who has been nothing but a positive force in my life. Because I love my mother and cherish our relationship, I needed to understand her reasoning.
She started off by noting her “pro-life” views; she felt that although Republicans hadn’t put forth their best candidate, Trump was still closer to her take on abortion than Clinton. And though she acknowledged the evidence of Trump’s racism, xenophobia, and corruption, she said, “I think the media overplayed Trump’s remarks, and I’m not saying there weren’t times that he said stupid things because he did, and it came to a point where I just thought, ‘I’m not even going to vote.’”
When when I challenged my mother specifically about Trump’s verbal attacks on women, and his tape apparently admitting to groping them without their consent, what she said left me almost at a loss for words: That behavior, she said, “is a character flaw” rather than a damnable offense.
“I am not the person I was ten, 20 years ago. There are tons of people who aren’t the same, and there are people who did reform themselves. Do we know that he’s reformed?” she asked. “No, we do not.”
“When I grew up,” she continued, “you just had to deal with certain behavior. When a guy groped me, I turned around I slugged him and I slapped another guy when it happened again.”
This statement of just “dealing with certain behavior” stood out to me. Anti-sexual assault advocacy has a much more prominent voice than it did a few decades ago. Many women are more empowered and have a bigger platform than ever to speak out against all forms of sexual assault. While there is still a lot of work that needs to take place, the world my mother, who is in her 60s, grew up in when it came to talking about sexual assault was much different than mine.
In the ’70s, when my mother was raped, she knew of hardly any crisis centers that helped survivors, and sexual assault was certainly not part of public conversation in her life. Twenty years passed before she told anyone about her attacks, and she did not share her story with me until I came forward about my first rape.
Having this realization gave me a better understanding that my mother didn’t view herself as someone who had a voice, particularly in a very male-dominated world. This did not fall in line with the woman who taught me to be opinionated and independent. It strayed so far from the lessons that she taught me: to expect the best for myself and to not tolerate poor behavior from partners.
I began seeing, though, that she did not hold the view that she deserved those things for herself. When I asked her this, I was met with resistance and silence: She refused, or wasn’t able, to state that she deserved the same respect and opportunity she wanted for me.
Instead, she continued to hold on to the notion that men who degrade women are only exemplifying a character flaw. I took this thought and pressed further, “So you don’t think that someone who is running for president of the United States should be held to a higher standard than that?”
“Honest to god, yes, but we didn’t hold Bill Clinton to the same standard.”
I reminded her that Bill was not the one running for president, but my mother began lamenting that when women came forward before Hillary Clinton’s candidacy about Bill Clinton allegedly sexually assaulting them, she felt that feminists did and said nothing to protect those women, and in particular did not stand up for Monica Lewinsky. This perceived hypocrisy of feminists calling out one man’s actions and not another’s, in her view, made Trump’s incendiary comments about women seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of it all.
I pointed out that that many feminists now decry Bill Clinton’s reported behavior and that the accusations aimed at him are troubling. Despite this, she defended her stance to support Trump and overlook his comments.
Ultimately, she said, she had feared the idea that a Clinton presidency would make the economy worse. That fear, she said, outweighed her hesitation about all of Trump’s flaws. “I have to overlook Trump’s comments because I don’t believe a lot of young people have had to make a lot of sacrifices; many of them can’t see beyond their four years in college and maybe they haven’t even graduated yet. When you’re not getting the bill at the end of the month, and getting penalized for not getting insurance and when premiums are sky-high, your views will be different.” (I did not point out that the majority of voters making less than $50,000 a year voted for Clinton, or the fact that many college-educated people, particularly white people, voted for Trump.)
When I asked her what she hopes for from this administration, she stated, “If they’re going to spend our tax-paying dollars, then give us real help. I want to see a ‘welfare mother’ still be able to receive welfare when she goes to work, rather than reducing her welfare and putting her in the same boat. People can’t survive.”
My mother has voted since 1971. She has lived through several different administrations, and her views have been shaped by a system that she does not believe supported her when she needed help as a single mother. She believes elected officials have continued to let her down, and this influenced her to vote for someone against the political “mainstream.” She admitted to not knowing Trump’s proposed presidential policies—which do not, for example, yet include firm plans about many specific social safety net programs—or what exactly he stood for. This, however, did not dissuade her. In fact, it appears to have influenced her more in her decision to vote against Clinton and against the “establishment.”
To be clear and transparent, I don’t respect my mother’s decision to vote for Trump. But I respect her as my mother and as someone who has been instrumental in my life’s success and will continue to be. In the wake of our conversation, I see my mother as someone who was robbed of opportunity, because no one told her she had a choice. My mother walked a separate path from me, one riddled with obstacles and abuse. There were no reinforcers in her life that made her believe her dreams mattered, that body autonomy mattered, and that how men talk about women is a reflection of how they view them. With that in mind, I can’t help but believe that this affected her decision immensely. Had she been raised to believe that she also matters, perhaps she would have seen that when men continue to get a pass on their misogyny and prejudice, it makes it that much harder for women to expect equality.
When she was my age, 27, she was married, a mother, and had to drop out of college to help my father support his dreams. She eventually went back to college while I was in high school, earning her associate’s degree. While I have worked hard in my professional career, I never carried the weight of others depending on me. Each parent has remained as a constant support in my life, whether I have gotten in a bind financially or emotionally. More distinctly, I have the freedom to pursue my passions, while my mother didn’t. She did not grow up during a time where women were particularly encouraged to pursue careers or wait to marry.
We did have one more in-common thought process though, and that is we’re both scared. But perhaps in these fears, we can find common ground, compassion, and understanding, both for each other and for others whose lives will be affected by the coming administration.
At least, that’s my hope anyway.