What will the next year of #MeToo bring?

October 23, 2018

In just one year’s time, the #MeToo moment has had a lasting impact on U.S. society. Elizabeth Schulte considers where the struggle against sexual violence will go next.

IT’S ONE year since the #MeToo movement began — and we’re still feeling the impact of survivors of sexual assault stepping forward and finally having their long-silenced voices heard.

From Hollywood actors shining a light on some rich and powerful abusers, to McDonald’s workers coming together for a one-day-strike, to the thousands who took the streets to oppose Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, survivors have found their voice, supporters of women’s rights have seen their power in numbers — and we’ve also learned how far we still need to go.

For all the people who sat glued to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford described Kavanaugh’s assault — and then saw Kavanaugh’s defiant response — there could be no question that we have a fight on our hands.

Donald Trump — himself accused of sexual misconduct by at least 19 women — made it clear what he thought about the accusations against Kavanaugh when he mocked Blasey Ford’s testimony at a campaign stop.

Protesters take to the streets of Los Angeles on International Women’s Day
Protesters take to the streets of Los Angeles on International Women’s Day (Molly Adams | flickr)

He later declared: “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of...What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.”

Campaigns for conservatives running in the midterm elections are echoing Trump’s message. One Republican ad portrayed Blasey Ford’s testimony as: “The liberal mob: pushing their extreme views, trying to hijack our democracy and steal seats on the United States Supreme Court. Despicable lies. Disgusting character assassination. A new low, even for them, falsely accusing an innocent person of being a sexual predator.”

In other words, the right wing sees Kavanaugh’s nomination not as an ugly page in the already ugly history of Republican Supreme Court nominees, but a rallying cry for their side — and they’re using the example to fuel sexism among their supporters.

This is about more than winning elections. The right is trying to push back the #MeToo movement and the survivors who have stood up to be heard — and counted in the streets, too, this year.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS and actions against Kavanaugh’s nomination this fall represented the largest expression of #MeToo in the form of protest so far — much of it organized from the bottom up.

Demonstrators took on lawmakers in Senate elevators and on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, as well as occupying their senator’s local offices, as protesters did at the West Virginia offices of Democrat Joe Manchin. A day of action on October 4 turned out thousands of demonstrators for walkouts and marches in several cities.

These actions didn’t turn back Kavanaugh’s nomination, but they did show the potential for #MeToo in the streets and the seeds of the kind of movement for women’s rights that we’ve needed for a long time.

In this way, something that originally drew national attention with the stories of a handful of Hollywood actors has become more than that.

What was originally written off by some — on the right and on the left — as the concerns of a few celebrities has turned into a mass social awakening, as many more survivors of sexual assault and harassment added their voices to the hashtag #MeToo.

Not only women, but also LGBTQ survivors — particularly transgender survivors who are disproportionately the target of abuse — and men raised their stories and breathed more life into a hashtag created more than a decade before by Tarana Burke, a Black survivor of sexual assault and lifelong advocate for young abuse victims.

The sexual abuse and harassment faced by working-class women found a platform that it didn’t have before.

Renowned Hollywood actors helped get these voices heard by appearing at the Oscars with working-class survivors of sexual assault beside them and creating the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to help low-wage workers with cases against their employers.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, $22 million has been raised and 50 cases are underway. Some 40 percent of those seeking assistance are women of color, and 65 percent are low-income.

Working-class women had been organizing against sexual abuse in their workplaces before #MeToo became a phenomenon, but their examples will now have a greater hearing.

Before #MeToo, Chicago hotel workers represented by their union, UNITE HERE, proposed an ordinance requiring that hotels provide housekeeping staff, who often faced dangerous situations alone in rooms with guests, with panic buttons. The ordinance passed the City Council a year ago.

In fighting for better conditions in the fields for Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes used by big fast-food companies like Taco Bell and Wendy’s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has long raised the issue of rampant sexual harassment alongside fair wages and dignity on the job.

As part of its Fair Food Program established in 2011, workers have demanded that companies sign onto a labor agreement that meets farmworkers’ demands for an end to violence, coercion, slavery and sexual assault. This agreement includes a 24-hour hotline monitored by an independent council — with the idea that workers monitor their own right to work in an abuse-free environment.

#MeToo also helped women workers to show all of us how to fight sexual harassment and abuse on the job.

In September, McDonald’s workers organized the first strike against sexual harassment in the #MeToo era.

The campaign began in 2016 when the Fight for 15 initiative published reports of widespread abuse at the fast-food giant. In May of this year, workers filed 10 complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Women workers then formed committees at dozens of McDonald’s, where they voted to approve coordinated walkouts and protests.

THE YEAR of #MeToo has shown how a spark can be fanned into a wildfire. But it also underlines how far we have to go to keep the fire burning.

There is still much organizing to do to pose the kind of challenge we need to take on Trump, Kavanaugh and all the workplace abusers.

Some of this organizing will take place in individual workplaces and schools — following the lead of the women organizing in low-wage workplaces and those who challenged college administrations turning a blind eye to abuse on college campuses.

Already, there is evidence of the impact that #MeToo has had on ordinary people’s lives, as women and men re-examine sexual relationships, how they should be treated, and how they should treat others.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that its National Sexual Assault Hotline experienced a 30 percent increase in calls since #MeToo began last year. The day after Blasey Ford’s testimony was its busiest day in its 24-year history.

People are speaking out about their cases of sexual assault — and finally being heard — but they are also examining what it would mean to have a society in which women are treated with dignity. That requires men and women questioning some of the ways they have been socialized in our society, and also how relationships are shaped by the inequality between men and women.

Publications like the New York Times and many others have published accounts by men who regret what they’ve done in the past — some of whom came to understand what they did in the wake of #MeToo.

AT THE same time, there has been pushback. A lot of it comes from the right, which wants to paint #MeToo as an attack on all men. But plenty come from people who otherwise consider themselves progressive, but oppose #MeToo because it might identify men they support.

That was the case with Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

When Franken was accused of committing sexual harassment, some Democratic women came to his defense, claiming that #MeToo constituted a “moral panic,” and that women would lose much more if Franken — who never even apologized for what he had done — weren’t in office.

Liberal Harper’s magazine gave former NPR commentator John Hockenberry, who lost his job over charges of sexual misconduct, an almost 7,000-word space to opine about his firing from public radio and mourn the loss of “romance” in the #MeToo era, among other things.

Some on the left put forward criticisms of #MeToo that sadly came close to what the right had to say. One publication compared the movement to the anti-communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.

The early criticism that #MeToo flouted due process ignored the reality that for women, there was never any due process to begin with.

The power of #MeToo wasn’t that every man was now under suspicion of sexual assault, as some conservative and liberal commentators claimed, but that women who had been abused could finally be heard.

Women finally gained the confidence to speak out — and in the process, some powerful predators were taken down. But something even more important happened — a system of protections far more powerful than those individuals was also exposed.

When brave women came forward, we learned about deeply entrenched mechanisms that sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug for rich and powerful serial predators like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

In Washington, D.C., #MeToo exposed the hoops that women working on Capitol Hill had to jump through to report sexual harassment. The strict deadlines on complaints, confidentiality agreements and the rest had led many women to drop complaints before they were even taken up.

For women at work, #MeToo exposed how few resources were available to those who wanted to make a complaint or escape harassment and abuse on the job — and in some examples, how their unions let them down, as was the case with Ford workers in Chicago who faced years of abuse.

SOCIALIST POLITICS has a lot to offer a new movement against sexual assault and for women’s liberation.

An analysis that shows how women’s oppression is fundamental to the continued exploitation of all workers under capitalism — and that argues the fight for women’s liberation should be every workers’ fight — would go a long way toward making our movement strong, and making the socialist movement stronger to boot.

A socialist understanding of the role of the state and the systematic criminalization of Black and Brown communities also shapes the kinds of solutions we put forth.

A system of police, laws, courts and justices which target the poor and working class, particularly people of color, can’t possibly be expected to provide justice for sexual assault survivors, especially those who are poor, working class and people of color.

We should put forward solutions that challenge the conditions which leave women isolated or powerless in the face of abuse or harassment — and make connections with the fight for women’s equality in general, like equal pay, affordable housing and access to health care, including reproductive rights.

This kind of organizing recognizes the limitations of individual complaints pursued through the “proper channels” — and focuses on the way women can build networks and organize collectively against harassment at work.

There is still much more to be discussed, debated and organized in the coming months.

The pressure is on for those who opposed Kavanaugh in September and October to vote for the Democrats in November. The Democratic Party wants the legacy of the #MeToo movement to be its victory in the midterm elections.

But the lessons of the anti-Kavanaugh fight isn’t the importance of electing Democrats in November. It’s building a movement large enough and strong enough to convince Democrats and Republicans that they have no other choice but to do the right thing. They don’t feel that pressure now. Why will they after November, unless we organize to make them feel it?

The lesson of the #MeToo struggle is that we have to wage our own fight — and when we do, we’re a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Further Reading

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