I was a captive audience. I had settled into my window seat for the first leg of a two-city trip to Detroit and New York. It was early, and I was visibly tired, having been up late packing and tying up loose ends so I could be away for a week and a half.
No matter. The older man in the seat next to me recognized me as the editor of this paper and started chatting away. First, he said he likes my work and considers himself a "liberal Republican." Half-asleep, I wasn't saying a whole lot, nodding politely. Then he said something along the line of "It's amazing that we have a lying bastard running for president." Then he grinned. "But which one am I talking about?"
From there, he launched into a diatribe against Hillary Clinton after briefly acknowledging that Trump is "terrible, but." He told me that her staff members over the years never liked her because she was so horrible to them—I honestly can't remember if he called her a "bitch"; it could be my memory assuming he must have. She constantly lies; she's crooked; she doesn't have what it takes to be president, yada, yada.
And then the zinger, "You know, Hillary Clinton is not a feminist."A gray-haired white man, leaning into me, just 'splained to me who is and is not a feminist.
I might have sputtered first. I said something like, "You clearly have no idea what you're talking about," and then reached for my headphones. "I'm tired, and I really don't want to talk about either politics or religion right now." (He had joked that "we" could talk about religion next.)
I was trembling as I turned away toward the plane window and the lecture about which women are qualified to be president, or feminist, from the next seat over. Maybe this wouldn't have been so exhausting if it hadn't been just one more rooster peck of millions as a woman gets closer to serving in the White House.
It's not like I'm a Clinton apologist. I've long criticized the two Clintons for various issues—from his intern affair to her transparency failures. I have no problem debating actual issues, and no public servant is immune from fact-based policy criticism.
But we're seeing way too many vicious personal attacks, such as we see against Barack Obama because he's black. And the blindsides on Clinton—for not smiling, smiling too much, raising her voice, sounding "shrill," being egotistical or getting pneumonia during a crazy campaign cycle, thus showing a lack of (male) "stamina"—are textbook sexism. It's not like such treatment of her, from across the political spectrum and media, are new. Watch a powerful compilation of 40 years of her being interrupted and insulted in media at jfp.ms/hrc.
As I watched that video, I cried a little as if it released years of frustration. Sadly, I've dealt with similar responses ever since I started my career and especially once I started having any degree of authority and public voice. The funny part was that I was a defiant feminist in high school and college and then basically stopped talking about it in my 20s, figuring things were cool then.
Since then, I've spent decades being told to smile, called "angry," "a lesbian" or "a bitch" for stating my opinion or challenging a male boss or someone I manage. I've watched men I manage bow up and tell me, "I've done this work for __ years" when I gave feedback about actual problems. I've been flown to Lake Tahoe for a job interview and then asked to spend the night with the male interviewer. I've had every part of my body disparaged publicly because someone didn't like my political endorsement.
I've watched a local conservative tech guy post a cartoon of me "whipping" my life/business partner Todd, as well as link the photo of a friend's child to a picture of genital warts, and then continue to get good gigs from prominent men about town. I've watched candidates of all parties pay to advertise with a local blog that talks about how flat-chested women attorneys are and that they wish one's breast implants would explode (alongside disgusting racism). And I've been lied about repeatedly. And more.
The typical, and sexist, response to my sharing all that is to call me "bitter" because I dare say all that out loud. That is the real secret to keeping women down and quiet: Say what you want about us, and then if we speak up, we're out of control, hysterical and so on. That means that women, even in a position of authority, tend to stay quiet about women's continuing reality. If we don't, we're "difficult" or whatever.
And this doesn't just come from men. I've written before about studies showing that many women also harbor implicit sexism toward women perceived to be in power. It's a backward part of our culture, which means we all need to be "woke" about it to change things. And it's even harder for women of color because they get hit with a double dose of sexism and racism.
But here's the thing: When we women watch it happening publicly and repeatedly—down to calls to kill the woman who is objectively the most qualified person ever to run for president against a bigoted, juvenile clown who rates women by breast size—it is time to speak up and share our own sexist experiences, so other women know that they're not alone. If we don't, younger women will be blindsided by it, as I was by my 30s, when they realize that it's really not about some power-hungry she-monster, and that it will be their turn in front of the firing squad when they reach a certain level of power—if we don't change it soon.
Women, we must no longer consent to walk on eggshells and allow ourselves to be interrupted and belittled by men, whether "below" or "above" us in a pecking order. And men, nothing about this cultural misogyny makes America a stronger nation or you a stronger male. In fact, this year, sexism could bring a very dangerous man to the White House who makes us vulnerable to myriad threats abroad and at home, including when he decides to launch a 3 a.m. strike at someone who dared criticize him.
As I like to say, I'm pretty Teflon to personal sexist attacks at this point, as is Clinton clearly, but I also must be willing to speak up about them to help other women, which in turn helps our strength as a nation. I am voting proudly for Hillary Clinton in November, and not just because Donald Trump is so vile and dangerous to democracy. She is tough, smart and learns from mistakes, and she keeps talking even when men try to shut her down.
She is ready to lead in more ways than one. And, yes, she is a damn feminist.
Follow Donna Ladd on Twitter at @donnerkay. She won't bite if you don't.