In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s ouster from the celebrated film studio that bears his name, which came only days after the New York Times first reported his allegedly decades-old pattern of harassment and assault, it’s tempting to believe that we’re entering a new era of intolerance for sexual abuse perpetrated by powerful men. But it may be too early to pronounce a shift. As Rebecca Traister pointed out at New York magazine, Weinstein is “no longer the titan of independent film” who is said to have frightened so many women into silence. Women’s voices carry more weight than they used to—but perhaps not enough to tip the scales against men at the height of their power.
For evidence of this, look no further than the White House, where Donald Trump is president despite over a dozen allegations against him. At this time last year, women were still coming forward to tell their stories of nonconsensual groping, kissing, and, according to at least one accuser, “attempted rape.” One of the people to speak out against Trump as the election loomed was Jessica Leeds, who a year ago told the New York Times that he assaulted her on an airplane in the early 1980s. Then a businesswoman at a paper company, she said was seated next to Trump on a flight to New York when he touched her breasts and tried to reach up her skirt. “He was like an octopus,” she told reporters last fall. “His hands were everywhere.” Mere weeks after the Times published Leeds’ story, Trump won.
Slate reached Leeds at her home in New York City last week to discuss the far-overdue fall of Harvey Weinstein, what it’s been like to witness the presidency of her alleged assailant, and whether she still feels it was worth it to come forward. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Nora Caplan-Bricker: How did you feel when Trump won after you, and so many other women, publicly accused him of sexual assault?
Jessica Leeds: I’m truly sorry that I didn’t make more of an impact, that we all didn’t make more of an impact. But as the man says himself, he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and his supporters wouldn’t care.
It was discouraging that he won, very discouraging. I couldn’t believe it, and I didn’t want to believe it. I’d like to have faith in the American system of government, but it’s difficult at the moment.
What did you experience after coming forward? How did people around you react to your story?
My experience afterward was that I’d really thought things had gotten better for women in business, I really thought they had. But after this little 15 minutes of fame, it became apparent to me that maybe 95 percent of working women have experienced this.
People were telling you their own stories?
Yes, exactly. It seemed every woman has experienced some form of sexual aggression.
Besides my run-in with Trump, I could tell you a whole bunch of stories about what women put up with in the late ’70s, early ’80s—our expectation was that’s what went on. When my children were old enough to go to school, I went to work. I interviewed on a Friday, and I thought I had the job, and I showed up Monday morning. At the Christmas party, the guy who hired me said, “You know, I was asking you out, I wasn’t asking you to come to work, but you showed up.” I was so oblivious to what he was suggesting that I thought he was offering me a job. That was day-to-day in the working environment, but I dismissed it and kept going on.
I’d been out of the mainstream, working from home, for the last 15 years, and I really thought things had gotten better.
Were you disabused of that notion in part because of how people treated you after you came forward?
No, I live in a New York bubble, so nobody ever said anything negative to me directly. It was all the same thing; every person, man or woman, that came up to me—and there were a lot—said the same thing. They said thank you, and that they considered me so brave. Well, I still don’t think I was brave. I was angry. I don’t know why people seem to feel that bravery is involved, but that’s more thinking than I care to do at the moment.
My daughter and her husband gathered me up and took me home with them because they were afraid of what was going to happen to me. They live in this little town in the Poconos, and the next day, we went to the library, and the women in the library came up to me and said thank you, and you’re so brave. We went to the farmers market, and men and women at the farmers market came up to me and said thank you, and you’re so brave. We went to the post office, we went to the bank. I came home and started going back to the pool to go swimming, and the women in the locker room and the pool came up to me, too. It was amazing. There were a couple women on the subway, and a couple men, too. For about three to six months afterward, there were people coming up to me to thank me.
How did that feel?
It was kind of a restorative feeling, and I did feel honored. And as I said, I was utterly amazed that it was always the same.
I know that online the response to your story was not so uniform. For example, Roger Stone claimed that you were the same Jessica Leeds who was involved in a property dispute with a Trump golf course in California in 2008—this was proven false—and Fox Business Channel anchor Lou Dobbs essentially doxxed you, retweeting a tweet with your address and phone number. Did any of that reach you in real life?
My daughter cleared my telephone. I was told that for a couple of days after Lou Dobbs published my address, there were people sitting in front of my apartment building—but my daughter made me go away with her, so I didn’t experience that. … Trump called me “not pretty enough” [to have assaulted]. I was pretty enough in my working career that I felt confident in my looks—but beauty is a burden, too. If you’re not pretty enough, you won’t be taken seriously; and if you’re too pretty, you won’t be taken seriously. Either way, you’re butting your head up against men’s expectations.
I did hear from two other women [who accused Trump] that it had been a real struggle after their stories came out. They lived in communities where they felt much more vulnerable.
In the past few weeks, dozens of allegations have surfaced against Harvey Weinstein. He’s been fired from the company that bears his name and kicked out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. What has it been like for you to watch other women come forward after telling your own story of abuse at the hands of a powerful man?
It’s brought the issue back up, and among my friends and family, we’ve talked about it. It’s not like it’s opening a bad wound. It’s just kind of a frustration more than anything else: that the story in Hollywood seems to be producing some real effect and real reaction, i.e. Harvey Weinstein being canned, but when we tried to get traction on Trump, with him there are so many issues, I guess this issue just wasn’t important enough. And that’s a little frustrating.
And I think, “What percentage of the male population feels free enough to do this?” I begin to worry about my own grandson—should I have a discussion with him, with my son-in-law?
Do you think about those questions more than you did before you told your story?
Oh God, yes.
Why do you think the Weinstein story is playing out so differently from the Trump story?
That is a very good question, and I’m not sure I can answer it—all I can say is, in the entertainment world, the term “casting couch” goes all the way back to the beginning. In the world of politics, Gary Hart got taken down by just showing up with a girlfriend and a picture being taken. To some degree it seems like these personal scandals can touch a politician, but Trump seems to be the exception to the rule. I don’t know why, but he truly is Teflon.
Just today, I got a call from a friend of mine who said that her daughter had been traveling in England, and she went into a shop to buy something and bought her mother a pussy hat from one of the local artisans. The lady in the store said to my friend’s daughter, “You know, we were really quite struck by the lady’s story on the airplane.” So these stories do have legs, I guess, and it’s kind of fascinating how it works. But it has been frustrating to think that we managed to elect a man who’s got the morals of a stray cat.
Like you and many other people who’ve spoken against Trump, many of Weinstein’s accusers had been silent for years, even decades. What makes it so difficult to come forward?
I think it’s because we’ve been acculturated to think that it was somehow our fault. Somehow the blame was transferred onto the women. You hate feeling like you were a victim. It’s not a sensation that you really want to dwell on. I think that’s what’s happened for a lot of women. They just didn’t want to expose themselves to being ridiculed.
Your story didn’t stop Trump from winning, but similar stories seem to have brought down Weinstein. How does that make you feel about your own decision to come forward?
Egotistically, I would love to feel like I’ve made an impact, but realistically, I’m very small, and mine is a very small story. I think we need more women to come forward and we need to have this discussion, just like we need to have a discussion about racial issues.
We’ve got a long way to go, and I would like to feel like we’ve started, but I’m not so sure we have—it’s too soon to say. It seems more women are willing to come forward, and women are feeling more empowered to at least sue the sons of bitches. Maybe that’s an improvement. I certainly hope so.