The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From Lena Dunham to Kellyanne Conway: The powerful women defending powerful men accused of sexual assault

President-elect Donald Trump holds the hand of Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, as she takes a bow during the Candle Light Dinner in Union Station in Washington on Jan. 19. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As allegations of sexual harassment and assault become a daily news story, the spotlight is on men's role in creating safe work environments for women. Multiple stories have revealed just how much men have failed to respect and protect women in the workplace — and just how many men chose silence over coming to the defense of their female co-workers who were being harassed and assaulted by men in power.

In addition to that, recent allegations have magnified how women in positions of influence have sometimes refused to stand in the gap for less powerful women in the fight against sexual misconduct — something that some of the women involved have acknowledged themselves.

Yvette Vega, longtime executive producer of veteran journalist Charlie Rose, acknowledged she had been aware of her boss’s inappropriate words and actions toward  women in the workplace.

In a statement to The Post, Vega said she should have done more to protect the young women on the show.

“I should have stood up for them,” said Vega, 52, who worked with Rose since the show was created in 1991. “I failed. It is crushing. I deeply regret not helping them.”

Award-winning executive producer and actress Lena Dunham has been criticized for defending  “Girls” writer and executive producer Murray Miller after actress Aurora Perrineau accused him of raping her in 2012, when Perrineau was 17 years old.

Not only did Dunham side with her friend, but she initially attacked Perrineau's credibility while minimizing her allegations.

“Insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year,” wrote Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-founders of Lenny Letter, which brands itself as a feminist newsletter. Dunham later apologized on Twitter, saying it was “absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement.”

But for some women, like the Root's Monique Judge, Dunham's original statement was a reminder that some of the strongest critics of sexual assault accusers are other women.

Despite implying that she believes every woman should be believed, Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to successfully manage a presidential campaign, repeatedly defended Trump during the 2016 election when nearly a dozen women accused him of sexual assault.

Conway attacked Trump's rival Hillary Clinton, as well as a young woman who asked her how she reconciled defending Trump.

“What you just said was said probably tens of thousands of times during the campaign, on the Internet, on TV incessantly, in paid advertising,” Politico reported Conway telling a young woman at the University of Virginia weeks after Trump won the election. “All this anti-woman stuff. And you know how America’s women answered? They gave the would-be first female candidate, I don’t know, what was it, 56 percent of the vote, 57?”
“She should have gotten 60 or 62 percent of the female vote. And she did not. And part of why she did not is women tired of the same argument and the same thing that you’re presenting to me now, even though you’re trying to be personally mean about it.”

When asked multiple times how Alabama citizens should respond to the multiple allegations GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore is facing, Conway repeatedly focused on Moore’s commitment to supporting Trump’s legislative agenda.

Even Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, whose predecessor resigned after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges related to an alleged extramarital affair with a top aide, is choosing to focus on Moore’s commitment to conservatism rather than allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls.

“I will cast my ballot on December the 12,” Ivey told reporters. “And I do believe that the nominee of the party is the one I will vote for.”

“We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices,” Ivey added.

And feminist icon Gloria Steinem has had her response to past sexual assault allegations against former president Bill Clinton criticized by the Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan as liberals examine how they responded to women in the past. Steinem used a New York Times op-ed in 1998 to minimize the allegations against Clinton and attacked the credibility of some of the women involved.

While the dynamics of Hillary Clinton's defense of her husband are complicated, her responses to women who accused him of sexual misconduct have caused controversy. She called Gennifer Flowers, who claimed to have had a long-term affair with the former president, “some failed cabaret singer who doesn't have much of a resume to fall back on.”

Republican strategist Amanda Carpenter said Clinton's treatment of women cost her the race.

“Hillary Clinton is not president right now because she enabled sexual abuse, let’s be clear on that,” she said on CNN. “During the Clinton administration she covered up for her husband.”

The consensus among those trying to address sexual assault allegations is that we are in a watershed moment to hold men responsible for how they treat women — especially those who work for them. It is always the responsibility of men to take ownership for their words and actions toward women. In addition to that, there appears to be a growing discussion — even among women — that some influential women in proximity to these powerful men could have done much more to not enable them after they were made aware of their harmful behavior.