Ashley Judd on Joe Biden Scandal: "Democracy Starts at My Skin"

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Ashley Judd

Rebecca Traister, author and writer-at-large for New York magazine, said that the stories of alleged inappropriate touching are particularly important "because what they display is the kind of paternalism that is actually key to the kinds of policy that he has made in his 50 years in political power as a leading member of the Democratic party."

At Thursday's Women in the World Summit in New York City, Ashley Judd and other prominent women activists discussed modern feminism and shared their impressions on recent claims that former vice president Joe Biden acted inappropriately toward multiple women.

Judd referenced the photo of Biden and activist Sofie Karasek from the 2016 Oscars that went viral. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Karasek explained that she was there to stand with Lady Gaga and 50 other sexual assault survivors during her performance of "Til It Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground. When she met Biden, she said the potential 2020 presidential hopeful "leaned down, took my hands and put his forehead to mine."

Karasek wrote that it was "unwelcome, uncomfortable and strange."

Judd understood.

"What I would say is, for me, that I'm very uncomfortable looking at those images. And they do feel paternalistic and condescending," the actress, who made headlines when she accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, told the audience after moderator Katie Couric asked the panel of women how they felt about the general accusations against Biden. "Democracy starts at my skin. The reach of the state stops at my body. And that includes the folks who are in elected power."

She recommended a simple solution for all men in similar situations: Ask women what they're comfortable with.

"Just ask," Judd said, "especially when we're talking about Uncle Joe and our relatives who come to Thanksgiving. Even Girl Scouts is teaching little girls these days, 'You have the right to say no to any hug or touch or approach from an adult that doesn't feel right for you.' We need our body autonomy and sexual integrity."

Brittney Cooper, author and associate professor at Rutgers University, was more straightforward.

"I don't trust Uncle Joe," she said of Biden before asking the audience why he keeps getting a pass. "He humiliated Anita Hill. Go back, on a day when you're watching YouTube, and watch the way that he talked to her in those hearings. That's who he actually is."

Biden has expressed his regret about the way he treated Hill when she shared her sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. But for Cooper, Biden doesn't deserve the credit he's gotten from the public.

"Look, if Hillary Clinton didn't make it into office because people thought that she was untrustworthy because of her advocacy for many of the policies her husband signed into law in the '90s, when she didn't have any political power, who do you think was the major architect of things like the crime bill?" Cooper said. "If she can't be in office, he certainly can't be."

She added that Biden "is not the future."

"And the thing I want folks in this audience to know — you can call it terrible identity politics if you want to — the future is female. It is not an old white man," Cooper said.

Rebecca Traister, author and writer-at-large for New York magazine, said that the stories of alleged inappropriate touching are particularly important "because what they display is the kind of paternalism that is actually key to the kinds of policy that he has made in his 50 years in political power as a leading member of the Democratic party."

"It is not just Joe Biden; it's a lot of what the Democratic party has chosen to do," Traister continued. "It is a paternalistic approach that is visible in his policy record around abortion, around integration, around crime — and that is why the stories of the touching are relevant, because they take us directly to the way he has governed and his view of the role of government and power over the bodies of those who are governed."

Also on the panel was Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. She recalled working for Biden's son and called the former vp "a dear friend."

"I think that this conversation has helped to further the fact for a lot of people that intentions aren't the be-all and end-all for a conversation; that you can have good intentions, you can mean well, but that doesn't necessarily mitigate harm, discomfort or people being entitled to share that discomfort and that harm," she said.

When McBride brought up having a conversation about growth and moving forward, Cooper pushed back, saying that a dialogue can be started only after "folks are willing to admit what they did."

"Say what you did. Say that it caused harm. Say that you didn't know any better. Say that you could've done better. Say that you're listening," Cooper said. "We put the burden of being nuanced on the people who are most vulnerable of being harmed, and then we let folks skate on accountability because they're in places in their lives where they're good people. And if any of us are honest, what we know is that good people can do bad things. And we gotta be able to hold people accountable to that and stop trying to the folks who call them out."

McBride agreed, adding, "There can only be grace and forgiveness as long as there's first accountability and demonstration of growth."

Biden recently addressed the claims, saying that throughout his career, he's always tried to make "gestures of support and encouragement" to both women and men. 

"I've never thought of politics as cold and antiseptic. I've always thought it was about connecting with people," Biden said, adding, "Now, it's all about taking selfies together. Our social norms have begun to change — they've shifted. The boundaries of protected personal space have been reset and I get it. I get it. I hear what they're saying. I understand it, and I'll be much more mindful. That's my responsibility, and I'll meet it."

The Women in the World Center is in its second day of programming, with a lineup of speakers that includes Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Anna Wintour.