By, Julie Wilson
The adults in your life probably set rules for you before you were old enough to understand their purpose. Don’t walk through the park to get to the T, take the long way with the street lights. Don’t go out at night. Stick with a friend. Don’t make eye contact with men on the street. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t take take public transportation after dark. Cover yourself– you don’t want to extend any invitations. But as you grew up, you learned why these initially arbitrary rules were put in place. It was not until you yourself had experienced the genuine fear and discomfort of a cat-call, a persistent demand for your name and number, or simply a casual once-over on the train, that you understood the reality of sexual harassment. And those rules, which had seemed so random, soon governed every aspect of your life.
On October 15th, 2017, actress and activist Alyssa Milano posted a tweet that would not only trend in 85 countries but would also spark serious discussion of sexual harassment and assault among people of all backgrounds and genders. She wrote, “Suggested by a friend: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.’ If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
The tweet came in the wake of allegations that Harvey Weinstein, a film producer and the creator of the Weinstein Company, had sexually harassed, assaulted, and/or raped over seventy women over the course of his career. After the first allegations were reported in an article for The New York Times, Weinstein was fired from his own company and his membership in The Academy of Motion Pictures was terminated. As the allegations against Weinstein continued to build, the scope of the sexual assault discussion began to broaden from the Weinstein scandal to “everyday” instances of assault, as evidenced by the popularization of the hashtag #MeToo. Millions of people, including celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Reese Witherspoon, used the hashtag on Twitter and Facebook alike. The hashtag’s popularity also led to the discussion of sexual assault in politics– several female political figures, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, have spoken about their personal experiences of sexual assault. By now, it is apparent that the hashtag did its intended job, especially when one considers that the number of women sharing their assault stories on social media is a mere fraction of the women who have been sexually assaulted– “the magnitude of the problem” is clear. “It’s also important to remember that the #MeToo campaign isn’t new, but has always been and continues to be a way for survivors to raise awareness and grow community,” says Lia K. ‘19. Although this purpose seems unique today, it harkens back to the efforts of women in the late 1960s to make each other aware that the problems they thought were personal were actually political.
During second-wave feminism, a 1960s movement in the United States, women’s liberation groups began to form across the country, one of which was New York Radical Women. In 1967, members of New York Radical Women began meeting in small groups to share their personal experiences of oppression. By listening to others’ stories, the women in the groups realized that they were not alone in their experiences. As Anne Forer, one of the original members of New York Radical Women, said, “[We] needed to hear it to raise [our] own consciousness.” Over the next year, the idea of consciousness-raising spread across women’s liberation groups in New York. Consciousness-raising groups held meetings once a week in one of the group members’ living rooms, and would have little to no structure aside from an initial question to spark discussion. This casual setting not only allowed women to feel as though they were in a comfortable space, but it also allowed consciousness-raising groups to be formed anywhere and at any time. In fact, by 1971, thousands of small consciousness-raising groups were present in cities and towns across the United States.
“One of the impediments to social change for women historically has been the way their gender roles have isolated them from one another,” notes Ms. Ryan. As a result of this isolation, women interpreted the problems they faced to be strictly individual and not due to systemic oppression against them. For example, a woman would regard an argument with her husband over housework as a personal, private disagreement– which would be a perfectly rational mindset for one to have if one is unaware of the fact that most other women share the same experience. Thus, once women heard the similarities between each other’s stories in consciousness-raising groups, they realized how universal their problems actually were.
Consciousness-raising would later be described as “the backbone of the feminist movement” by the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union because its success in raising awareness about women’s inequality was the first step towards making positive change. Arguably, #MeToo can potentially have a greater effect on exacting social change than consciousness-raising groups did. Because the Internet allows us to effortlessly and quickly connect with people all over the world, #MeToo did in one day what consciousness-raising did in five years. A mere 100,000 women were involved in a consciousness-raising group at the height of its popularity. In contrast, the hashtag #MeToo garnered 500,000 tweets in 24 hours alone. “The #MeToo movement, through the use of social media, has allowed women across the country not only to stand up on their own behalf but to join together with other women to assert a strong, unified voice against their oppression. That kind of solidarity is always the foundation of creating social change!” Ms. Ryan concludes. Indeed, an anonymous source shares, “The #MeToo campaign actually inspired us at Winsor to discuss the unspoken, yet strikingly common, experiences of harassment many of us share as girls.”
Although #MeToo has the power to become the backbone of the fight against sexual assault, mobilizing and taking the next step towards change is easier said than done. At Winsor in particular, we can focus on promoting healthy discussion about sexual assault by ensuring that our community remains a place in which people feel comfortable speaking out about their personal experiences, and by standing in solidarity with sexual assault survivors. It is up to each of us to build upon the foundation that #MeToo provides.