Like so many dazed parents the morning after the election, I tried to explain to my daughters what had happened while they slept. How our country had elected a racist, misogynist bully for a president. How there would not be a woman in the White House, as we’d naïvely toasted over chicken and quinoa the night before. How my Feminist Mommy slogans like “girls can do anything!” now sounded like feeble promises in a broken world of hate and fear.
My children were incredulous. “We thought he was a joke. Now he’s our president,” said Ava my 11-year-old daughter. She’d been a passionate Bernie supporter who eventually backed Hillary during the nasty campaign that launched her sixth-grade political awakening.
Together we’d laughed at Trump. We laughed at his hair. We laughed at his tantrums. We laughed at his narcissism, his bullying, his serial lies, hoping to deflate his ignorant, hateful rhetoric. Both my girls had appeared on the election episode of The Longest Shortest Time podcast, asking questions of comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu. It felt like a kind of empowerment, this focus on the funny, for how could building hotels and starring on reality TV really qualify a person to be Commander in Chief?
Humor had been our family’s coping mechanism but absurdity morphed into horror last week and I realized how foolish I’d been. My children sensed my despair in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, as bleak November drizzle turned the landscape to lead.
“He can’t hurt us here in Vermont— right, Mommy?” asked my 9-year-old, Carmen. She was frightened and seeking comfort, so I told her yes, we were safe, he couldn’t hurt us, the grown-ups would protect her and all children from the alt-right new regime.
This was a lie, of course. We were white and had resources and could hunker down if necessary, but more vulnerable populations were at risk in ways we couldn’t comprehend: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, people of color, our LGBT friends and neighbors. And women, oh yes, women. I looked into the faces of my preteen daughters and wondered what world awaited them now, where men talked openly about women as sex objects, where our reproductive freedom lay in jeopardy and Trump shaped the Supreme Court for decades to come.
Later, after watching Trump’s acceptance speech, Carmen said, hopefully, that maybe he’s not that bad. “Oh no, he’s bad,” I snapped. “He brags about groping women’s bodies against their will. He said he likes to grab women by the yoni.” My outburst was met with wide-eyed silence. “At least ten women have come forward and accused him of sexual assault or harrassment,” I added. “But he called them liars.”
What I didn’t say was: Our president violated one of the first rules I ever taught you—that no one can touch your body without your permission. I didn’t mention that Trump had been accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in the home of his billionaire pedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender. I didn’t say that people knew about the various assault allegations and most believed they were true, but they elected him anyway. Because our country doesn’t care about women and girls. Or not enough to keep a sexist bigot from the most powerful position in the world.
I’ve been groped in a frat basement and date-raped in a dorm room. I’ve consoled my friends after they were sexually assaulted and lit candles for the 1 in 3 women worldwide who endure sexual or physical violence. In college my mother was brutally battered by a charismatic sociopath who later bludgeoned his girlfriend to death. This man was a hippie guru who inspired millions with his messages of peace, love and enlightenment, proving that misogynist violence occurs across the political spectrum.
Trump’s victory has already incited a spate of hate speech and hate crimes: aggression targeted at Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Muslims, Jews and women. One anonymous female shared her appalling story on Facebook, how a strange man came up to her at a convenience store, grabbed her genitals and leered “That’s from President Trump.” I’m not keeping this disgusting behavior from my daughters. I can promise to keep them safe, but I can’t protect them from hard truths anymore.
And I can’t protect myself either, for now I see how naïve and complacent I’d become, safe in my own nest in liberal Vermont. I thought it was enough to “cultivate my garden” as Voltaire advised, to marry a good man, raise two strong girls and spread wellness through the practices of yoga and poetry. I campaigned for Obama in 2008, stood with my babies at a busy intersection in New Hampshire, holding a handmade “Mamas for Obama” sign. But then I retreated from the pain of the world.
Back in college, my own sexual assault had spurred me to activism. I became an editor of the feminist newspaper Spare Rib and protested the Greek system with my friends, going undercover as a “hostess” at fraternity rush. Clad in a miniskirt and high heels, I served drinks to the brothers of Theta Delta Chi (commonly known as “the hockey frat”), cooing about how fun their party was before writing a scathing exposé of institutionalized sexism.
What happened to that young woman? How can I channel her courage and energy? I’m going down to DC for the Women’s March but I want to take direct action in my community, fight violence against women, people of color, people of faith and others, address the poisons in our country unleashed by this election.
When I’m deadened by despair, I look to my headstrong 9-year-old, who just joined the local girls’ hockey team. Skate blades sharpened to a knife’s edge, these girls suit up in full pads, gloves and helmets, faces shielded behind metal face-cages. Their bodies protected, they zip onto the ice with grit and confidence, two hands firm on their sticks. Don’t try to touch them. They’re a force to be reckoned with. They’re moving fast, ready to do battle.
Diana Whitney is the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller in 2014 and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Salon, The Washington Post and many more. A yoga teacher by trade, Diana runs a studio attached to her family’s Vermont farmhouse.