How Many Personal Stories Must Women Share to Convince Others of Their Humanity?

Lyz Lenz

You cannot see Maria Gallagher at first. All you hear are her words, spoken quickly, each one sounding as if it had taken the long way out of her–drenched in the deepest parts of her rage and pain. What you can see is the man, Senator Jeff Flake, looking down, looking away, looking anywhere but at Gallagher.

“I was sexually assaulted, and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them, you are going to ignore them,” Gallagher says to Flake, while she stands outside the elevator and he stands inside.

You can see Gallagher’s head now. “Don’t look away from me,” she says, desperation in her voice.

Elevators are liminal, in-between places of transition. This one is stopped by two women, Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila, as they force a U.S. Senator to hear the truth about their bodies. I watched the clip, over and over, in my bedroom. Watching felt like a scream. It felt like all of us screaming.

The day before, one year ago this September, Flake had heard the sworn testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school. Now, confronted with two more stories of assault, Flake nods but remains largely silent.

A week later, he voted to confirm Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment on our nation’s highest court.

Women have long been compelled to share their most private moments in order to convince others of their humanity. But in recent years, as we’ve peered into an uncertain future and need only pull out our phones to see highly personal warnings of the stakes, everything seems amplified. The waves of stories, put forth in tweets and speeches, testimony and essays, have felt incessant, each crashing down upon us with little chance to breathe before the next one.

As more men, including the President of the United States, have been publicly accused of assault and misconduct, and more states have passed laws that restrict our abilities to make decisions about our own health care, women have been repeatedly reminded of this country’s disregard for our bodily autonomy and indifference to the reality of our lives. And so we come forward, again and again, to put a human face on situations that are all too often discussed in the abstract. We make public what was once private, absorbing the pain of others, enduring the backlash for having made choices about our bodies or having had things done to our bodies that we did not consent to.

We share and share and share. We offer up our experiences for mass consumption, hoping that maybe this will be the time we break through. But does any of it make a difference?

Hill testifies about alleged sexual harassment in 1991 | Photo-Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME; Source Photo: Laura Patterson—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

“I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school,” Ford said in her opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She looked so tired sitting there, her only request caffeine, but she remained calm as she recounted each detail of the night that has haunted her for decades. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.)

Ford had tried to keep her story private. She had reached out to an elected official in a confidential letter. But when her allegation leaked to the media, she decided she should be the one to tell her story. Now she was sitting in front of a panel of politicians, who were frowning, judging, as she excavated her trauma for an unforgiving and violent nation. In the end, the political process ran right over her, as if she were a speed bump, nothing more than an annoying slowdown on the march of a patriarchal agenda.

Nearly three decades earlier, in 1991, Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, of sexually harassing her when he worked as her supervisor. “It would have been more comfortable to remain silent,” she told Congress. “But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth.” Thomas, who has denied the allegation, has now been on the court for 28 years.

How many stories does it take? How many voices do we need? How many more traumas do we have to debate until someone listens? How long until society recognizes that women are the authorities of our own experiences?

This struggle is not new, nor is it exclusive to cisgender women. Anyone who has traditionally been barred from or underrepresented in political power–that is, anyone who is not a cisgender, white, heterosexual, able-bodied man–has had to turn themselves inside out to prove themselves worthy of being listened to. In the 19th century, former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs presented unvarnished accounts of the cruelty they experienced. Their fight to have their humanity recognized is one that has continued for people of color to this day. In 1977, Audre Lorde, a black lesbian poet, gave a speech at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbian and Literature” panel, saying, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.” She went on to challenge her audience: “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” In recent years, young immigrants have opened up about their lives despite the risk that they could be forced to leave the country they call home. When Larissa Martinez revealed her undocumented status in her 2016 valedictorian speech at her Texas high school, she explained, “This might be my only chance to convey the truth to all of you that undocumented immigrants are people too.”

We are all people. Some of us just have to make the case for this fact, while others get to live their lives as the societal default. It’s been that way since at least the days of ancient Rome, when women could not vote or hold political office and were excluded from speaking out on the Senate floor. The only time a woman was allowed to speak in Roman life was as a victim, a martyr or a protector of her family.

In the late 1960s, feminist groups like the New York Radical Women and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union began engaging in consciousness-raising, in which they would meet to talk about the sexism and patriarchal oppression in their lives. As the conversations moved from the private to the public, women rallied around the idea that the personal is political. In 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, 53 women–including Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Billie Jean King, Judy Collins, Anaïs Nin, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag and Nora Ephron–published a letter in Ms. magazine under the headline “We Have Had Abortions.”

“You can’t just mold yourself to be well-behaved so you’re ready for a debate. You have to also be able to be in touch with the grim reality here, which is that we will never be free until we’re free inside of our own skin,” Pogrebin, now 80, told me. A founding editor of Ms., Pogrebin believes that telling our stories is essential “so that it isn’t just one narrative that gets out there.” Her own story is one of an 18-year-old who could barely support herself, much less a child. “Not having that child allowed me to have three wanted children,” she says.

In the past, you could miss these stories if you didn’t read the publications that covered them–and certainly the coverage was not what it is today. Or perhaps you weren’t included in the conversation. Many of the groups of the 1960s were dominated by white upper-class women.

Now, if you spend time online, it’s hard to insulate yourself from the realities others experience. The sharing of our personal stories happens so often, it’s difficult to keep track. Some storytellers are still privileged above others, but social media has removed some of the artifice about who these issues affect and their scope.

Every era is defined by the collective cry of those denied their humanity, by the shouts of those who have to fight to be seen. They may seem particularly loud now, but women were screaming their stories before Trump’s presidency, before Kavanaugh.

In 2014, after a video showed former NFL star Ray Rice knocking his then fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious and dragging her body from an elevator, many people asked why she would stay with him. Women responded by sharing their own stories of domestic abuse with the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. In 2015, after the House voted to defund Planned Parenthood, Amelia Bonow wrote a piece about her abortion, and her friend Lindy West shared it with the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion. Soon stories were pouring in. In 2016, after the Access Hollywood tape revealed Trump bragging about assaulting women, the writer Kelly Oxford encouraged women to tweet about their first assaults: “I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my ‘pussy’ and smiles at me, I’m 12,” she wrote. Within days she had received tens of thousands of tweets with the hashtag #NotOkay. In 2017, after Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men were publicly accused of assault, Alyssa Milano called on women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted to reply “me too” to her tweet, a reference to the Me Too movement started more than a decade earlier by Tarana Burke. The #MeToo hashtag exploded. This year, after the Alabama senate passed a near total ban on abortion, Busy Philipps discussed her own abortion on her talk show, Busy Tonight. “Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know a woman who would have an abortion,'” she said. “Well, you know me.” And the rush of stories began again, thousands of women tweeting their own experiences with the hashtag #YouKnowMe.

“We live in a patriarchal society that hasn’t been listening, that hasn’t been making changes,” Philipps told me. “And sometimes, the only way things can change is by people feeling uncomfortable.”

Philipps tells viewers about her abortion in 2019 | Photo-Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME; Source Photo: Bust Tonight/E!

But what happens when we’re the ones who end up feeling uncomfortable or even unsafe? There are consequences to speaking up, and while some women would share their stories anyway, others admit they are doing so only because they feel they have no choice, as in the case of Ford and Hill, or because they are fearful enough about what will happen if they don’t. In a New York Times op-ed in June, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal explained that she didn’t think she should have to publicly discuss her abortion. She shared private medical information, she wrote, “because I am deeply concerned about the intensified efforts to strip choice and constitutional rights away from pregnant people and the simplistic ways of trying to criminalize abortion.”

Hill was smeared–recall David Brock’s infamous line “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”–and received death threats. Ford had to go into hiding. She still hasn’t been able to return to normal life. Bonow, too, got threats serious enough that she had to leave town. Former Nevada state assembly member Lucy Flores faced backlash both in 2019, after she wrote that Joe Biden’s touching had made her uncomfortable, and in 2013, after she revealed that she had had an abortion at 16. Once, after sharing my own story of professional harassment, I was driven off the Internet by rape threats and people threatening to call child services. Panic attacks. Anxiety dreams.

Earlier this year, some women approached me with concerns about a man who wanted to seek a prominent position in my community. What could we do? I contacted someone in a position of power. His advice: Share their stories. Go public. I was furious. How does that work out for women? I asked him. It rarely turns out well. Their bodies are debated, looks picked apart, reputations ruined. Why, I asked him, do women always have to be the canaries in the coal mine of the political process? That’s just the system, he told me. It sucks, but it’s the system.

In June, the advice columnist E. Jean Carroll accused the President of raping her in a department-store dressing room in the ’90s. I read her essay about it on an airplane and cried, relieved that no one was in the seat next to me so I wouldn’t have to explain how another woman had been hurt. Another woman was sharing her story, and it still wouldn’t be enough. (Trump denies the allegation.)

In her essay, Carroll pre-emptively addresses the question she knows she’ll be asked: “Why haven’t I ‘come forward’ before now? Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten and attack them, never sounded like much fun. Also, I am a coward.”

Or as Ford put it to the Washington Post, describing her hesitation about attaching her name to her allegation, “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?”

Ford testifies about alleged sexual assault in 2018 | Photo-Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME; Source Photo: Melina Mara—Pool/Getty Images

In Of Woman Born, published in 1976, Adrienne Rich wrote, “I believe increasingly that only the willingness to share private and sometimes painful experience can enable women to create a collective description of the world which will be truly ours.” Rich, too, shouted her pain and fear and truth to a political system that didn’t seem to listen. But it wasn’t for them that she wrote her words, but for a group of women tired and longing.

Renee Bracey Sherman, senior public-affairs manager of the National Network of Abortion Funds, has been talking about her abortion for years. And although she thinks stories do make a difference–she points to Congressman Tim Ryan, who told her he became pro-choice after hearing women’s stories–she also believes that expecting personal stories to change a political system fueled by “patriarchy, racism, xenophobia and misogyny” is a lot of work to put on people who have had abortions. For this reason, she says, policy change cannot be the only goal.

“It is for ourselves and for us to feel like we’re not alone and then that becomes the catalyst that more people share their stories. And then people realize, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion, and they recognize who in their family or friend circle has had an abortion. And that’s kind of my theory on change of how this all works,” she says. “I do this work unapologetically for people who have had abortions, particularly people of color who have had abortions, so that they can see themselves represented in the conversation.”

In the face of so many setbacks, it helps to think of it that way. Our fight, our sharing, our vulnerability is ultimately to create space for others to be heard. Progress is not always linear, and if our outpouring doesn’t yield immediate political success, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure.

And yet what woman isn’t sick of this? While it’s true that women swept into elected office in record numbers after both the Hill and Ford testimonies, it still often feels like we’re shouting into the void. During the confirmation process, one of Kavanaugh’s Yale classmates, Deborah Ramirez, had come forward, claiming that he had thrust his penis at her during a party. In September, New York Times reporters Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin (Letty Pogrebin’s daughter) wrote in a new book about Kavanaugh that even fellow Yale graduates who tried to contact the FBI and corroborate Ramirez’s claim were not interviewed by investigators. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.)

It’s 2019 and we’re closer than ever to losing our constitutional right to decide when and if we become mothers. Bad man after bad man plots his return to society, having faced just a short time hiding out in a vacation home somewhere. The President, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, still sits in the White House, still overseeing a political system, still nominating judges to lifetime roles, stripping away our control of our own bodies. He’s denied all the allegations, and the nation, by and large, has shrugged them off too. But somehow there’s a narrative that all this #MeToo stuff has gone too far.

Since the beginnings of ancient democracy, women’s voices have been sidelined. If we’ve wanted those in the halls of power to consider our experiences, it’s been up to us to make them known. But I wonder what would happen if we didn’t have to constantly insist on being heard and insist on our humanity. What would it look like to live in a world where instead of forcing the elevator doors open, we were allowed in? I’m almost too exhausted to imagine.