Mary Jo Kopechne was 28 years old when she died, trapped in a car that had plunged into a Massachusetts waterway. Experts believe she didn’t drown, but suffocated: Air pockets in the car allowed her to keep breathing for many hours after the crash.
This is important because Kopechne wasn’t alone at the time of the accident: Then-Senator Ted Kennedy was behind the wheel when the car ran off a bridge, and he managed to escape the wrecked Oldsmobile alive. But he didn’t call the police for some 10 hours -- by which point Kopechne had perished.
Kennedy, we know, went on to become “the lion of the Senate,” a storied wheeler and dealer in a family known for political royalty and grand tragedy. While Kopechne’s death dogged him politically – it was a favorite talking point of his Republican opponents – Kennedy paid no real price for the decisions he made the night of July 18, 1969, unless, of course, you think that not becoming president is some kind of unfair cost for causing the death of another human.
The sad truth is that, at the time and for many years after, plenty of people did.
A new movie about Kopechne’s death, “Chappaquiddick,” opens in theaters on Friday, and it should force us to confront troubling questions not just about who got away with what nearly 50 years ago, but who retains the kind of unchecked power that Kennedy enjoyed until his death in 2009 – and how feminist successes in holding powerful men accountable have been too uneven.
There is almost no question that even a politically-connected man could not, in 2018, drive a car carrying a young women into a river, leave her to die and still retain his seat as a United States Senator from the Democratic Party. Former Sen. Al Franken, who was about as universally beloved as anyone gets on the left, was pressured to resign his office after allegations of sexual harassment by multiple women were augmented by a photo of him pretending to grope a sleeping woman on a U.S.O. tour. Democrats, mostly unelected, may continue to debate whether there should have been a more thorough investigation before members of his own party began pressuring him to resign – but he’s still gone.
And, when sexual harassment and assault allegations surfaced against Hollywood luminary and long-time megadonor Harvey Weinstein, Democratic politicians took the donations they received from him and turned them over to charity.
Democrats and liberals have been, and continue to be, as guilty as anyone when it comes to powerful men abusing women for sport.
The left does continue to struggle with how to treat misdeeds by powerful men with whom it is politically aligned, and male misbehavior transcends political ideology. But there is no question that Democrats are cleaning house.
You can’t say the same about the American right. Our current president has been accused of sexual misconduct and assault nearly two dozen times, and has openly bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without consent. An accused child molester nearly won a senate seat in Alabama, and enjoyed the support of the state GOP. Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino tycoon and Republican benefactor, had to step down as CEO of his company in light of dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations against him, but the some Republicans to whom he donated have not returned campaign donations from him.
Donald Trump famously bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose voters. His party has shown that powerful Republicans can also mistreat women at will and still be rewarded with party support and votes from people who used to claim the mantle of the “moral majority.”
Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, and the total lack of consequences that befell Kennedy in its aftermath, remained a right-wing talking point for years and was used by conservatives as a kind of feminist gotcha that was eventually only superseded by allegations sexual harassment and assault against Bill Clinton. Still, when feminists point out our current president’s misogyny and the deep hypocrisy of his base, the rebuttals range from Juanita Broaddrick to Chappaquiddick. The argument seems to be: You guys did it, so now we get to, too.
Leaving aside the total moral bankruptcy of this position, it’s telling that the most recent right-wing sexual assault gotcha is a quarter-century old. Democrats and liberals have been, and continue to be, as guilty as anyone when it comes to powerful men abusing women for sport. But as women have gained more power in progressive politics, and as feminists in particular have had a stronger influence on liberal culture and Democratic policy, the old rules of white male impunity are being eclipsed by new expectations of equality and fundamentally decent behavior. Men on the left still get away with far too much, but more and more of them are being held accountable than ever.
Not so on the right. It’s easy to paint a romantic picture of the past and imagine that once upon a time, the party representing the more conservative, more religious faction of the country used to have a moral litmus test for its representatives. But today’s GOP has stripped away that veneer of white male propriety — which only ever extended to those who shared the same class and racial background.
The conservative worldview has always been animated by the idea of men as sexual predators who need reining-in by the morally temperate, sexually mild and inherently alluring female of the species.
The conservative worldview has always been animated by the idea of men as sexual predators who need reining-in by the morally temperate, sexually mild and inherently alluring female of the species. Women, in this view, are a family’s moral beacon, while men are its public face. That ideology conveniently requires women to stay behind the scenes; if women do subvert their traditional roles, it removes responsibility from men to still behave well.
In our more feminist age, women demand equality, access to power and resources and respect simply for existing as human – not for being helpful wives or doting mothers, but sometimes, even, for challenging men for jobs or money or influence. For conservatives, this breaks the social compact of women as helpmeets and men, once helped, choosing to behave as benevolent patriarchs. Without adherence to that standard, all bets are off. Since women won’t trade subservience for humane treatment, we can apparently kiss humane treatment by men goodbye.
On the left, feminism helps to fill this void with an alternate narrative of men and women, one which posits that men have enjoyed centuries of unearned advantages, and that women deserve access to exactly what men long have, regardless of whether or not we play by some outdated rule book. This narrative is far from universally adopted, even among those on the left — just look at the treatment of the female candidate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary — but it is increasingly ascendant.
There is, though, still a reckoning to be done on the left. Ted Kennedy remains lionized, and he (and all those who enabled him) were never held to account. It would have been better to hold him responsible when he was alive, but perhaps all we have left is the ability to not let his name pass our lips without saying Mary Jo Kopechne’s, too. She, too, showed immense promise. She, too, was intelligent, passionate, and talented. And she, too, never got to become who she could have been, because her existence was snuffed out over the course of 10 hours in an upturned, submerged automobile that had been driven by a nascent presidential hopeful.
Feminist-minded liberals have come a long way from the worldview that enabled Ted Kennedy to turn a terrible crash into a fatal one with his decision to walk away, and still keep his Senate seat. One doesn’t have to stretch too far to imagine that Kennedy weighted his own political future heavier than the life and promise of the bright young political operative trapped in the passenger seat. Watching “Chappaquiddick” today shouldn’t just horrify us; it should make us question how so many people in our country are still stuck half a century behind, and why they have a figurehead in our president.
Jill Filipovic is a journalist and the author of "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness."