Republican Donald Trump skipped the debate where Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly co-moderated. Here's a look back at the clash that started with an earlier debate in August 2015. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

In 2012, Megyn Kelly wrote a brief personal essay for Newsweek about how she learned to be strong without being guarded. In the seventh grade, she wrote, some girls in her class had turned on her and bullied her. She steeled herself, never wanting them to see how much they’d hurt her.

Years later, Kelly is again the target of a bully intent on making her feel small. This time the bully isn’t a group of teenage mean girls but a grown man who wants to run the free world. And Kelly has learned that there’s nothing to be gained by sitting back and taking it.

Trump’s refusal to participate in Thursday night’s debate as long as Kelly is moderating smacks of sexism. In a tweet Wednesday night, he said: “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!”

He’s the master of the one-two punch.

But Trump is only the latest in a long line of powerful forces Kelly has confronted. In a new Vanity Fair profile, the author writes that Kelly’s career has been “littered with the bruised bodies of guys who had it coming — all while she continued to have babies.”

She doesn’t call herself a feminist. “But every so often, as all [women] know, you have to stop and slap somebody around a little bit who doesn’t understand that we are actually equals and not second-class citizens,” Kelly said in the article.

Before she landed her first job at a law firm in Chicago, one of the partners, Robert Cummins, told New York Magazine in its recent Kelly profile, he had some other associates “take her out to see if she could handle the firm’s macho culture.” That wasn’t a problem.

When Kelly returned to Fox News Channel from maternity leave in 2011, she challenged on her show the conservative radio host Mike Gallagher, who had called her three months off with her baby a “racket.”

“I want you to know that the United States is the only country in the advanced world that doesn’t require paid maternity leave,” she told him. “If anything, the United States is in the dark ages when it comes to maternity leave. And what is it about getting pregnant and carrying a baby for nine months that you don’t think deserves a few months off so bonding and recovery can take place?”

Two years later, she took on another conservative commentator, Erick Erickson, after he wrote about how terrible it was for civilization that women were increasingly becoming the breadwinners in their households.

“What makes you dominant and me submissive and who died and made you scientist in chief?”she asked him.

The New York Magazine profile recounted how after that moment, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the book “Lean In,” which encourages women to advocate for themselves, called Kelly and said, “I love you, you are awesome.”

Without asking for it, Kelly has become something of a feminist icon just by being a woman who stands up for herself.

Whatever motivated the junior high attacks against her — and she hasn’t said — may not be that different from what drives Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner, to belittle her. If kids prey on insecurity, Trump has jumped on Kelly because he perceives her as weak.

And though he would forcefully deny it, he sees her that way because she is a woman.

Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to defend himself after his controversial comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

[The sexism in Donald Trump’s latest swipe at Fox News’s Megyn Kelly]

Trump, who is used to controlling everything, is certainly not used to a woman putting him in his place, no less on national television. Her question to him about his sexist comments about women at the first GOP debate was widely debated in the media. Some thought it was an appropriate and necessary question to put to a man who wants to lead the country. Others said it was an unfair, mean-spirited attempt at boosting ratings.

Either way, Trump’s responses in the aftermath — from questioning whether she had been on her period to his refusal to share a debate stage with her — highlight the condescending attitude that women in the workplace have long endured.

And Kelly, regardless of whether you like her, has proven that she doesn’t take well to bullies.

On her show Tuesday night, she said that Trump “doesn’t get to control the media.”

What she was also saying was: “He doesn’t get to control me.”