There are many things in the historical and contemporary record that we know about Joe Biden and his relationship to women and to feminist causes. There are the many women who have accused him of inappropriate and unwanted touching, a penchant of his that has been widely documented. There is his longstanding support for the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment, a position he only recently was forced to change after sustained pressure from feminist activists during the early months of his presidential campaign. There was his attempt, as the Affordable Care Act was being debated, to deny people contraception coverage. There was his disgraceful treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for which to this day he has only offered a tepid apology, one that Hill herself is not satisfied with.
There is his role in championing tough-on-crime policies, not to mention his willingness to gut Social Security and Medicare. There is, as Biden himself and many of his supporters would counter, the Violence Against Women Act, which he championed, but which was itself inextricable from the push towards ever-increasing criminalization. As Diana Moskovitz wrote in Jezebel, “[T]here’s an alternative narrative of VAWA that is also part of Biden’s legacy: It bound vital supports for domestic violence victims to an endless expansion of the carceral state.”
In my mind, all of this should have been reason enough to cast Biden aside during the primary, as a retrograde relic who has consistently shown himself to be both unable and unwilling to meet the demands of the moment. But none of these factors seemed to matter to Democratic Party operatives and a wide swath of the party’s voters, who have despite all evidence of his unsuitability anointed Biden as the man to defeat Donald Trump in November. Which is partly why it’s so depressing now, as we inch inevitably closer to what will literally be a life-or-death election, that we find ourselves in a situation where we will be choosing between a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault by a former staffer, and a man who has been credibly accused of rape, sexual assault, or extreme sexual harassment by more than a dozen women.
This is not to say that the choice isn’t obvious, or isn’t easy to make. I recognize the stakes. “It’s the stuff of feminist nightmares,” as Rebecca Traister noted in New York magazine, a devil’s bargain that too many of us are familiar with. Women, at least those of us with feminist politics, have, after all, often been asked to cast aside assault allegations when they’re made against prominent Democratic men, in the name of political expediency. For all that we’re supposedly living in a moment where addressing sexual assault is an urgent priority, the ugly reality is that we find ourselves instead in an eternal repetition of the past.
In March, Tara Reade, a former Biden staffer, alleged that Biden had sexually assaulted her in 1993. Reade had already gone on the record last year, along with several other women, recounting that while she worked in his office, Biden, in her words, “used to put his hand on my shoulder and run his finger up my neck,” and that his staff had retaliated against her when she refused to serve drinks at an event. Her new retelling now broadened what was easy to read as a form of sexual harassment into assault. Reade’s sexual assault allegations were initially met with silence or skepticism, even by supposed feminists who were eager to cast doubt on her allegations. “Reade’s story is problematic,” wrote the Nation’s Joan Walsh, pointing to inconsistencies in her account as well as a past Medium post of Reade’s in which she wrote glowingly of Vladimir Putin, which is bizarre and eye-rolling to be sure but not disqualifying on its face. But, Walsh wrote, it was “Reade’s shifting stories” which were the “huge problem, as they would be for anyone claiming to be the victim of a crime.” (This is, as anyone who is familiar with sexual assault knows, not accurate.) The New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg took a similar, if less skeptical, line. “Reade seems almost engineered in a lab to inspire skepticism in mainstream Democrats, both because her story keeps changing and because of her bizarre public worship of President Vladimir Putin of Russia,” Goldberg wrote in the Times, before adding that she was “left with doubt: doubt about Biden and doubt about the charges against him.” The not-so-subtle message: only perfect victims are worthy of being believed.
I found myself initially staying silent on Reade’s allegations, which were initially aired on an uncut podcast interview, without the backing of careful and thorough reporting that would either dismiss or reinforce her claims. The lack of that documentation made me uncomfortable, given that, as my colleague Emily Alford noted presciently, that absence “set [her] up for more vitriol—and for her story to be cravenly politicized, by both the left and the right.” But in recent days, more reporting has been done, notably by Business Insider, which corroborates Reade’s account. According to Lynda LaCasse, a former neighbor, Reade told her in the mid-1990s that Biden had, in LaCasse’s words, “put his hand up her skirt and he put his fingers inside her.” LaCasse, who told Business Insider she is a Democrat who plans on voting for Biden, added, “She felt like she was assaulted, and she really didn’t feel there was anything she could do.”
Biden, who had for weeks refused to comment on Reade’s allegations, aside from statements by his staff that the “accusations are false,” has now been forced to respond, and he did so on Friday in a long statement posted to Medium as well as an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe in which he denied that he had sexually assaulted Reade. Her claims, Biden wrote in the statement, are “untrue” and “never happened,” and her story has a “growing record of inconsistencies” and “has changed repeatedly in both small and big ways.” In his statement, which proceeds for eight paragraphs before he finally addresses Reade’s allegations, Biden offered up his supposed feminist bona fides—most notably the passage of the Violence Against Women Act—as proof positive that he would never assault someone. Women, he wrote, “should be heard, not silenced.” He then added, “Their stories should be subject to appropriate inquiry and scrutiny.”
Biden has a right to defend himself. But his strategy is telling, for he’s using a longstanding, if updated, playbook often used by powerful men. He is calling Reade a liar, but with a shallow MeToo gloss: a liar we now have to listen to. In a post-Harvey Weinstein environment, the call to take sexual assault seriously is a mantra, but one that seems to stop at the precise moment that it collides with political necessity. Biden here is, as Melissa Gira Grant wrote in the New Republic, “leaning into feminism” as a shield. How else to explain the fact that he’s calling upon a whole host of prominent Democratic women, including Stacey Abrams, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, to form his defense, and to use talking points from his campaign that stress, contrary to much of his record, that he “has been a fierce advocate for women?” He’s saying, let’s move on, folks, nothing to see here; let’s get past this pesky issue and focus on the one issue that matters—getting Donald Trump out of office.
I don’t know if Reade’s account is true, though I find it credible. But what I do know is that we didn’t have to be here, at this place we have found ourselves in time and time again—forced to swallow our distaste in the service of a flawed man, who is our better option only by comparison. That we do find ourselves here is a reminder that our choices are still limited ones, the terrain of what’s possible constrained by the logic of cool hard power. But we’ll eat that shit sandwich, even if we don’t like it. Isn’t that, after all, what we’ve always done?