Staff Columnist

Revelations don't diminish Ernst

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst waves to an audience member as she arrives for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony for Gov. Kim Reynolds at Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines, Iowa on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst waves to an audience member as she arrives for the inaugural swearing-in ceremony for Gov. Kim Reynolds at Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines, Iowa on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Regardless of political ideology, too many women have shared negative experiences.

It would be fairly easy to simply file this column with that one sentence, as it encompasses so much within the reluctant revelations this past week by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst that she is a survivor of sexual and domestic assault. We should all be appalled that her words were forced, the byproduct of an administrative error that placed divorce affidavits in the public sphere.

“ … in the era of #MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready. And I was not ready,” Ernst told former Iowa-based political reporter Jennifer Jacobs in an interview for Bloomberg.

That is, of course, the ideal for any person who has experienced trauma. And there is no doubt, as Ernst purposefully blinks back tears and searches for words, that trauma was experienced. We’ve seen it before; we’ll unfortunately see it again. But we still haven’t collectively arrived at a place where we own it and pledge to change it.

Iowans, if not all Americans, hold a mental image of Ernst as a fearless spitfire. She was the grinning candidate on our televisions screens, “carrying more than lipstick in her purse” and pledging to go to Washington and “make ’em squeal.” She is a combat veteran, the first such female ever elected to serve in the U.S. Senate. She is the leather-clad, motorcycle-riding badass who takes to the streets each year as part of a “roast and ride.” She was the freshman senator chosen to give the Republican response to the 2015 State of the Union address who stood tall before the nation in camouflage heels. She is the first woman elected to Senate GOP leadership in nearly a decade.

All of this contributes to a carefully crafted and, yes, honest persona. Ernst is all of these things — and, as we now know, she is more.

“I am a survivor,” she said during a recent appearance in Cedar Falls. “What I want people to understand is that I am the same person as I was last week. You just know more about what’s inside me now.”

Implicit within that statement is one of the dirty little societal secrets about assault, especially sexual or domestic assault: Survivors aren’t supposed to talk about it, and those who do risk being diminished. Instead of targeting abusers for their violence, we too often label survivors as weak. Instead of conversations about how we should afflict the comfortable, we too often focus on comforting the afflicted.

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I believe Ernst, just as I believe the untold number of other people who have publicly spoken of abuse. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it fiercely and change the past. But no such wand exists, and I am under no illusion that Ernst or any other person who has experienced violence wants my pity. As much as I’d prefer to see every perpetrator of violence plopped unceremoniously into a jail cell, I will not stand in judgment of others’ decisions. But I will say that any perceived weakness, all blame and embarrassment falls squarely upon those who harm others.

When we think about how our world has changed in the wake of #MeToo, we need to understand there are two related but separate paths contained within the movement. The first, of course, was simple awareness. That was the shock of #MeToo as person after person came forward and the nation had to acknowledge the prevalence of this violence.

The second was the attempted creation of a safe space, where people could overcome often self-imposed shame and guilt and get on with the process of healing, whatever “healing” may mean to each person.

Through her work as a victim advocate, which has continued all the way to her election to the U.S. Senate, Ernst has made significant and lasting contributions. Her bravery is well documented. In 2014, she spoke openly with Time magazine about her experiences with sexual harassment in the military. And, after winning election, she joined hands with other women in the Senate to create change.

Iowans should be proud to say that their senator had a hand in making life better in the military, regardless of the motivation behind such work and regardless of other policy decisions and proposals with which they may disagree. There is no wiggle room for diminishment.

Where Ernst goes from here, how this unwanted public attention manifests personally or professionally, is up to her. And that, I’m certain, will be on her own spitfire terms.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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