The Collective Power of #MeToo

The Collective Power of #MeToo

Now we know the issue that unites women across workplaces is abuse by more powerful men, how do we come up with demands that move beyond naming and shaming?

At the 2018 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. (John M. / Flickr)

You never can tell where a social movement is going to come from. They’re built of a million injustices that pile up and up, and then, suddenly, spill over. I’ve spent years covering movements, trying to explain how one incident becomes the spark that catches, turning all those individual injustices into an inferno.

When the New York Times ran a story about Harvey Weinstein’s repulsive—and long—history of sexual harassment and assault in October last year, no one knew what it would start. But soon a wave of people, most of them, though not all of them, women, began to wield their stories like weapons in a battle that, for once, they seemed to be winning. Well, if not winning, then at least drawing some blood. When #MeToo began to circulate on Facebook I was beyond cynical; I was actually angry that the men around me might be shocked to learn that yes, it had happened to me, it had happened to almost every woman I know. Yet #MeToo defeated my cynicism and became something else: a watershed moment in contemporary feminism, one that has made sexual violence into big news.

Like so many movements that appear spontaneous, the #MeToo moment is built on the work of longtime organizers. Tarana Burke has worked for decades with young women of color who survived sexual violence, and in 2006 she named her campaign “me too” as an expression of solidarity. But when she found the words trending on social media last year she worried that they were being used for something that she did not recognize as her life’s work. Burke’s “me too” campaign was designed to support survivors, to get them resources and help them heal; despite #MeToo hinging on survivor stories, it has, Burke noted in a recent interview, been more focused on outing the actions of perpetrators.

This focus is to some degree a reaction to a system designed to fail survivors of violence and harassment. Under the existing legal system, “justice” for sexual violence requires convincing first the police and then a court of law that what was done to you actually happened, and then that it counts as a crime. In a case of workplace harassment, the situation is similar: the person being harassed must come forward and lodge a complaint with HR (if her company has it) or her boss (if it doesn’t). In the exceedingly likely scenario that the person harassing her is in fact her superior, she likely has no one to report to who does not have every incentive to side with the boss.

This is how we got to the moment when sexual harassment stories are big news. The structures of the legal system and the workplace did not change. Instead, tens of thousands of women said yes, me too. Then, rather than wait for men to absorb that knowledge and decide whether to change or not, they started naming names. And making lists. And talking to each other.

That’s how organizing starts, after all. It starts with people talking about the conditions of their lives, realizing that they are common, and that they want them to change. It starts with enough people joining the conversation that they begin to believe that they can win. And despite the individualizing tendency of the tales of horror flowing through the press, many of those stories became public through organizing work. The whisper network has long been a form of organizing for the powerless, sharing information quietly, person-to-person, even if it often left out exactly the people who were the most vulnerable, those who had the fewest connections. The now-infamous “Shitty Media Men” list, begun by journalist Moira Donegan, turned the whisper network into a spreadsheet, where women could add layers to each report. The crowd-sourced Google document, which collected women’s anonymous stories of more than seventy men in media in the few hours it was live, was designed to collectivize the incomplete information that individuals receive based on their social networks.

I refused to look at the list when I learned of its existence—I still refuse to. Not that I blame anyone for reading to try to protect themselves, or in the case of hiring editors, for trying to learn more about the people working for them. But for me not looking was a tiny refusal of the work that is constantly forced back upon women, the work that the backlash writers—recycling the bad arguments they’ve been making since the 1990s at least—keep demanding that we do. Protect yourself. Yell louder. Stop complaining, you should have known better. Bullshit.

The viral hashtag that spread across social media asked not just about workplace harassment, but sexual assault in general. The discussion surrounding it has been broad and sprawling. But the common denominator has been, as sociology professor Christy Thornton noted, “In our culture, part of what it means to be a powerful man is to have unfettered access to women’s bodies,” or the bodies of others who are less powerful—transgender and queer people, and people of color are especially vulnerable to such sexual violence. The movement’s opponents or even just those made slightly uncomfortable by its breadth keep attempting to narrow its parameters. But the wide scope is the point. The movement is not just about Hollywood, just about the worst of the worst, or even just about the workplace. It is a rejection of a core piece of patriarchal power—and the beginnings of imagining what a society without that power looks like.


It feels to many feminists now, in this second year of Trump, that it is not the time to accept petty reforms and good-enough moments. Why should we compromise, when our opponents refuse to? Things are rotten, and there is a significant number of people who are willing to defend the indefensible as the powerful pass it into law. Against such opponents, who care nothing for our lives, why play nice?

As Charlotte Shane wrote at Splinter in January,

If this past year taught us anything, it was how profoundly every system one might have hoped to improve with mere reform, every institution one might have trusted to “do the right thing,” every politician who’d been positioned as a beacon of integrity, will never come to our rescue. Parity and justice and restitution are not priorities of our existing structures because those structures were designed to maintain hierarchies that make justice and parity and restitution impossible.

One of the things that it has seemed hardest for the opponents or even just the confused sideline-sitters to grasp is that people are not calling for perpetrators to go to jail. Perhaps one of the deepest assumptions of the #MeToo movement is that the society we live in provides us no real options for justice. The court system does not work for survivors and HR is a tool of the boss. The tools we need do not exist yet, so we must build from the ground up.

In fact, the thing I have heard the most from survivors (and we are all survivors, aren’t we, that was the point of saying “me too”) is that they want acknowledgment of what happened. If the perpetrator was in a position of power over them at work, they might want him fired. Since so much of the #MeToo conversation has revolved around workplace harassment and assault, powerful men have faced investigations and even lost jobs. Some of those were prestigious jobs those men assumed they had worked uniquely hard to win, and a perk of which was access to women’s bodies.

Women’s bodies—and women’s work—are considered rewards for proper male behavior. The women themselves aren’t supposed to find this unpleasant. Some men treated women as just another tray of canapés at a party—think of Al Franken’s record of ass-grabbing. Others seemed to glory in the horror they created—Harvey Weinstein, whose story broke the floodgates open, or Matt Lauer and the button he had installed to lock his office door from the inside.

The stories are mostly not about dating, yet the backlashers worry that #MeToo will ruin dating. The men are not going to jail, but the backlashers constantly argue that they should not go to jail. They persist in using legal definitions for what, as Tressie McMillan Cottom noted, is a conversation about norms. “When we require a perfect victimless norm before we will consider the possibility of the improved lives of women,” she wrote, “we are making an affirmative case about our values.”

The norms #MeToo revealed are often called “rape culture,” but I prefer the term “patriarchy” despite, or perhaps because of, its old-fashionedness. I write about systems, and “rape culture” is just a piece of the whole, an answer that seems only to provoke more questions. Rape culture exists to ensure a culture of male dominance, which takes many forms. By naming patriarchy, I hope that we can begin to understand the way the threads of power and dominance leak into every corner of our lives. Then we can see that violations are not purely or even mostly about sex, but instead reinforce a structure that offers power to a few by pretending to offer rewards to many. Patriarchy spreads the lie that there are rules we can follow that will keep us safe—that if we wear the right clothes, say no loudly enough, walk away, don’t laugh at men, work hard, no harm will come to us.

There are not.

Well-intentioned men are now afraid that they have done harm, or that they will be accused of having done what they did not realize was harm. Because even when they are not bosses, when they might have had little tangible power over others, they have had the power of not being required to learn to read the people around them. That, after all, has been women’s job, whether or not it is done for pay.

The reason for telling stories about men we thought were “good” is not to permanently etch their names into some list of “shitty men,” though the lack of real justice means those lists are often all we get. The reason is for us to understand deep in our bones that there are no “good” and “bad” men or “good” and “bad” people. To repair the harms done is going to take change from all of us. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back for not being as bad as Weinstein.

The scariest part of #MeToo is the realization, as Tarana Burke notes, that “more often than not, the reality is we live in the gray areas around sexual violence.” There is a spectrum of abuses of power, some tiny and some huge, that all add up to a world where women’s voices, women’s work, and women’s sexual desires are ignored or devalued. What most of us who’ve told stories want is for that to stop happening. It is a huge demand, perhaps unrealizable in our lifetimes, one that is bigger than any perpetrator outed in the media: It is not a demand for men to go to jail. It is a demand for men to do the work of learning.


What does justice and accountability look like when the perpetrator is your boss?

We asked ourselves that a lot this year, and by this “we,” I mean a specific group of women who worked alongside me at the online news website AlterNet and had been harassed by the organization’s executive director Don Hazen. Because while we—a group of journalists—knew better than most that getting a story published in the media often doesn’t change anything, we realized that if there was going to be a moment to topple an abusive boss, this was it.

And so we organized. We discussed, we planned, and we supported each other. We wondered if our stories were sympathetic enough, because we all knew how the media loves a perfect victim and how commentators will tear you apart if you don’t fit that mold. We verified one another’s stories and we talked, a lot, about what we wanted to happen. We wanted him out of a position of power over others, that was for sure, but what else? What did justice look like? Just having the story told is not justice but it can be wielded, occasionally, as a tool to help get there.

My former coworker Kristen Gwynne told Rebecca Traister, “[e]ven if the people who did target me were punished, I still feel like I deserve some sort of compensation. I don’t want them to release a public apology—I want them to send me a check.”

This comment stuck with me. When famous men are accused, some of them will release a public apology for us to hem and haw over, to try to decide if we can forgive someone with whom our only interaction has been consuming their performance on television. But really, it’s not for me to forgive Louis CK or Kevin Spacey or Aziz Ansari. Such forgiveness would only serve to make me feel better about watching their films or TV shows, as if I could consume anything with clean hands.

Restorative and transformative justice hinges on the notion of community; that accountability can happen within and with the support of the people around us. Yes, famous people feel like they’re part of our community, but they aren’t, not really. And your boss? Most of us didn’t want to repair or restore a relationship with our boss—we wanted him to no longer have power to affect our lives. What we want repaired is the damage to our work. Maybe part of what such restoration looks like, as Gwynne said, is a check.

A flyer from the Wages for Housework movement in the 1970s, on the cover of a new collection, declares “The women of the world are serving notice!” It lists demands for which women want wages, including “every indecent assault.” Such assaults, in this framework, are part of a broader picture of exploitation that assumes that housework is a woman’s role, that they are “naturally” subservient to men, and that sees this exploitation replicated in the paid workplace. The women of the Wages for Housework movement wanted to be able to refuse that work—the flyer says “if we don’t get what we want we will simply refuse to work any longer!”—but they also fought for concrete support in the here and now, for abuses that have happened and are happening. Those assaults in the workplace, then, should be compensated.

The question of wages for assaults can seem strange, like putting a monetary value on violence, but in fact such compensation can take many forms. In the wake of the Movement for Black Lives, the framework of reparations is back in the public consciousness, as a way to try to acknowledge and make up for systematic, rather than individual, oppression. Late in 2017 I sat down with Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore to talk about their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. We discussed their use of the idea of reparations, which Patel described thus: “Reparations are necessarily a collective process that demand revolutionary organizing, jolting the imagination with the historical memory of what happened, the challenge of accountability, and the invitation to dream a society that ceases the crimes on which capitalism is based.” What, he asked, would reparations for patriarchy look like?

Reparations remains a fraught topic in the United States even though campaigns for reparations exist and even succeed. Organizers won reparations for police torture in Chicago—a plan that included not just cash for survivors but also recovery services, counseling, and importantly, that the story would be taught in public schools.

What would such a framework look like for sexual violence? For harassment? How do we come up with demands that move beyond naming and shaming?


Part of the challenge of talking about sexual harassment in the media is that stories are always told based on news value. As a reporter who has covered labor issues for years I can tell you that until recently, stories of sexual harassment at a call center or a restaurant or of home healthcare workers did not garner a lot of attention. It usually took famous perpetrators and photogenic, famous victims for these stories to crack the media.

But something changed this time. It started, I think, with a letter from 700,000 women farmworkers of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, published in Time magazine, that expressed solidarity with the Hollywood women who had come forward. “Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.”

Those women hit on the thing that has been at the core of these seemingly endless revelations: the power of the boss. Sexual harassment is just one of the many tools used to keep women compliant and their labor cheap. It drives women out of prestigious occupations and terrorizes them in subsistence occupations. It doesn’t matter how hard you “lean in” if someone keeps leaning on you. As my former colleague Sarah Seltzer wrote, the problem was never us. “If unadorned sexism, exploitation, and harassment are the biggest problem white-collar women face, then it turns out women across most industries are actually up against some of the same enemies.”

Suddenly it wasn’t about being the perfect victim or being the perfect, upwardly mobile worker. The media rippled with stories of hotel housekeepers, restaurant workers, domestic workers. Women at a Ford plant in Chicago told stories to the New York Times of being called “Fresh meat!” on the shop floor, and of complaints to the union going unheard.

While some unions, like UNITE HERE, have made campaigns against sexual harassment central to their work and connected the dots explicitly to the Weinstein case—Chicago members wore “No Harveys in Chicago” shirts to celebrate the passage of an ordinance granting hotel housekeepers panic buttons to wear on the job—the labor movement itself has not been immune to sexual harassment. High-up officials at SEIU and at the AFL-CIO itself have stepped down after harassment allegations, including the leader of the Fight for $15 campaign in New York, Kendall Fells. “Sexual harassment is a reason women organize,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education Research and a Senior Lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations noted. “But it can be a reason women don’t organize.”

While unions grapple with how to handle this moment, famous women are learning what solidarity looks like. Tarana Burke walked the red carpet at the Golden Globes alongside Michelle Williams; other movie stars brought Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United as their dates.

Five years ago in this magazine I wrote of the problems with feminism’s obsession with cracking glass ceilings and “having it all.” In the year following Hillary Clinton’s second failed attempt at breaking “the biggest glass ceiling,” we have learned that even the women we thought had it all had instead been trapped in their own personal hells. And perhaps, just perhaps, we have learned that feminism will not trickle down from the top.

Rather than advice on how to work harder and get ahead, it seems that the issue that unites women across a broad number of workplaces is being abused by more powerful men. And rather than leading from the top, famous and powerful women are accepting leadership from those at the bottom. They are putting some money where their mouths are, too. The Time’s Up fund, administered by the National Women’s Law Center, began with over $13 million in donations from film stars and aims to provide legal support for those facing harassment. Their launch letter read:

To every woman employed in agriculture who has had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from her boss, every housekeeper who has tried to escape an assaultive guest, every janitor trapped nightly in a building with a predatory supervisor, every waitress grabbed by a customer and expected to take it with a smile, every garment and factory worker forced to trade sexual acts for more shifts, every domestic worker or home health aide forcibly touched by a client, every immigrant woman silenced by the threat of her undocumented status being reported in retaliation for speaking up and to women in every industry who are subjected to indignities and offensive behavior that they are expected to tolerate in order to make a living: We stand with you. We support you.

Of course, the Time’s Up page links to as a trusted partner organization. The progress away from such top-down, work-harder ideology is still incomplete.

Still, it is beginning to feel like a sea change in feminism has come, not from one wealthy woman almost but not quite getting elected president, but rather, from a rippling of anger that spread from woman to woman for a thousand reasons that are at once individual and deeply familiar. It even came from a few men sharing their stories. And it has brought us to this place, where we are talking, finally, about structural barriers—the way sexual harassment and violence shape women’s lives at work and away from it, the way class hierarchies are brutally maintained—in a way that emphasizes the breadth and depth of the problems. Perhaps next we will grapple with the breadth and depth of the change we will need to begin to solve them.

Sarah Jaffe is an editorial board member at Dissent, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).