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Opinion | Nancy Gertner

I take this election personally

Hillary Clinton speaks to the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington on Nov. 16.Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

I take the election of Donald Trump personally not just because my candidate, Hillary Clinton, lost. I take this election personally not because Clinton was a dear friend, a classmate at Yale Law School. I take this election personally not just because it feels like the last best chance for someone of my generation — who fought the wars of Second Wave feminism — to break that final glass ceiling in national politics.

I take this election personally because of how Trump won and what it legitimized. He won despite comments demeaning women in general, and Clinton in particular. He won after demonizing Muslims, immigrants, and black people. This is “just talk,’ some may say — not what he really felt. Or better yet, others will dismiss this as being “politically correct,” code for “don’t take it seriously.”


I was a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer before I became a judge. The tools of exclusion against women and minorities were words — words that discouraged workplace participation, words that mocked their intelligence and their commitment. In my career, there were the words from male lawyers whose reaction to my asking advice in a high-profile murder case was for me to get out of the case. Or others who assured me that women were not tough enough to be trial lawyers. Or those who warned me that I shouldn’t be too aggressive in court, or chided me for being insufficiently aggressive. For people who have been excluded from the power structure, these words map onto their own sense of outsider status. I didn’t listen; I had supporters and mentors. Hillary didn’t either, but many were not as fortunate as we.

Words matter. Over time the coded language of discrimination became more nuanced, but the impact was the same. To one woman applying to be a named tenured chair it was, “You don’t look like a named chair.” Which was code for: No woman has ever done this before. Another woman was rejected from a job because the standards became more rigorous than they had ever been before. The language of sexual harassment persisted, like the words of the judge who told me after court had ended how much he liked my “build.” Women — minorities, and outsiders — were fair game for words of discouragement and not just of exclusion.


This campaign had it all: Hillary didn’t look like a president. Her voice was too shrill. Other women were mocked with unflattering pictures, labelled too fat, too aggressive, measured by their attractiveness, not their competence.

We should take words seriously. Even if Trump does not believe what he says, which I doubt, his words have had an impact. They have normalized a discourse about women — and minorities — we have not seen in decades. Labelling it “pc” trivializes it.

Words matter. Words matter to the cab driver who thought that he won’t be allowed back into the United States — he is American — because his birth certificate lists his religion as “Muslim.” To the gay couple who feared the Supreme Court would withdraw protection for gay marriage. To the students who see racial slurs and ethnic slurs in line postings and signs around the campus.

It’s would be one thing to criticize “political correctness” in a world where the equality struggle has been won, when discrimination is the product of the aberrant individual who didn’t get the message. But that’s not the world in which we live. African-Americans are 11.4 percent of the workforce but only hold 6.7 percent of management positions. Hispanics are 16.1 percent of the total workforce but hold only 9.1 percent of management positions. Relative to their white male counterparts, African-American males earned 75.8 percent as much, Hispanic males earned 68.6 percent, African American females earned 68.1 percent, and Hispanic females earned 61.0 percent. Females earned 82.5 percent of what their male counterparts earned; and in management professions, females earned only 77.5 percent of what male managers earned. Words matter, contributing to what civil rights lawyers described as “headwinds” to equality.


If there is a silver lining in this election, it is only this: Trump’s campaign has made the implicit explicit, at least for those in the majority who never experienced discrimination. We are not remotely in a post-racial, post-feminist environment. Not by a long shot.

I take this election personally.

Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, is a professor at Harvard Law School.