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Reflections on #MeToo, From a Founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement
A feminist icon on the persistence required to equalize power in America
“The good news about all this bad news is that more people know.”
— Canadian singer-songwriter and social activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, NPR interview, 9/28/2018
October 15, 2018 marks the one-year anniversary of the #MeToo Movement, when women started sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse on Twitter using the now-famous hashtag.
The surge came on the heels of disclosures in the New York Times of sexual abuse by film producer Harvey Weinstein, and was quickly followed by a succession of outings of influential men forced to step down from positions of power in government, entertainment, and business. Less than a year before that, the Women’s March on Washington was sparked by the election of President Donald Trump, despite the release of a video where he bragged about assaulting women. And now, women are again raising their voices in protest of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, as we did when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas 27 years ago.
What is known as the Me Too Movement has been building since its initiation by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to “help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways for healing.” It’s intent and sweep continues to grow.
Nearly a half century before the #MeToo Movement, in 1968, I initiated the first major action of the newly emerging Women’s Liberation Movement, which took on the so-called ogle but don’t touch Miss America Pageant. We called the pageant a “meat market” for reducing the humanity of women to nothing more than sexual attractiveness.
Sexual harassment and abuse goes back to the United States’ beginnings, as does women’s struggle against it.
The protest was triggered in our group, New York Radical Women, through consciousness-raising, which became a widely-used organizing tool back in the days of face-to-face meetings; this was before Twitter and Facebook made a bare-bones version of the method more instantaneous. We used consciousness-raising to examine our combined experiences as a way to concretely understand how women are oppressed and who was doing the oppressing. We regarded this knowledge as necessary for uniting women and building a strong movement.
Our one basic rule was to tell the truth, and as we did so, “Me too” was ever present in our meetings. We went around the room answering a mutually agreed upon question like, “Have you ever played dumb with men? Why? What happens when you do? What happens when you don’t?” We discovered that what we often considered a personal problem — and often blamed ourselves for — was shared by other women. We weren’t the only ones who played dumb, didn’t have orgasms on demand, had an illegal abortion, got sexually harassed or worse, were never attractive enough no matter what we did, smiled when the situation didn’t warrant it, were expected to fulfill men’s wishes, and so forth. We understood more deeply how we were pressured into these situations and couldn’t successfully overcome them alone. There was no personal solution for a situation created by the powerlessness of women as a class. We would need to act together.
The “appearance issue,” as we called it, was sometimes a topic in those discussions. We talked about how uncomfortable, immobilizing, and expensive we found what we were expected to do to our bodies — like wear high heels, girdles, skirts, hair curlers, smelly home permanents, make-up, and follow diets — to be attractive enough to get or keep a man or a job. We expressed our hatred of being felt up by men on the subway and made the object of sexist comments in the office and on the street.
Later, when someone brought in a film with a brief scene of Miss America Pageant contestants walking the runway in their bathing suits, it came to me that the pageant might be a great protest target to bring the new Women’s Liberation Movement into public consciousness because, like Miss America, no woman escaped being judged and paid a price if found wanting.
On the day of the protest, September 7, 1968, we picketed, passed out leaflets, and talked to bystanders on the Atlantic City boardwalk outside the pageant all afternoon and evening. We threw “items of female torture” — from high heels and girdles to Playboy magazines, dish soap, and floor wax — into a Freedom Trash Can and crowned a live sheep as Miss America. Some women chained themselves to a huge red, white, and blue Miss America caricature. In the evening, I volunteered to be a part of the group that wore dresses, heels, and makeup to enter the pageant. We took our place on the balcony. Just as the outgoing Miss America began her speech, we pulled a sheet with the words “Women’s Liberation” out of a large handbag and tied it onto the balcony and yelled, “Women’s Liberation” and “No More Miss America” before we were hustled out by police. The television cameras didn’t capture the moment, but the next day there was major media coverage and the women’s liberation movement had broken through to the public.
Women have continued to fight back. Some 50 years later, the elevator confrontation of Senator Jeff Flake during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing, where two woman told him — and the whole country — about being sexually assaulted, reminded me of the 1969 women’s liberation disruption of a New York State abortion hearing panel of 14 men and a nun. Some women told the panel — and the media — about their dangerous illegal abortions. They proclaimed, “women are the experts on abortion!” and demanded the repeal of abortion laws. A few months later, the group, by then calling itself Redstockings, held a speak-out in a packed New York church, where women testified about their illegal abortions. Some women spoke with paper bags over their heads because they feared repercussions.
Two years later, in January of 1971, New York Radical Feminists held a speak-out on rape attended by some 300 women, followed by a conference a few months later. Many contended that rape was not really about sexual appetite but about men maintaining power over women. Feminist-run anti-rape centers with crisis hotlines, support groups, and classes in self-defense formed around the country. They also agitated with other feminists to help change rape laws that favored the rapist, and states began passing laws making it illegal for a man to have sex with his wife without her consent.
Sexual harassment and abuse goes back to the United States’ beginnings, as does women’s struggle against it. Invading European explorers and settlers raped Native women, and sometimes men. Native American women continue to experience some of the highest rates of abuse. Slavery, too, saw rampant sexual assault, and women who fought back faced brutal retaliation. In 1855, an enslaved woman in Missouri named Celia killed her “owner” and rapist in self-defense. She was convicted of murder by a jury of white men and was hanged. The earliest cotton mill factory workers, some as young as teenagers, wrote about their sexual abuse in their union newspaper.
In 1975, four women, including Lois Jenson, were hired for the first time to work in a Minnesota iron mine. As shown in the film North Country, the women faced horrific harassment for nine years. Jenson filed a sexual harassment case that became the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the U.S.. The case — and the harassment — dragged on for another decade before it was finally settled, 23 years after Jenson first walked into the mine.
Still today, workplace harassment persists as does the struggle to end it. In 2005, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida’s tomato growing industry developed a plan to pressure the growers to implement a code of conduct that included a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct. Estimates suggest some 80 percent of female farmworkers report some form of sexual violence on the job. A 2016 Hart survey reported more than 40 percent of fast food workers endured sexual harassment to keep their job. A recent strike by McDonald’s workers demanded the corporation institute policies to protect them.
Sexual misconduct rarely makes mass media headlines unless a politician, celebrity, or other famous person is involved. Meanwhile, there are millions of women who go to work each day forced to face what’s awaiting them. Some deal with constant humiliation and fear of an always-lurking escalation of physical abuse.
It takes such persistence to change entrenched power. It’s easy to be discouraged by the Kavanaugh confirmation, but losing a battle is not synonymous with losing a war. The current burst of women’s activism is exposing the treatment that women continue to endure, and how the political system often sacrifices us for its own ends. It’s increased our awareness and our numbers, and can strengthen us for what lies ahead.
It’s tempting to believe that awareness is enough, but it’s not. It is extremely hard for individual women to stand up and fight such great power, even those as amazingly competent as Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. It’s even harder to win. The end of sexual harassment and violence against women requires a mighty feminist movement willing to go beyond hashtags and individual testimony — crucial as both are — to a tenacious and organized force capable of eliminating the power difference between men and women.