Gillibrand’s Franken-Problem Won’t Die

Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/REX/Shutterstock

As sure as the rooster cries, the moment Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced her presidential bid on Tuesday on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Al Franken’s name began trending. On Twitter, people across the political spectrum accused Gillibrand of having “thrown Franken under the bus” — Gillibrand having been the first prominent Democrat to call for his resignation, following sexual-misconduct allegations against the Minnesota senator in late 2017. Though all too predictable, the backlash was a reminder of what happens when a woman stands up to a powerful man.

At the time of the Franken scandal, more than two dozen Democratic senators joined Gillibrand in asking for his resignation, and Franken stepped down shortly afterward. Yet this week, Gillibrand was rebranded an “opportunist,” depicted as a betrayer of Franken, and appears to be facing a backlash from potential donors already. Major Democratic Party donor, George Soros, had already expressed strong reservations about her candidacy in June last year, in view of her stand against Franken. And pundits have continued to speculate that this incident would haunt Gillibrand’s chances in 2020.

So the time is ripe to remember who is responsible for Franken’s misconduct, and its subsequent social and political fallout: Franken.

Even if you are among those who believe Franken should still be a senator today, you should redirect the bulk of your disappointment toward Franken himself. He is responsible both for his behavior and for his decision to resign before the Ethics Committee had concluded its investigation. And if we’re going to examine how third parties influenced Franken’s decision, why not focus on Chuck Schumer, who met with Franken and spoke to him on the phone, personally urging his resignation?

When we look at how different candidates are treated for the same behavior, it becomes clear that double standards are at play. In my research, I have argued that women in Gillibrand’s position tend to be punished for perceived disloyalty to privileged, powerful men. We enforce stereotypically feminine social relations by punishing women who do not “play nice” when it comes to masculine authority figures — including, in Gillibrand’s case, by simply breaking the prevailing silence around Al Franken’s actions, and holding him accountable for his misdeeds. Instead of being understood as speaking out about abuses of power, a woman challenging a man tends to be perceived as taking something away from him to which he is entitled. Just look at Brett Kavanaugh — a man so unaccustomed to being challenged that he threw a tantrum under oath when accused of misconduct.

The punitive reaction to Gillibrand’s 2017 call for Franken’s resignation reflects an aspect of misogyny that is often lost in public discussions: We task them with far more than their fair share of moral responsibilities — including keeping the peace, performing emotional labor, and upholding a privileged man’s moral reputation, notwithstanding his not deserving it.

A woman’s perceived niceness, warmth, and friendliness (or lack thereof) tend to be subject to disproportionate scrutiny, as compared with her male counterparts. And, as we see this happen to woman after woman — Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and most recently Gillibrand, if the first question asked at a press conference following her announcement is any indication — it becomes clear that it is not about her, qua individual woman. It is about more or less any woman seeking a position like the presidency.

So it’s useful to remind ourselves that women are entitled to seek the presidency. They are entitled to aspire to such positions of power and influence. They are also entitled to speak out in general, and to break the silence surrounding certain powerful men, in particular — men who betray themselves, via their inappropriate, abusive, and sometimes misogynistic behavior.

Hopefully an influx of female presidential candidates will help acclimate us to the idea that women are liable to be perceived as “unlikeable” the moment they announce plans to run. In the meantime, we must not allow their strong convictions to be recast as monstrous, and scare us out of supporting them.

Gillibrand’s Franken-Problem Won’t Die