Speaking truth in a world that silences women

It takes courage to speak out against sexual harassment when society urges women to shut up--and that means a lot for the struggle for liberation, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

Survivors and solidarity activists rally against sexual violence in Boston, Massachusetts (Chase Carter | flickr)Survivors and solidarity activists rally against sexual violence in Boston, Massachusetts (Chase Carter | flickr)

LIARS.

That's the White House "position" on the 12 women who have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump.

When CBS News correspondent Jacqueline Alemany asked, "Is the official White House position that all of these women are lying?" Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, "Yeah, we've been clear on that from the beginning, and the president's spoken on it."

The press conference took place on October 27, less than two weeks after the New York Times, and then multiple media outlets, reported on dozens of women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Since then, women from all over the world have told their own stories of abuse and harassment in response to the #MeToo campaign on social media. Those speaking up have included celebrities abused by the likes of Weinstein and former President George Bush Sr., but also millions of women whose stories would otherwise be unknown.

#MeToo has also become a place for LGBTQ survivors of sexual violence to shine a light on the abuse they face in the shadows.

Despite all this, a familiar criticism is being heard about #MeToo--that all these stories won't do anything constructive.

Some of the criticism comes from pretty questionable sources--like National Review columnist Heather Wilhelm who claimed #MeToo encourages us to "cast stones at all men."

For others--and here I mean people who actually take sexism seriously--the criticism is that women telling their personal stories of sexual assault is neither a movement nor the way to win a world where abuse doesn't take place.

For some, this criticism reflects understandable impatience with the fact that women even have to talk about this today--to bear witness to the reality of sexual harassment and assault--decades after the women's liberation movement.

Undeniably, it is frustrating that this fight has to be waged at all. But that can't mean that the millions of women speaking out about their personal experiences are dismissed or relegated to a place of any less importance than they deserve.

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FIRST, IT was important for women to simply break the silence--because silence has played a leading role in the story of sexual abuse and harassment, not just on the part of serial offenders like Weinstein, but in a systemic way that affects a broad layer of women.

It's easy to marginalize women who dare to speak out. Trump has done it in the most direct way, by calling the accusations against him "fake news." But in workplaces around the country, women are being told to shut up in other ways--speaking out could mean that they would get fired, for one.

When the New York Times interviewed women working in the offices of the California state government, they said there were "pages and pages of rules on how the system is supposed to work"--but women didn't use trust or use them because "their attempts to seek redress can sometimes backfire and result in them being fired or shunned."

"Retaliation can come in the form of intimidation, public trashing or being blacklisted," 28-year-old Naveen Habib, who has been employed in government and lobbying in Sacramento since graduating college, told the Times. "Your career is effectively over because you snitched."

When women file complaints, the Times reported, "many harassment cases disappear into the court system, where the outcomes are often sealed as women sign nondisclosure agreements." This was exactly the same experience for serial abusers like Weinstein or Bill O'Reilly at Fox News, where the company protected the criminals by forcing women to agree not to say anything about their abuse.

In other words, even after a woman has stepped forward, she is silenced again during the process of seeking "justice."

And remember, the Times story was about what women endured in the offices of a state government--and a famously liberal state to boot. Conditions in the workplaces of private employers are even worse.

A June 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study of workplace harassment reported that 90 percent of workers who say they have experienced harassment never take formal action. The most common workplace response is to "avoid the harasser" (33 percent to 75 percent); deny or downplay the gravity of the situation (54 percent to 73 percent); or attempt to ignore, forget or endure the behavior (44 percent to 70 percent).

"The fears that stop most employees from reporting harassment are well-founded," the EEOC report states. "One 2003 study found that 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation."

This should tell us that the act of speaking out--and actually being heard--is not only courageous, but an act of defiance against the status quo.

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DURING THE early years of the women's movement of the 1970s, the idea that the "personal is political" was a way for women to take the examples of sexism and discrimination they faced in their personal lives--sexual assault, illegal abortion, domestic violence, discrimination and harassment at work--and give it a vocal political expression.

In this way, the burdens that women faced as individuals in isolation were linked with the experiences of others--and generalized so that they could be seen as part of systematic sexism in U.S. society at large.

As they shared experiences, many women also arrived at collective solutions to the problems that were too often viewed as "personal." For example, when a New York legislative committee refused to hear the testimony of numerous women during a hearing on abortion laws in 1969--the only testimony being presented was that of 14 men and a nun--women organized a speak-out where they talked about their experiences obtaining illegal abortions.

Actions like these were repeated across the country, and the stories of women seeking to terminate their pregnancies under the often deadly conditions of illegality were brought out into the open.

In turn, the movement for women's rights, fortified by other movements for liberation, helped draw public attention to women's oppression in every corner of society, including the workplace.

Women who worked in "pink-collar" jobs and endured low pay, disrespect on the job and the threat on retaliation began speaking out about the harassment they faced.

In 1975, a group calling itself Working Women United organized a speak-out against sexual harassment at Cornell University, leafleting for it around campus and at Ithaca's two major factories, as well as local businesses. Women spoke publicly about sexual harassment on the job. The action led to an article in the New York Times and more actions by women in other workplaces.

An organizer recalls receiving an envelope containing a $20 bill with the message: "To help with the fight against sexual harassment. I can't sign my name."

Events like these that broke the silence helped create the conditions where women could see the possibility of confronting harassment in their own workplaces.

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AS THE women's movement subsided and receded after the 1970s, the idea that "the personal is political" underwent a transformation. It became the slogan of a politics that emphasized individual and personal actions to combat systemic sexism--as well as the idea that people who didn't personally suffer from oppression wouldn't fight against it.

As Megan Behrent wrote in the International Socialist Review:

At its best...the idea that the "personal is political" transformed consciousness by insisting on the need to understand the social, economic, cultural and political oppression of women as the basis for all "personal" problems that afflicted individual women.

At its most extreme, however, it could also lead to a rigid understanding of feminism that insisted that no person could fight a form of oppression he or she did not personally experience. In its later years, as the feminist movement itself collapsed amid myriad internal divisions, increasingly "the personal is political" came to represent an ideology that consciously advocated for individual or personal change as a solution to collective problems.

Three years ago, Emma Sulkowicz told her personal story of sexual assault as a freshman at Columbia University, and the administration's foot-dragging on her case, by carrying the mattress on which she had been assaulted throughout the year.

She "carried the weight" of that rape--and an administration that did nothing for her--until the day she graduated. But in so doing, she opened up a space for others to tell their stories and stand in solidarity with all survivors.

Contrary to the media's conventional wisdom, sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination are alive and well decades after the height of the women's movement. This is a fact that can no longer be swept under the rug.

A lot of organizing has to be done beyond #MeToo to begin confronting sexual harassment, pushing back on the attacks on Title IX and challenging the many forms women's oppression takes in U.S. society.

But the fact that women are breaking the silence is an important development, especially since there are so many forces working to shut us up--from employers to college administrations, to the police and courts, to the president of the United States.