Anyone at the opening night of Tina Brown’s ninth annual Women in the World Summit in New York could only have been humbled by a conversation on stage, moderated by journalist Ronan Farrow, with three Italian women, two of whom are accusers of Harvey Weinstein, the other a feminist politician. Their bravery was matched only by the bleakness of their stories.
Some of the discussion was almost familiar. Two of the women, Ambra Gutierrez, a model, and Asia Argento, an actress, activist and screenwriter, were pivotal in what became Farrow’s astounding take-down of Weinstein in The New Yorker last year. Gutierrez wasn’t able to address her own experience directly because of legal issues, but instead spoke of a deeply disturbing encounter with Silvio Berlusconi. What surprised me was the struggle they, as well as Laura Boldrini, a journalist and politician, still face in getting Italy to take sexual abuse and harassment seriously.
Boldrini, until recently president of the Italian parliament’s chamber of deputies, said the pushback she had earned for promoting women’s rights went as far as being burnt in effigy and getting a bullet in the post. Argento, who has accused Weinstein of forcing her into oral sex when she was 21, said some of the slurs she has endured were unrepeatable in polite New York company.
Harvey Weinstein: his accusers
She acknowledged having ignored friends, including Farrow, who’d urged her to leave Italy for her own safety in favour of remaining and fighting. “If we stop this conversation then we’re really doomed. It’s the one chance I’ve had in my lifetime to advance the whole human species because the betterment of the position of women in society is the betterment of all society.” The #MeToo movement, she added, is the biggest thing to happen to women since the right to vote.
It almost made me grateful to be in the United States and not Europe. Here there is a genuine and crucial conversation going on about women facing acts of sexual harassment by men, most often men who wield power over them. It’s a moment of national reckoning and it’s clearly healthy, despite the potential danger it brings to survivors who speak out.
But the process has only just begun, and in one respect the US lags spectacularly. I am talking about its president, who is now, almost on a daily basis, the target of lurid and shocking reports of disgusting behaviour towards women and who has not been held to account or fired from his job like so many others have. Or not yet.
Just before Brown’s conference began, Farrow released another in his series of reports on the topic, this time alleging that a doorman at one of Donald Trump’s New York towers was paid $30,000 early in the presidential campaign to keep quiet about a housekeeper with whom he, Trump, had allegedly had a baby. It’s far from clear that the love-child part is true, but that money was exchanged is convincing. According to Farrow it came not from Trump but from The National Enquirer, a tabloid owned by American Media, Inc (AMI), whose CEO is a friend of Trump.
Simultaneously, first reviews appeared of a memoir by James Comey, the FBI director fired by Trump last summer. Called A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, the book is due out this Tuesday. In it, we learned, Comey compares Trump to a mob boss. One passage concerns Trump keeping Comey behind after a meeting with senior intelligence officials shortly before his inauguration to talk about allegations that had surfaced about his once being in the company of prostitutes in Moscow, the more lurid details of which involved them peeing on each other.
According to Comey, Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking – rhetorically, I assumed – whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorised their allegations.” Trump’s response came in a tweet, in which he called Comey, wait for it, an “untruthful slimeball”.
You get what you pay for, or in this case the country gets whom they elect. That “slimeball” would be better applied to Trump than Comey was already plain to see when voters made their choice in November 2016. They had heard Trump boasting about grabbing women’s body parts in that infamous Access Hollywood taped conversation with Billy Bush but then elected him anyway. No matter the number of lurid stories there are about Trump, he seems just to forge on.
But we may be at a pivotal moment. Last week the FBI raided the offices of the man who has done more than anyone else to protect Trump from scandal fallout – his private lawyer, Michael Cohen. Things agents were looking for reportedly included any materials about other sums of money allegedly paid to the porn actress Stormy Daniels (by Cohen) and Karen McDougal (by AMI), another porn actress and a centrefold, to stay mum about affairs the women had allegedly had with him. The agents were also after anything on the leaking in 2016 of the Access Hollywood tape. If it appears these payments were made to help save Trump from defeat then election laws may have been broken.
And now a new grenade in Washington DC: a top donor to the Republicans, Elliott Broidy, who has close ties to the White House, was forced to resign as deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee after it emerged he paid a former Playboy model $1.6m in late 2017 after impregnating her. Guess who negotiated the deal: Michael Cohen, of course.
Italy may be in the dark ages, but the US will only be able to claim it is truly addressing injustice suffered by women when members of its political class are held to account and their secret settlements to silence them are exposed. And that may be starting to happen.