In September Christine Blasey Ford bravely and matter-of-factly testified before a senate hearing about her accusation of attempted sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The next day president Donald Trump, at a rally, mocked Blasey Ford and bemoaned that “A man’s life is shattered”. He said of her and her supporters, “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”
The whole case, which of course ended with Kavanaugh being confirmed as a member of the Supreme Court despite the credibility of Blasey Ford’s accusation, was a grotesque — and surely calculated — fuck you to the #MeToo movement as it approached its first anniversary.
It was in October 2017, following the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, that the hashtag #MeToo began to take off. The actor Alyssa Milano prompted its popularisation, suggesting that if people used it to talk about their own experiences it might show something of the “magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault in our society”.
#MeToo has undoubtedly continued to shape the politics of this year, but what does it mean and what has it achieved? Is it a “movement” or merely a “moment”? What are its aims and who are its actors? How does it fit into the wider question of women’s oppression and liberation in the 21st century?
First, it is worth looking at how #MeToo has been defined.
The phrase had actually been in use for over a decade, coined by African American activist Tarana Burke in 2006, as part of her work with black girls who had survived sexual assault. For her the phrase represented a way to bring “empowerment through empathy”.
For Milano — and probably for most casual observers — it is quite simply a means to expose the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse. The Fawcett Society in a recent survey on the effects of #MeToo certainly defines it thus — an awareness-raising tool.
Others have focused on its specific form on social media, calling it a “decentralised campaign against gender-based violence” or “a collective reckoning” (The New Yorker). The ease of getting involved by using the hashtag on Twitter and other platforms means that millions of people around the globe have taken part. And numerous international versions have emerged — from #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) in France to #QuellaVoltaChe (that time) in Italy to #YoTambien (me too) in Spanish-speaking countries.
The experience of sexual assault and harassment in the film industry has been a focus, with women in Hollywood launching Time’s Up, an organisation which defines its aim as “ending sexual harassment in the industry”.
And of course it’s not only supporters of #MeToo that have an opinion. Trump’s former adviser and leading alt-right figure Steve Bannon has defined #MeToo as an “anti-patriarchy movement” that is “going to undo ten thousand years of recorded history”.
So, between raising awareness and ending ten millennia of women’s oppression, what has #MeToo achieved so far?
In the first instance, a few individual high profile men have had to face consequences for their behaviour. Bill Cosby is in prison; Harvey Weinstein is awaiting trial; several actors including Kevin Spacey and Jeffrey Tambor have been sacked from prominent roles after allegations of inappropriate behaviour and worse; comedian Louis CK disappeared for a few months after admitting to masturbating at women without their consent, though he is now back on the stand-up circuit.
The latest “casualty” is Sir Philip Green, boss of the Arcadia Group of fashion chain stores including Topshop, who was revealed in October as the “prominent British businessman” who had been stifling reports of multiple harassment and bullying complaints against him using a gagging order against the press.
#MeToo has certainly shone a light onto the issue of workplace sexual harassment and bullying. Time’s Up has raised millions of dollars in legal funds to help take up cases of sexual harassment, assault, inappropriate behaviour and bullying in the entertainment industry. There are branches beyond Hollywood, including in the UK. The second focus of the campaign is to help industry bodies come up with new and improved guidelines on tackling workplace harassment and ensuring a safe environment for everyone on set.
So the Producers Guild of America has drawn up guidelines to tackle sexual harassment, including training for cast and crew. The first production to adopt the plan is Wonder Woman 1984, the sequel to 2017’s DC blockbuster. Similarly, the UK actors’ union Equity set up a working group, which among other things has called for anti-harassment clauses in actors’ contracts.
The organisation also puts a lot of emphasis on the lack of women in boardrooms and in prominent roles in the industry.
Awareness has gone far beyond the entertainment industry. #MeToo has led people everywhere to think again about their own behaviour and others’. A survey published in October by the Fawcett Society, a UK based feminist campaign group, confirmed this.
Shift in attitudes
The research, titled “#MeToo one year on — what’s changed?” found a fairly high level of awareness and, perhaps more importantly, a shift in attitudes because of the movement.
Some 36 percent of those surveyed — the same proportion for men and women — had heard of #MeToo and knew what it was about. A similar proportion (38 percent) agreed that they had “thought differently about what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable” over the last year. And over half of people felt that #MeToo had actually shifted social norms about what people think is and isn’t acceptable in the past 12 months.
Over a third (35 percent), rising to over half of 18-34 year olds, said that in the last year they have been “more likely to challenge behaviour or comments I think are inappropriate”..
This is no insignificant shift and is a victory in itself if it means that people, and especially young people, are more confident to stand up to sexism.
It is also clear that, as well as general awareness there has been a shift in many institutions and workplaces which have introduced training sessions, or updated their protocols for handling complaints.
However, awareness isn’t the same as action, and even institutional and cultural changes can be mere box-ticking exercises if not taken seriously and put into practice. The film director Carol Morley has said that the main difference she’s noticed since #MeToo is that she now gets emails from random producers who think that being able to attach a woman director’s name to their project will help get it made.
Recent reports on levels of sexual harassment and bullying in Whitehall and the House of Commons inspire little confidence that the institutions at the top of our society are able to handle complaints adequately. A report in the Guardian on 12 November claimed that there had been 551 complaints to government departments and other publicly funded bodies over the past three years of bullying and sexual harassment, but that only a very small proportion had been investigated at all.
Similarly, Dame Laura Cox’s report into bullying and harassment in the House of Commons found a “tradition of deference and silence” which tended to smother complaints of abusive conduct.
And while it’s all very well for groups such as Time’s Up to raise funds for legal challenges, the fact that the number of law centres in the UK has halved in the past ten years puts real limits on people’s access to advice.
Over a period of months, the rolling out of the #MeToo movement made its effects felt in those sectors of the economy where workers, and especially women, have been fighting against harassment for years — hospitality, the food industry, shop workers.
As the Allianza Nacional de Campesinas (national women farmworkers’ alliance) in the US said, in a statement of solidarity with the #MeToo movement, “We wish we could say we’re shocked to learn this is such a pervasive problem in your industry [film]. Sadly we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know too well.” There has long been an awareness among women working in poor conditions of what constitutes harassment and assault, but they don’t feel this is backed up by the law — employers don’t think they will be held accountable and so they continue to behave badly and largely get away with it.
And it’s not just sexism that these workers face — they also experience the racism that is particularly directed at migrant workers and Latinas
The fast food industry is notorious for harassment and bullying, partly because low paid workers don’t have the financial cushion to allow them to change jobs if they get fired for raising a complaint against a manager (which often happens — or their hours are cut so much that they can’t afford to live and have to look for another job). Secondly, workers in customer facing jobs, particularly ones relying on tips, can face harassment from customers which employers then deny responsibility for. Thirdly, the common practice of franchising out branches of chain restaurants gives the company another way out of taking responsibility for workers employed by franchisees.
This was at the heart of the McDonald’s walkouts across ten states in the US in September — in what has been called the first #MeToo strike. Workers in branches of McDonald’s in St Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Orlando, Chicago, Detroit, Durham and Kansas City walked out for a day after complaints they had filed earlier in the year over harassment were not taken seriously. One slogan was “McDonald’s, Hands Off My Buns”.
As one worker put it, McDonald’s monitors absolutely everything they do, from how long it takes to fry the food to how long they spend in the toilet, but when they put in a complaint against their shift manager, McDonald’s had no response.
The company tries to claim that it has no control over the franchisees who run 90 percent of its branches. This is despite a ruling by the National Labour Relations Board in 2016 that McDonald’s could be held responsible for what happens in their branches. (Trump has attempted to get this ruling rescinded but has not yet succeeded…)
The demands of the strike included enforcing the company’s stated zero-tolerance policy on harassment, improving training for staff and managers, creating a simple system for handling complaints, protecting workers from retaliation and convening a committee of employees, executives and representatives of women’s groups to come up with new policies.
The McDonald’s workers are talking about taking further action, but as yet they have no union organisation — though they have been supported by campaigns such as Fight for $15.
‘Hands off, pants on’
Similar issues have been raised by hotel housekeepers, most notably in Chicago, where unionised workers campaigned for and won the “Hands off, pants on” ordinance, passed by Chicago City Council in October 2017, which came into effect in the summer of 2018. The ordinance is a set of enforceable guidelines which require hotel management to provide a panic button for hotel employees who have to go into rooms alone; to develop, maintain and enforce an anti-sexual harassment policy; and to prohibit hotel employers from retaliation against staff who make complaints of sexual harassment.
One of the Fawcett Society’s campaign points deals with a similar issue in Britain. As part of David Cameron’s “bonfire of red tape” the Tory government in 2013 abolished section 40 of the Equality Act 2010. Section 40 made employers liable for harassment of their staff from third parties such as customers or clients, for example in the food, hospitality or retail sectors, if they didn’t take reasonable action against it.
The issue gained publicity in January this year, when the notorious Presidents Club Dinner was exposed by the Financial Times as a drunken swamp of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour from top executives, Tories and Lords. The companies employing the unfortunate waitresses (including the undercover FT journalist) claimed they were not responsible for the behaviour of clients.
Surely one of the most spectacular #MeToo inspired actions has been the walkout by thousands of Google workers across the world on 1 November. Directly taking a lead from the McDonald’s strike, 20,000 workers walked out of Google offices from Dublin to London, Singapore, Hyderabad, Berlin, Zurich, New York, Chicago and Seattle. The whole action was organised in three days.
The walkout followed an article in the New York Times exposing how Google had protected three executives, including Android creator Andy Rubin, despite accusations of sexual misconduct. Google eventually asked for Rubin’s resignation, but it still gave him a $90 million golden handshake and has invested millions in his new venture since leaving Google, as well as keeping quiet about the reasons for his departure.
This was the tip of the iceberg as far as Google workers were concerned. Their demands concerned tackling systemic sexism and racism in treatment of staff, as well as a history of pay discrimination and the unequal treatment of contract workers.
The organisers have since said that while Google did address one or two issues specifically relating to handling of sexual harassment claims, they hadn’t responded to their list of five demands, and particularly to the wider questions of discrimination and so the response is entirely inadequate.
So what does all this tell us about the current state of women’s liberation?
Firstly, it tells us that time isn’t naturally progressive. Victories can be won — and they can be challenged. In a recent article in the New Yorker Jia Tolentino quotes the seminal 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, by journalist Susan Faludi. Faludi writes that the anti-feminist backlash is “set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it. It is a pre-emptive strike that stops women long before they reach the finish line.”
The backlash represented by Trump, now joined by Bolsonaro in Brazil, is precisely, in part, a response to the very real changes in women’s lives in the past four decades or so, many a result of battles fought.
It is interesting to return to Faludi’s book, particularly the 2006 edition that I have. In her preface, written 15 years after the book was first published, Faludi summarises events since 1991. She notes that in 1992 a new women’s movement exploded onto the streets of America, partly driven by the anger at the public humiliation of Anita Hill in a Senate hearing somewhat similar to the Kavanaugh case. A huge pro-choice march took place in Washington, and many women went on to stand in elections, doubling the number of women in the House and the Senate (though numbers were extremely low to begin with).
The result of this injection of women into particularly the Democratic Party was to help get Bill Clinton elected president, replacing Republican George Bush Sr. The discussions generated by #MeToo have led to much reassessing of the subsequent sexual harassment and misconduct accusations against Clinton, which eventually led to his downfall. But even if it were possible to set aside his particular behaviour, the idea that channelling the women’s movement into the Democratic Party is the way to go has to be questioned.
And there is a danger of that happening today. There has rightly been much fanfare about the record number of women candidates who won seats in the House in last month’s midterms. But changes at the top don’t guarantee anything for the millions of women and men struggling at the bottom.
Women are now a permanent part of the workforce and they are engaging in the deep, structural problems of how we produce things in our society, how we feed, clothe, house, educate and transport the workers who do that production — and how we do all of that in an era of economic crisis and austerity.
Faludi’s 2006 preface reminds us that for a period from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s women were told we had it all and must do it all — work, raise a family, look sexy, learn to pole dance, be empowered by our purchasing power.
The past ten years has seen a very different narrative. This has been a time of welfare cuts and stagnating pay, all of which have disproportionately affected women. Almost three quarters of those affected by the public sector pay freeze in Britain were women, and the changes in the benefits system will also hit women hardest.
With the move to universal credit single parents — 90 percent of whom are women — are expected to lose an average of £2,380 per year. Where two parents are present universal credit actually incentivises single-earner “breadwinner” households, which is likely to mean more women not working even when they want to. There is a very real social conservatism that goes hand-in-hand with neoliberal economic policies.
The new movements that have arisen —whether the slutwalks of 2011, the huge pro-choice campaigns in Ireland and elsewhere, or the Women’s Marches of the past two years — have all in different ways challenged this attempt to turn the clock back.
The #MeToo movement, with its focus on workplace relations, keys into the areas where women can be at their strongest — and where they can and must win men to fight alongside them. The struggles at Google and McDonald’s, as well as the majority women strikes in Glasgow council for equal pay and among Birmingham care workers, all contribute to our understanding of how to fight. This is a very hopeful moment, full of potential.
The real test will be whether this movement continues to develop and strengthen through those links with the organised working class, new and old, in order to bring about meaningful and lasting change. If not, it runs the risk of fading out.
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