Why Michelle Obama's Speech On Donald Trump & Sexism Will Go Down In History

If you have a spare half hour, there's something you need to watch today. Regardless of your political affiliation, if you're a woman living in the United States (or really, anybody else in the world), First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama just laid out, in clear and excruciating detail, what it feels like to be the target of sustained gender inequality and fear. It was, in many ways, meant to be a normal day on the campaign trail: a stop in New Hampshire to talk up Hillary Clinton to a crowd. But Obama was faced with the issue of talking about Trump's "grab her by the p*ssy" comments, and the onslaught of potential victims that have followed, and managed to do it in a way that was, frankly, astonishing. I'm going to quote it at length, both because you need to read it, and because this historic speech by Michelle Obama is likely be taught as a moment in the history of gender politics in modern America.

"I have to tell you that I listen to all of this, and I feel it so personally — and I'm sure that many of you do too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitious and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It’s like that sick sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares just a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when somebody has grabbed them and forced themselves on them and they have said no but he didn’t listen. Something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day."

This stands in a great historical tradition of women bringing their experience into the political arena in America. It's carrying on the work of Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman" speech, which outlined the racial and sexual equality of women in brief, thunderous strokes; Anna Howard Shaw's inspirational explanation that women's suffrage must be the bedrock of a republic; and state representative Teresa Fodor, Victoria Steele and Jackie Speier, who have stood up separately in recent years to detail their own experiences of abortion as part of their arguments for why the service must remain legal. But it also represents something new, and politically potent: this is the highest-profile orator on the highest-profile stage on which the intimacy of women's experience has ever been featured. And it's part of an election that is increasingly a mandate on women.

Increasingly, the 2016 electoral cycle is not just a judgement between political parties; it has become a sustained argument on the worth of women, and the way in which they deserve to be treated in American society. Things have descended from policy points into very visceral, threatening territory, in ways that have affected virtually every adult and teen woman living in America. We may not all have opinions on what to do with the deficit, but we all know the experience of sexual predation, of anxiety over getting too drunk in case a Brock Turner finds us, of fear of walking alone at night, of powerful men getting in our way in professional situations, of mansplaining, talking-down, "locker room talk," rape culture, and the many other ways in which modern America chips away at our female personhood.

Hillary Clinton on YouTube

That is now what's at stake. Democrat versus Republican frames a wider issue; the matter on the table is the basic acceptance of women's equality and right to respect. "We thought all of that was ancient history, didn't we," says Obama, sadly: the idea that feminism had won, that the fight was over, that we no longer have to struggle against perceptions of our bodies as meat and our personal boundaries as worthless. Not since Roe v. Wade has the female body, and who controls it, been such a crucial part of the national political discourse. Michelle Obama understands that, and has put it front and center with this speech.

It went beyond a powerful woman saying "enough" to misogyny; it became a point where female emotional perspective was laid bare, before millions, intimate and miserable and conflicting.

The other reason Obama's speech is important is that the voice of these fears and experiences is a woman, and a woman of color, arguably the most powerful woman in the entire country. While Obama at no point identified herself as the target of any of the assaults or sexist behavior she described, she was always using the word "we." An incredibly popular, vocal, highly-educated woman, campaigning for the first female President of the United States as the successor to her own husband, stood up and talked extensively about the intimacies of what it means to be a woman. In the process, she validated experiences that are surrounded by shame, dismissal, misery, distress, and deep societal taboos.

If you want to look at why this matters, today's Twitter may give you a clue. The #NextFakeTrumpVictim hashtag, created in response to new revelations about Trump's alleged sexual assaults against various different women, condemned all the women as liars, opportunists, and worse. It's almost as if being the target of gender violence by a powerful man in today's America means you face the choice of silent misery or not being believed! Who would have thought? (The #Repeal19thAmendment hashtag, in which Trump supporters wish to repeal the vote from women to allow him to win, isn't exactly a glorious moment for gender equality in the country either.) And, as Obama will have been extremely conscious of, women of color have it worse. They have it worse in terms of the wage gap, and in terms of sexual violence. If any voice needs to be lifted up and given credence, it's theirs.

Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Obama's depiction of the everyday experience of invalidating and brutalizing women's voices, of the habits by which we keep ourselves safe and out of danger, was one of the most powerful parts of her speech. "We’re hearing the same things every day on the campaign trail," she said. "We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done. We’re trying to keep our heads above water. Just trying to get through it. Trying to pretend like this doesn't really bother us. Maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak. Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his."

This is, for many of us, the hidden side of being a woman, the part many of us cannot discuss, the constant dance between outright rage and exhaustion and self-doubt. It's the interior voice of the female sexual assault victim, the woman fighting gender discrimination in her office, the girl dealing with Twitter trolls or catcalls. To hear the incredibly private ways in which women of all kinds attempt to cope with sexism voiced on a national stage, as part of a fight for the most powerful office in the world, is a stunning moment. Women's intimate experiences are often absent from history, deemed "less significant," minimized and taken as inherently inferior. This places them square in the center of a battleground for the presidency.

There are turning points in presidential campaigns; I am not sufficiently au fait with the mechanisms of American politics to know whether this will be one of them. But in the history of American feminism, this was an extremely important moment, one that can be linked back to the suffragettes, the impassioned speeches of second-wave feminism, and the literature of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison that celebrated the experiences of the American woman of color. It went beyond a powerful woman saying "enough" to misogyny; it became a point where female emotional perspective was laid bare, before millions, intimate and miserable and conflicting. In the landscape of America, our voices just became a little bit more real.