The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Women can be evil, too

Ghislaine Maxwell, accused of sex trafficking, watches as Lawrence Visoski, longtime pilot for the late Jeffrey Epstein, is cross-examined during her trial in a courtroom sketch in New York on Nov. 30. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)
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Two villainesses have captured the nation’s attention from the courtroom this week. Or is that two victims?

Elizabeth Holmes and Ghislaine Maxwell stand accused of very different crimes. The now-disgraced Silicon Valley golden girl allegedly duped investors into thinking her company’s blood-testing technology could detect disease with a pinprick. The New York socialite-in-exile, meanwhile, allegedly trafficked teenage girls as young as 14 for financier Jeffrey Epstein and his rich friends to rape.

Yet these women have seized on similar strategies for their defense: Blame the men.

Start with the wannabe magician who lied her way to a $9 billion valuation. Holmes fooled doctors and funders and pharmacies and everyday folks. Now, however, she’s claiming she was the mark.

Her board of directors — mostly a bunch of distinguished, aging gentlemen including Henry Kissinger, Jim Mattis and George P. Shultz — didn’t give her good enough advice, she says. Those scientists and engineers who she claimed were changing the world? They didn’t trust her too much; she trusted them too much. They told her that her miracle machine worked. She, innocent and ignorant, merely relayed that information to the public.

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And then there’s Theranos chief operating officer Ramesh Balwani, her partner in (maybe) crime and, at one point, in love. Better known as Sunny, the right-hand man was, in his former girlfriend’s retelling, actually a puppet master. The subject is touchy, and serious: Holmes charges Balwani with emotional and sexual abuse. She says he told her he was “astonished” at her “mediocrity,” that she had to “kill the old Elizabeth” to become stronger. He forced her to sleep with him, she says, “because he wanted me to know he still loved me.”

The reported conduct (which Balwani denies) is appalling. But can abuse excuse abuse? Or does exploiting trauma as an excuse for hurting others only cause more harm?

The case is simpler when it comes to those movers and shakers Holmes got to put their stamps on her sham. Holmes played on her femininity to impressive effect, even as she modulated her voice to a baritone and her wardrobe to a black-turtlenecked Steve Jobs sendup. She caught the notice of powerful men because she emphasized, in adopting these traits so incongruous with her appearance, that she wasn’t one of them — and that, all the same, she was playing their game.

When she succeeded, she was notable because she wasn’t a man. Now, in her ignominy, she suggests she wasn’t responsible for any of it — because she wasn’t a man. She can only have it both ways if society is still sexist enough to think this counts as feminism.

And if society is even more sexist than that, a jury will also acquit Ghislaine Maxwell.

Maxwell, by all accounts, ran Epstein’s monstrous life. She managed his many homes, his glitzy relationships and his uncontrollable yen for so-called massages. The last, as it turned out, meant luring minors to Epstein’s estates, where he could undress them, touch them and worse. Beforehand, she might befriend a girl as a means of grooming her for violation — gossiping with her, shopping with her, talking with her about sex. She’d sometimes watch as the rape took place, to put the child “at ease” with her presence, according to an indictment.

But, of course, none of it was her fault! “Ever since Eve was accused of tempting Adam with the apple,” Maxwell’s attorney proclaimed, “women have been blamed for the bad behavior of men.” So her team will try to blame a man for the bad behavior of a woman — when really there is more than enough badness to go around for each of the accused, dead and alive, to take their share.

Maxwell, in seeking to capitalize on the stereotype of the weak woman bending and breaking in the hands of a savvy man, takes a page out of Holmes’s book — and rewrites it even worse. Because where Holmes may have hoodwinked mighty men who underestimated a gal’s ability to bamboozle their big old brains, Maxwell was deceiving the most vulnerable members of her own sex. Now, the real victims risk going without justice, because a fake victim has invented herself.

False feminism always hurts the cause of gender equality. The suggestion that a woman guilty of wrongdoing can only ever have been under the control of a man deprives all women of agency. After all, to become less culpable, they must also become less capable. This is an appeal to prejudice masquerading as progressivism.

The least sexist thing we can do is embrace the uninspiring reality: Women can be evil, too.