Was it evocative and open to interpretation? Yes, as all slogans are. But generally the idea was to neutralize bias: “Believe women” meant “don’t assume women as a gender are especially vindictive, and recognize that false allegations are less common than real ones,” the feminist author Sady Doyle wrote in Elle in November 2017. In other words, allow yourself to believe that women are just as trustworthy as men have been believed to be for decades.
The slogan appeared on posters at protests and as a hashtag all over Twitter — you can go back and look.
Believe women. Two words.
I revisited the history of the phrase because its original meaning is being retroactively altered, amid discussions of Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden, to “Believe all women.” And that extra word is a weapon.
“The Left’s ‘believe all women’ standard was shattered when Tara Reade accused Joe Biden of sexual assault,” Glenn Beck posted on Facebook.
“Democrats say believe all women — just not Tara Reade,” read a Boston Herald columnist’s headline.
“ ‘Believe all women’? Now that Reade has accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, never mind,” opined a columnist in USA Today.
“I think [the #MeToo movement] went very sadly off track when we started getting into the territory of believing all women,” Fox news anchor Martha MacCallum said on air last week.
Megyn Kelly used the phrasing during her exclusive interview with Reade, posted Friday: “Some of those who touted the ‘we must believe all women’ line . . . certainly seem to have changed their tune when it comes to you.”
I could keep going, but you get the picture.
The alteration might strike you as nitpicky. Could three new letters really make that much of a difference?
They could, and do. Let’s explore.
“Believe women” was a reminder, not an absolute rule; the beginning of a process, not an end. It was flexible enough to apply to various contexts: Believe women . . . enough to seriously investigate their claims. Believe women . . . when they tell you about pervasive indignities — catcalling, leering — that happen to them and their friends when you’re not around. Over the weekend an exasperated medical student complained on Twitter that her male professor kept insisting IUD birth control wasn’t painful upon insertion, despite a classroom full of aspiring female doctors telling him differently. Dear heavens, believe those women!
“Believe all women,” on the other hand, is rigid, sweeping, and leaves little room for nuance. It would imply that every single woman, everywhere, has always told the truth, on every occasion, about everything. I have never met a single feminist who believes that, and frankly, I doubt many (any?) exist. So it’s not surprising that the folks inserting these three little letters are often not feminists but reactionaries who are pretending this is what feminists believe as a way of re-upping the oldest and dumbest stereotype about feminism: that its goal is to turn men into second-class citizens rather than turn women into first-class ones.
“Believe all women” isn’t a good slogan, but it’s a great straw man. It’s a punched-up setup line that enables pundits to play-act as Columbo, swanning around in a raincoat, rubbing his head and delivering a case-closing zinger: “Just one more thing — I thought you believed ALL women!”
It reminds me of another slogan that was necessary, poignant, and then deliberately misinterpreted. “Black Lives Matter” was a reminder that parts of American society historically have operated as though black lives don’t matter — or, at least, matter less. But some loudmouths insisted that the implication was “Black Lives Matter, Only.” So they countered with a slogan of their own: “All Lives Matter.”
The same three letters, used for the same purpose: to make it seem as if people whose stories are often dismissed or discounted were being crazy for demanding due respect.
Please note that this discussion has nothing to do with Tara Reade and whether you find her believable. Her interview with Kelly appeared heartfelt, sincere and believable to plenty of people. Rather, it’s about the way that the #MeToo movement’s motherboard has been slyly rewired in the hope that it will blow up in our feminist faces.
What’s that often-attributed-to-Ronald-Reagan-quote, about how if you’re explaining, you’re losing? Recently I’ve seen writers I admire suggesting that “Believe Women” be retired or reconfigured. The underlying argument was too nuanced, they argued, and the overlying slogan too easily co-opted. Alternatives, they’ve suggested, could be, “Listen to women,” or “Trust women,” or, I don’t know, “Listen, women too are trusty!”
I’m cool with any of these suggestions. Frankly, I think they all mean pretty much the same thing I always thought “Believe women” meant: “Treat women seriously, and don’t automatically just believe the man.”
But I don’t think we’re really talking about slogans. I think we can create a hundred new slogans and the end result will be the same: sexual assault allegations treated as a game of Battleship, where what matters isn’t whether your ships sink, but whether you take the other team down first.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.