Picture: Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post – Groups gather for the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017. The MeToo movement exposed some of the vilest sexism carried out by those at the top of society. More than five years on, the writer looks at what it achieved, the choices activists faced, and what still needs to change.
By Sarah Bates
In 2017, women had suffered enough. Enough of abusive bosses, enough of unequal pay and enough of attacks on abortion rights. It was a year bookended by the mammoth Women’s Marches against the election of Donald Trump, and the watershed movement fighting for an end to sexual harassment and abuse. Half a million people took to the streets of America’s capital Washington DC alone in January.
What would later become known as the MeToo movement coalesced around the crimes of film producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein, a serial rapist and sexual abuser. He has a rap sheet so long he’s still in the process of being sentenced for his crimes. Actress Sarah Ann Masse was one of the women who came forward in The New York Times article that originally exposed Weinstein’s abuse.
“In those first couple of months, after people started coming forward with their stories about powerful abusers, there was a general sense of support and understanding and community,” she reflected some years later. “It felt like there might actually be this sea change happening.”
More and more women came forward with their own stories of abuse, a reach spanning far greater than the Hollywood hills. MeToo exploded onto the street sparking a mass movement globally with women’s marches held every year following 2017. But that feeling was short lived. Megan Twohey, one of the journalists who broke the Weinstein story, says, “Five years later, as the #MeToo movement has suffered a backlash, there’s no question that the calculation” for anyone considering speaking out “has become more complicated”.
MeToo did powerfully raise women’s demands to live and work in environments free from sexism, abuse and harassment. And there are some signs it shifted workplace culture. A study released in September 2022 by the Pew Research Centre showed that people felt their workplaces were fairer places for women. It showed that seven out of ten adults believed that perpetrators in the workplace were now more likely to be held responsible for their action. And six out of ten said people’s accusations were more likely to be believed — although that’s not much of a majority.
And a further study, published in the Organisational Dynamics journal, found that another impact was women being excluded. Some 21 percent of men said they would be reluctant to hire women for a job that would require interaction. And some 27 percent of men avoided one on-one meetings with female co-workers. French feminist author and campaigner Rose Lamy described how right from the inception of MeToo, it was “two steps forward, one step back”.
The movement made choices, chose allies and rejected alternative ways of fighting for change. In the US the main focus was to get rid of Trump — and the solution many put forward was voting Democrat. Most of the movement’s leading figures didn’t see mass street mobilisations as the vehicle for change. That meant embracing various elite personalities, and worrying much less about how the movement could change the lives of working-class women.
In December 2017 the New York Times published an article about women workers at Ford. They forcefully described sexual harassment by workmates on the shop floor, and by supervisors who demanded sex for favourable shifts. They also despaired at the lack of help they received if they spoke out. Trade union reps downplayed the harassment and advised them not to “cause trouble” by reporting it. But the movement didn’t take up those sort of issues, and the clash with top corporations it would have demanded.
Instead, holding together an alliance at the top to deliver electoral shifts ruled out militancy and systematic support for struggles at the base of society. One example was the response to the Supreme Court’s cancellation of the Roe v Wade judgment that guaranteed some abortion rights. Instead of a national wave of street protest, the leading figures who had shaped the MeToo movement directed women’s anger into support for the Democrats at the 2022 midterm elections.
The fight over abortion rights was funnelled into the Democratic Party. The move saved the Democrats and Biden, but those forces won’t save abortion rights. In fact, huge swathes of women are now denied basic rights, and the Democrats do nothing effective to restore them. There is no doubt that the surge of anger in 2017 confidently raised the argument about women’s right to live safely. Yet so much hasn’t changed — or has been pushed back.
One of the strengths of the MeToo movement was that it pointed upwards — at the rich and powerful men who rely on their status to keep their crimes undetected. It was an indirect challenge to bigots like Trump. Today, more than 20 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, yet he’s still considering another run at the presidency. In Britain, our rulers are just as culpable. Look at Westminster. Half a decade on from the “Pestminster” spreadsheet, compiled by staffers exposing the behaviour of sitting MPs, it has yet to clean up its own act.
A slew of cases show that sexual harassers and abusers are coddled by layers of the establishment that shield them. Now MPs are dragging their heels on deciding new rules that would bar MPs from parliament if a formal complaint of serious misconduct is ongoing. One parliamentary staff member told BBC news that current rules “showed a disregard towards our safety and staff welfare”. Guidance rests on informal agreements between disgraced MPs and party whips, even when MPs are formally charged with serious sexual offences.
It can feel as though there’s an endless tug of war between those who want to smash women’s oppression and those who want to smash MeToo. What would more decisively yank the rope over to our side is a movement that goes deeper and broader than the mobilisations of the last five years could. MeToo permeated throughout society, but it was essentially isolated from wider fights. Flashpoints over women’s oppression are a constant in such an unequal and oppressive society.
After MeToo came the leading role of women in the Sudanese revolution. Far from being in the background, women were the bravest, the most resolute and insisted on their own rights as they fought for everyone’s freedom. Then came a wave of anger about the police over the deaths of Sabina Nessa* and Sarah Everard.
After that came the uprising in Iran. Again, women both initiated the revolt and played a major role as it unfolded. Their slogan “Woman, life, freedom” signalled the overarching battle.
In Britain frustration over soaring childcare costs has put thousands of women on the streets. And when anti-choice bigots mobilise they are met with fierce resistance from pro-choice protesters. Embedding such fights against oppression within the wider fight against an unequal world strengthens the battles in every direction. That’s a major reason why the women’s liberation battles of the 1960s and 1970s made such strides.
They were sometimes rooted in, and linked up with, organised workers’ struggles. This doesn’t mean women’s struggles should be reduced to begging for support from grudging union bureaucrats and opportunist Labour [Party] politicians. Many of the most important advances women have made have been because they organised and fought themselves, without asking anyone’s permission.
But to really break through against a system that is inherently sexist requires using the strength of a united working class, fighting on every front. In the 1960s and 70s activists operated as part of mass movements that included the protests against the US war in Vietnam, militant strikes by workers and the Civil Rights Movement. That atmosphere of unrest fitted with women’s demands for childcare, abortion rights, equal pay and an end to harassment. Those demands are today as urgent as they were then.
The rights that have been won were fought for from below, with women leading militant movements for change. It wasn’t easy. Big arguments were needed for trade unions to take on women’s battles as class ones. But the biggest gains were won once fights for abortion or contraception became united class ones.
That’s why we have to build the strikes that are happening now over pay and conditions. But we also have to insist that issues of oppression are an integral part of the struggle — and a central focus for any future revolts.
Sarah Bates is a journalist for the Socialist Worker
This article was first published on Socialist Worker
* Nessa’s death raised concerns that the killings of women of colour were still taken less seriously by law enforcement in the UK.