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This Election Has Devolved Into a Contest of Who Treats Women the Least-Worst

October 10, 2016, 4:24 PM UTC
Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

Less than three months ago, American women across political party lines had a reason to celebrate—a woman had reached the near-pinnacle of success by becoming a major party’s presidential nominee for the very first time. Given her incredibly high unfavorables, it’s clear that Hillary Clinton’s nomination was not cheered by all women, but it’s difficult to deny the significance of her accomplishment. Consider that there were women in the Democratic National Convention audience in Philadelphia in July who were born without the right to vote, but had lived to see Clinton digitally crash through the glass ceiling and sing-song: “[I]f there are any little girls out there who stayed up late to watch. Let me just say: I may become the first woman president, but one of you is next.”

A few weeks later, there was another occasion for bipartisan applause. In mid-September, with his daughter Ivanka by his side, Donald Trump outlined a plan to offer women six weeks of paid maternity leave and a policy proposal to reduce the cost of child care. “We need working mothers to be fairly compensated for their work, and to have access to affordable, quality child care for their kids,” Trump told a crowd in Pennsylvania.

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There are plenty of holes to poke in his plan. It doesn’t apply to fathers, which means employers are incentivized to hire men who will never take paid leave. Plus, when held up against Clinton’s paid family leave proposal—which offers 12 weeks off—and the policies of other peer nations, Trump’s plan falls woefully short. Nevertheless, his ideas for maternity leave would improve upon the current U.S. policy, which provides women with no paid time off following the birth of a child, and mark a radical shift in the Republican party’s stance on the issue, which has long held that mandating paid maternity leave opposes its mission to shirk the reach of Washington.

Both candidates’ proposals, though not equal, acknowledge not just the struggles of working women immediately following childbirth, but the burden of caring for kids as they age. The plans seem to recognize the economic contributions of women and the importance of keeping them in the workforce. At long last, the livelihoods of women—not just their health or reproductive rights—were front and center on one of the world’s highest stages.

But if women were feeling any kind of high during this election cycle, they came down from it with dizzying speed starting Friday afternoon when The Washington Post revealed a 2005 tape of Donald Trump making lewd and sexually aggressive remarks about women, reducing them to body parts and gatekeepers of sex. In the video, Trump speaks with then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush about his failed attempts to sleep with entertainment journalist Nancy O’Dell and then jokes about how he can get away with kissing and groping women because he’s a star.

The blowback against Trump was swift and severe as Republicans abandoned him in droves. In an attempt to deflect the onslaught of criticism, Trump held a press conference Sunday night to reintroduce America to three women who accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct and to claim Hillary Clinton had attacked her husband’s alleged victims.

In the debate that followed, things deteriorated even further.

At one point, Hillary Clinton, referring to the 2005 tape, said, “What we all saw and heard on Friday was Donald talking about women, what he thinks about women, what he does to women. And he has said that the video doesn’t represent who he is. But I think it’s clear to anyone who heard it that it represents exactly who he is.”

Trump, after downplaying the 2005 tape as “locker room talk,” brought up Bill Clinton’s alleged indiscretions. “Bill Clinton was abusive to women. Hillary Clinton attacked those same women and attacked them viciously.”

The 48 hours leading up to the debate were unprecedented in their political drama, but they ended in a space that’s familiar to female voters: a discussion that mentioned women only as they pertain to the sexual exploits of powerful men. The election cycle that initially elevated women has now devolved into a contest of which candidate treats them the least-worst.

It’s no wonder that after staying up late to watch Clinton’s historic nomination, some kids were reportedly not allowed to watch the debate Sunday night.

This is a hole that Trump dug and Clinton fell into. Now it appears that the winner on November 8 may be whoever can patch it up first.