Jane Latour is a freelance writer and author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City. She lives in New York.
Sat on a wall,
Had a great fall.
All the King’s horses,
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty
British Nursery Rhyme
Currently, men in high places are taking a great fall. In what is almost a daily occurrence, both the UK and the United States are experiencing widespread and highly publicized stories exposing egregious examples of sexual harassment. We see women finally coming forward to share their experiences of being assaulted, degraded and sexually exploited in their work places. In the U.S the phenomenon, now with a power and force all its own, began with Hollywood actresses speaking out about their abuse by the mogul Harvey Weinstein.
Labeled as #MeToo, the movement keeps spreading, and now includes a wide range of industries. Recent disclosures just dislodged Steve Wynn, a billionaire casino magnate, and prominent supporter of President Trump, who fell from his perch after the Wall Street Journal reported allegations about decades of predatory behavior toward his female employees in great and sordid detail. The resistance to President Trump is providing fuel for this moment.
Not since 1991, when Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the workplace behavior of her former boss and then nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, has the topic of sexual harassment so informed the public discourse. So many of the types of questions that beguiled the public and members of the Committee back then are now being dissected and hashed out. Why didn’t Professor Hill come forward before that moment? Why on earth did she maintain her ties to Thomas? And how on earth did this happen at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the nation’s top federal enforcement agency overseeing sexual harassment cases.
Women speaking out about Weinstein, Wynn and numerous other serial harassers, are doing so at a moment when it feels safe to do so. This time, their stories are credible, there’s comfort and strength in numbers, and consequences are being leveled—not, as usually occurs, against the victims, but against the perpetrators.
Despite critics (Fox News right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham calls this “the War Against Men” etc.), the real problem is that, like the children’s game from long ago, Monkeys in a Barrel, all of the issues revealed by the #MeToo moment are intertwined. Pulling up on one connects to the next, and the next, in a sequence ultimately connected to power and the patriarchy.
The disproportionate hold on power in every sphere of society keeps the disturbing status quo in place for one-half of humanity. This power flows from the patriarchal arrangement of society and government whereby men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. The root of the word “patriarchy” derives from the Greek term for “ruling father.” Way back in 1970, when the women’s movement was creating upheavals in social relations, radical feminist and scholar Kate Millet shared this insight: “It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning.” (Sexual Politics)
The early women’s movement began as a collective effort to upend these arrangements. A robust and humanistic brand of feminism was practiced by many adherents, including the National Organization for Women (NOW) at that early stage. This path is evident in the breadth of their demands and the inclusive vision for changing society and oppressive corporate practices as documented in their archival records. Witness, one small sample: a memo written by sociologist and NOW activist Sally Hacker in 1972, which reads in part: “These jobs (a reference to Bell Telephone employees) should be reorganized more humanely, and workers at all levels should have more control over their working conditions. If we are truly working toward a feminist-humanist society, let’s begin to change—not merely get into—some of these powerful and oppressive institutions.”
As the historian Alice Kessler-Harris notes, “The #MeToo movement and, indeed, the women’s marches, both recall that bit of the 1960s-1970s feminism that emphasized collective and shared responsibility for each other, rather than the individual achievement of women, which later became identified as feminist. Perhaps we are getting back to that earlier place, and Trump has helped to push us there.”
What would make the old slogan, “Sisterhood is Powerful,” a reality, and the #MeToo moment a movement is the full-throated inclusion of working-class women in every aspect. If the deeply felt commitment to feminism was shared by women from all ranks of society—STEM professionals, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, factory workers, clericals, blue-collar, pink collar and white-collar women, workers of every stripe—in a cross-class, cross-generational, multi-racial embrace of the cause of gender equity.
The “third wave” of feminism failed to reach deep into the ranks of working-class women. Today we have an opportunity to try, try again. Let us not falter. We have only to remember the old, working-class slogan of solidarity: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”