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Pots & pans: From Sally Hemings to Jane Doe, ‘throwaway’ women demand their places in history and in court

Accusations against Pete Rose show a view of women that is toxic

In the wake of allegations that decades ago Pete Rose had sex with an underage girl, this week’s planned celebration of Rose by the Philadelphia Phillies, his team from 1979 through 1983, has been shelved.

Thus, Rose becomes the latest male celebrity to have his past tainted and his future shrouded by allegations of sexual abuse. Rose was barred from participating in major league baseball because he gambled on the game while managing the Cincinnati Reds, and the sex scandal puts another bolt on the door that stands between Rose and baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Of course, Rose, major league baseball’s all-time career hits leader, denies doing anything criminal. He says his accuser was 16, or that he thought she was 16, and at the age of consent in Ohio when the teenager and the then-married Cincinnati Reds star began their sexual relationship. I don’t seek to convict Rose of a crime. He deserves a full exploration of the events that prompted the allegations, just as does his accuser, who has been identified only as Jane Doe.

Whatever happens with the allegations against Rose, or Bill Cosby or any number of men accused of abusing women, the significance of privileged men being accused of abusing women can’t be denied.

For too long we’ve focused upon what sex scandals would mean to the accused men, their careers, reputations and legacies. But when we change our focus, we see that when men stand accused of abusing women it underscores grudging changes in our society. After all, powerful, prominent and popular men have always been able to sexually exploit and abuse women without fear of being held accountable for their actions: It’s not the abuse but the potential consequences that are new.

Indeed, from Sally Hemings to Jane Doe, our society continues to struggle with women maintaining sovereignty over their bodies.

For decades, Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s slave and nothing more, at least outside her family. Family stories about her relationship with Jefferson, America’s third president, were just tall tales about one of the nation’s most towering figures.

But today, the family stands vindicated as academic inquiry and DNA evidence have built a consensus that Jefferson probably fathered Hemings’ children.

Now a woman seeks to hold Rose accountable for a relationship that began when she was a teenager and he was a married baseball star twice her age. A few months here and there could add up to the difference between Rose having done something criminal and exploitative in the 1970s and his doing something merely exploitative.

But no matter how old his teenage lover was, Rose behaved like a man who sought to use a young woman and then ball her up and throw her away. The inconvenient truth for Rose and for others of his generation and ilk is that there are no disposable women. Indeed, the notion of disposable women is toxic and unsustainable and must not be recycled.

Women will have sovereignty over their bodies. They will say yes or no, when and how, and with whom. And men who can’t understand or respect that could find themselves in a world of hurt, as they should.

As women assert sovereignty over their bodies and control of their futures, they will be met with opposition from the bedroom to the boardroom.

But if American society is to climb toward higher ground, women must walk beside men, and sometimes take the lead, just as the nation’s female athletes did during the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Since its beginnings, America has been defined by white men. Its history has been framed and interpreted through what white men said or did, thought or imagined. But it is likely that 21st-century America will be significantly defined by the actions and decisions that women of all races make for themselves, the nation and the world.

One of the telling decisions modern American women have made is that they will not be defined by the tastes and whims of men. They will not be disposable. Instead, old notions about the value of women and the men who hold them will be.

Somewhere, a teenage Sally Hemings, with her life and body her own, says no to Thomas Jefferson, and, broom in hand, chases him away.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.