When seven women accused then–Minnesota Sen. Al Franken of sexual harassment or abuse last winter, Democrats were put in a tight spot. If they demanded Franken’s resignation for alleged acts far less severe than those the sitting president has been accused of perpetrating, they’d lose a reliably progressive—and extremely popular—women’s rights advocate in the Senate in order to claim a moral high ground the GOP has no interest in competing for. If they let Franken stay, they’d be normalizing sexual exploitation as a thing powerful men inevitably do, and any future calls they might make for alleged abusers to step down from public office could be dismissed as hollow and hypocritical.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was the first of Franken’s colleagues to publicly urge him to resign, writing in a Facebook post that “while it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.” Several other senators, mostly women, followed suit. Franken did ultimately resign, admitting to some of the allegations and refuting others.
Gillibrand has been paying for her stance ever since. In June, Democratic megadonor George Soros told the Washington Post that the only potential 2020 presidential contender he cared to mention was Gillibrand, who he didn’t like. Soros said she’d elbowed Franken, “whom I admire,” out of the Senate just “to improve her chances” at the 2020 nomination. According to New York Times politics reporter Astead Herndon, plenty of male Democratic donors and legislators agree with Soros: “Few say it publicly, but in DC I’d hear it all the time from supposedly liberal men: Franken as a martyr and Gillibrand as ‘opportunist.’ ”
It’s not just men who fault Gillibrand for Franken’s fall. On social media, Franken supporters of all genders say Gillibrand blew her chance at the presidency by turning on her fellow Democrat. Susie Tompkins Buell, a multimillion-dollar fundraiser and supporter of Democratic candidates, has echoed that view. “She miscalculated and has shot herself in the foot,” Buell said in January, implying that she would cease making donations to Gillibrand. This month, she told Politico that she’s heard people—not Buell herself, obviously!—call Gillibrand “opportunistic and shrewd at the expense of others to advance herself.”
This wave of partisan abandonment is in some ways just another case of a woman being blamed for a man’s transgressions, the way #MeToo advocates have been scolded for ruining men’s lives when the men were the ones who did the things that brought them ruin. But Gillibrand hatred is also a useful window into how we perceive opportunism, a quality only male politicians are lauded for possessing.
Voters generally don’t mind when legislators do things that boost their personal brands and reputations. They want leaders with strong, well-articulated visions, so long as those leaders don’t sacrifice their stated values in the face of social pressure—that would be opportunism. For as long as she’s been in the Senate, Gillibrand has been one of the chamber’s leading advocates against sexual harassment and assault. If she let Franken’s admitted and alleged abuses of women go unpunished, she’d be breaking a promise she made to her constituents. A politician who sells and conducts herself as a champion of women’s bodily autonomy had better not soften her stance the moment it might harm a friend.
If Gillibrand hadn’t called for Franken’s resignation, it would have been fair to label her an opportunist, because she’d have been contravening her beliefs to avoid upsetting donors and causing intraparty conflict. In that sense, accusations of opportunism from aggravated donors are self-refuting. If she was behaving disingenuously to gain support, then where’s the support?
Gillibrand must have known that speaking out against Franken would be a political gamble: Going after a fellow party member is likely to annoy major donors, who usually prize caution over radical statements of principle. And there is no guarantee that, if she chooses to run for president, the voters she needs to win over will look kindly on an outspoken woman who helped remove a beloved politician from power. If this was straightforward opportunism, it was rather poorly thought out. But if Gillibrand’s gamble pays off—if voters support her candidacy in part because of her stance against Franken—her “opportunism” will look like sound moral leadership.
Even if Gillibrand ends up losing more than she gains as a result of her stance, Democratic Party boosters shouldn’t be badmouthing her for spearheading the movement to hold Franken accountable. They should be thanking her for saving the Democratic Party’s reputation among young voters who have plenty of reasons to think Democrats are just as corrupt and sleazy as Republicans. Women who’ve been moved for the first time to progressive activism by the #MeToo movement and the presidency of an accused sexual abuser could easily be disillusioned by a party without principles.
All the donors directing disapproving slights at Gillibrand over the past year (“[Gillibrand] did the damage that Republicans could not do themselves”; “what she did for women in politics was dreadful”) have sidestepped one major thread of this story: sexual harassment and abuse. These are people more eager to fault a woman for opportunism—for having the audacity to lead on an issue she cares about, possibly with the hope of becoming president someday—than to take bold measures to keep alleged gropers out of public office. The Democratic donors abandoning Gillibrand accuse her of putting politics over principle, of protecting her own career at the expense of Franken’s. They’re either too stubborn or too stupid to realize that they’re guilty of a much more despicable offense: protecting party loyalty at the expense of all women.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus