the body politic

What If E. Jean Carroll Doesn’t Win?

The rise and fall and rise of the Me Too movement.

Photo: Bettmann (Hill); att Rourke-Pool/Getty Images (constand); Melina Mara/Pool/The Washington Post (Ford); Michael Reynolds/Pool/AFP (Heard); Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images (Carroll)
Photo: Bettmann (Hill); att Rourke-Pool/Getty Images (constand); Melina Mara/Pool/The Washington Post (Ford); Michael Reynolds/Pool/AFP (Heard); Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images (Carroll)

Update: On May 9, a jury found Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation in E. Jean Carroll’s civil rape trial, awarding her $5 million in damages. Read our coverage of the verdict here

I was born in 1943,” E. Jean Carroll said by way of explanation. That Carroll is old is a salient fact in her civil case against Donald Trump, almost as important as her charge that the former president raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in 1995 or 1996 when she was already 51 or 52. Corroborating witness Jessica Leeds is, at 81, also old and testified that Trump felt her up as if “he had 40 zillion hands” when she was seated next to him in first class on an airplane in the late ’70s. She said she had considered the risk of being assaulted on a plane simply part of the “rigors of travel” for working women. Even when the women are younger, like 58-year-old Natasha Stoynoff, their accusations go back decades; Stoynoff provided testimony that Trump assaulted her 18 years ago when she was 40 and he was 59.

Carroll’s point was that women dealt with assault and rape differently back then. “I’m a member of the silent generation,” Carroll said on the stand in a Manhattan courthouse, describing how women her age “were taught to keep our chins up and to not complain.” She added, “The fact that I never went to the police is not surprising for someone my age.” Her testimony was, like the public persona she developed over years of writing advice to other women for Elle, by turns frank, emotional, and no-nonsense. At one point, asked to weigh whether she regretted having come forward with her allegations, Carroll paused for a long time and began to cry. “Being able to get my day in court finally is everything to me, so I’m happy,” she said, quickly composing herself. “I’m in court. This is my moment. I’m not going to sit here and cry and waste everybody’s time.”

Carroll, who is also suing Trump for defamation for saying she was “totally lying” about the rape, has said she finally wrote about Trump’s attack in her 2019 memoir because she had “reached a point in my life at 76 where I was no longer going to stay silent.” But it’s not simply the passage of time that liberated her and loosened her tongue; it’s the social, political, and legal victories won over the course of her life. She is a living embodiment not only of how much has changed but also of how that change happens: slowly, arduously, sinuously. That a former president could, in a civil context, be held legally accountable for a nearly 30-year-old alleged assault underscores how long it takes to alter laws, practices, and attitudes — and how shortsighted recent proclamations about the death of Me Too have been.

It’s been common, in recent years, for the media to make real-time declarations about where we are in the feminist project. “After five years of anticipation, it’s now clear: The long-awaited and much-dreaded backlash to the Me Too movement is here,” Constance Grady wrote in Vox last summer. The New York Times, which helped to prompt one of the most explosive periods in contemporary feminist history with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s 2017 reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation, has published multiple stories declaring that some end was nigh. A 2022 column by Michelle Goldberg about the depressing legal fight between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp was titled “Amber Heard and the Death of #MeToo.” In another Times piece from 2022, “Is the #MeToo Movement Dying?,” Spencer Bokat-Lindell claimed, also citing the Depp-Heard case, that “if there is a standard metric by which the progress of the #MeToo movement has been measured, it is the conviction of high-profile men accused by women and girls of sex crimes.”

Trump may or may not be found liable for battery and defamation in this case, which has provoked less of a frenzy in the political media than the (iffier) felony case being brought against him by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg related to the cover-up of the Stormy Daniels affair. Carroll is bringing her suit under the Adult Survivors Act, a state law that opened a yearlong window in which victims could file complaints whose statute of limitations had expired. The law, signed by Governor Hochul last year, would likely not have existed without Me Too, and under it survivors like Carroll can ask for damages and admissions of guilt. The result of a finding in Carroll’s favor would not entail jail time or a criminal conviction for the former president, who was photographed during the trial looking casually monstrous on a golf course in Scotland, having shed his customary armor of suit and tie for a puffy windbreaker and a little beanie, and who has so far declined to testify. The jury was shown portions of his videotaped deposition, in which he could not tell the difference between Carroll and his former wife Marla Maples. This was despite having repeatedly asserted that Carroll was not his “type,” a line that Carroll, in her testimony, characterized as implying that she was “too ugly to rape.”

Rather, this is a trial in which the goal seems to be the reclamation of a voice she did not dare to raise some 30 years ago. “I’m here because Donald Trump raped me,” Carroll said, “and I’m here trying to get my life back.”

Which underscores the point that, contra Bokat-Lindell at the Times, metrics of feminist success have rarely been about legal victories and criminal convictions. That’s partly because the most important steps toward greater gender equality are rarely about the bad men or what happens to them at all: The dynamic shifts provoked by the Weinstein and Bill Cosby cases began when the women they’d aggressed upon came forward, asserting their humanity and their right to speak, to challenge powerful men who expected their continued silence; these shifts were not about the moments in which the accused men faced legal consequences. More crucially still, Weinstein and Cosby are outliers; massive changes in public awareness of gender inequity have often come in the wake of the exonerations or even the promotions of men accused of trespass.

After all, Leeds, Stoynoff, and others first told their stories about Trump in the weeks before he was elected president, part of the set of circumstances that led millions to participate in the Women’s March the day after his inauguration. In 1991, Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas did not stop his ascension to the highest court, but it did expand public understanding of what sexual harassment involved and helped produce a historic rush of female candidates into Congress. In 2018, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her (he denied it) did not prevent his Supreme Court confirmation but did help spur a huge blue wave in that year’s midterms, which included the victories of a historic number of female congressional candidates.

These watershed events in American social and political history are what enabled Carroll — raised to keep silent, chin up — to decide, in her 70s, to open her mouth and scream and to get her day in court. Greater awareness about harassment and assault, built by women whose allegations did not impede their assailants’ rise, also surely informed Fox News producer Abby Grossberg’s suit against Tucker Carlson and Fox News, which might have led to the sudden firing of the most powerful conservative voice on television, as well as a complaint about an inappropriate workplace relationship that led Comcast to fire NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell in April. Credible sexual-harassment allegations against Democratic consultant Adam Sullivan did not keep him from being hired by Hochul, but new reports of workplace toxicity led her, just this year, to sever ties with him. (The governor has said she was unaware of the prior allegations.)

Me Too is not dead, and it wasn’t the beginning of the current battle. Fights for progress unwind over lifetimes, not seasons. There are no neat stories. Progress is marked by regressions and switchbacks, crushing defeats and galvanizing reactions to those defeats. In turn, the wins, big and small, bring painful retribution.

What’s at stake in Carroll’s case is a question of equal claims to voice and narrative power, of citizenship under the law. Auntie E — as she was known for years to Elle readers — “is standing up and saying, ‘I claim my citizenship,’” said Linda Hirshman, the author of Reckoning, which traces the movement against sexual harassment. “We will see whether the state will respond by publicly recognizing that a common citizen, female, has the exact same citizenship as a former president of the United States. That’s how deep this is.”

What If E. Jean Carroll Doesn’t Win?