The term “believe women” was never supposed to mean, believe everything that women say and don’t bother to investigate their claims. The simplicity of the message has irked many – including this writer – in its ability to be misused and misappropriated since its inception, but many activists have taken it up in good faith to say believing women and believing victims is only the start of a process toward justice. But in the last couple days after Warren’s campaign first made the accusation and then double-downed at Tuesday’s debate (with an unfair and obviously biased assist from debate moderator Abby Johnson), many are using it to try to shut down any debate, investigation, or dissent. When Sander’s campaign denied the accusation and supporters showed interviews going back decades of Sanders saying a woman could be president, plus evidence of Sanders’s wide support of women candidates in various campaigns, commentators remained unmoved. “Believe women.”
The language of abuse and trauma is creeping more and more into political rhetoric, as if every interaction between a man and a woman these days can be understood as a potential violation. Virginia Heffernan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sanders had gaslighted Warren over whether he told her a female candidate couldn’t win the 2020 election.” Gaslighting is a term for one person lying to their romantic partner so effectively and consistently that they start to question their version of reality. Had Heffernan simply said Sanders lied, it would not have given the accusation the melodramatic pull of centuries of stories of women being tormented and abused by the men in their lives. Lying is something politicians do. Gaslighting is something misogynistic monsters do.