What E. Jean Carroll Means for #MeToo

The advice columnist’s account of being sexually assaulted by Donald Trump has more power than it might seem.

Carroll’s great power is that she is not going away. (Associated Press)

Last week, The Cut published E. Jean Carroll’s astonishing account of the “hideous” men she’s encountered over the years, an excerpt from her upcoming book that ends with her detailing a brutal assault by Donald Trump. Carroll is about my mother’s age, and I thought about her stories, and about my own, and about the ways men used to behave with impunity, and the ways they still do. Carroll’s narrative—funny, frank, self-protective—seemed to me to be one of those world-changing moments: A woman was accusing the president of the United States of rape (Carroll has chosen not to use that word, but it fits the act she describes), adding her voice to more than a dozen others. It was appalling. It had to matter.

Then, the next day, the story seemed almost to have evaporated into the ether. It wasn’t mentioned on the front page of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times included a write-up in its books section, which felt so belittling to Carroll and to its female readers that even the paper’s editor has since admitted it should have merited more prominent exposure. Trump responded, “with great respect,” by saying first and foremost that Carroll was not his type—yet another affirmation that the president conceives of women only as objects of desire or repulsion. Everything Carroll was set up to endure—the awful public scrutiny, the doxing, the abuse—felt like it was going to be for nothing. (For example: “Is that really a woman?” someone asked me about Carroll, on Twitter. “Poke my eyes out. My dog would run from that.”)

And yet, Carroll’s great power is that she is not going away. While it’s frustrating to see Trump so repeatedly and consistently skirt the accountability processes for sexual-assault accusations, Carroll’s story still has power. Speaking on Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by The Atlantic, the National Women’s Law Center President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves said that one of the legacies of Donald Trump will be the way his presidency brought conversations about assault and harassment into the light. Without the Access Hollywood tape, Graves said, #MeToo might not have gone viral in the same way. Every time Trump resorts to old tropes about sexual violence, it sparks a massive outpouring of people sharing their own stories. What people such as Trump would really like, Graves said, “is for all of these stories to go away, and for it to be so hard for individuals going forward [to accuse people] that they don’t tell.” Yet every woman who comes forward publicly ends up having the opposite effect.

Two years in, even as allegations about harassment, abuse, and assault keep surfacing, the #MeToo movement has had a tangible impact, Graves said. One major example is the alliance it’s forged between women with power and privilege and women in sectors that don’t afford them the same protections, such as domestic workers and farmworkers. Another is to what extent #MeToo still occupies the national imagination. Two weeks after #MeToo went viral in 2017, Graves was getting phone calls from reporters asking whether the movement had peaked, or whether it had gone too far. “I thought, We haven’t even gotten started yet,” she said. “People are still grappling with stories and experiences that feel so deeply personal.”

Those stories have kept coming, and they show no signs of abating. When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court and Christine Blasey Ford came forward with her allegations of being assaulted by Kavanaugh during high school, it sparked what Graves described as “this extraordinarily rich public conversation … about the nature of sexual harassment and violence.” In real time, survivors were responding to Ford’s testimony with their own stories and sharing why they never went public about their own experiences, with the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.

It is true, Graves said, that “we have not done right by survivors over the decades,” and that many women still fail to get the justice they deserve. And it can be infuriating when political leadership seems to be unable to adequately process allegations of assault against men occupying positions of profound power. But there’s an opportunity, she noted, every time a story like Carroll’s emerges, for a public cultural reckoning with toxic masculinity, with misogyny, with harassment, and with sexual violence. And so accounts such as the one in The Cut continue to have power, even if the fullness of their impact can’t be seen in the moment.