Turning #MeToo Into a Movement for Gender Justice
The #MeToo phenomenon was one of the most important social and political moments of 2017. While the floodgates have opened, it is still too early to label these mass revelations of men’s sexual assaults on women as a social mobilization with a political plan for gender justice. Thus far, #MeToo has been more of a rage-filled vindication of women’s long-held assertion that living in a patriarchal world inflicts violence upon them at every turn. Heads have fallen aplenty, but what will it take to channel the sea change into a concrete and substantive cultural shift so that gender-based injustice is a thing of the past?
First, it is critical to explicitly identify the idea of “gender justice” as a universal goal. While #MeToo was publicized by the exposé of a vile sexual predator in Hollywood, it is about more than that. We all know that sexual assault knows no boundaries, and in fact operates within a broader framework of women’s oppression. For as long as women are left out of leadership positions, relegated to low-wage work, undervalued and underpaid, they will be preyed upon and left traumatized. Articulating the broad idea of “justice” helps propel a moment into a movement (to borrow a common refrain of Black Lives Matter organizers).
The idea of gender justice is necessarily broad. It is not enough for men to stop harassing, assaulting and silencing women. Gender justice also means that women are treated equally in the classroom, that they have access to contraception, abortion, prenatal and postnatal care, that they have the freedom of becoming mothers or not, staying single or not, openly identifying as queer or transgender or not. It means they need not fear being assaulted on the subway or in the boardroom, and need not fear being denied a job because of their gender. Gender justice means men giving up some of their privileges so women can enjoy equality.
If gender justice is the endgame, then how do we fight for it?
It is tempting to dismiss the idea of simply hiring more women, across all industries, as a first step. Women, by their nature, are not necessarily more benevolent than men. We can all recall women in power who may have abused their rank as much as have men. (Two of my worst bosses were women.) But we need to move beyond tokenism and small-number statistics into statistically significant gender parity in the workplace in order to see a real change.
Women leaders tend to hire more women and pay them better. Just as Hollywood needs more women directors, producers, casting directors and others, we need more women in Congress, state assemblies and city councils, more women mayors and governors, more women executives and managers, more women journalists and editors in chief. Society needs this not because it will magically make gender-based violence and discrimination disappear, but simply because women have the right to enjoy those spaces and vocations as much as men, and have been kept out for far too long.
But greater hiring parity is a modest demand and should be viewed only as the first step toward gender justice. As the powerful #MeToo slogan emboldens more women, we need an understanding that women of color, queer women, transgender women and undocumented women experience sexism and sexual assault in quite different ways than white women. It was a grave error on the part of Second Wave feminists to downplay the intersectional challenges facing their brown and black sisters—one that will hopefully not be repeated. Gender justice cannot be achieved in a vacuum while race and class-based injustices rage on. It isn’t enough to hire more women at every level. Among women workers there are strong disparities by race, especially higher up the leadership ranks. And industries where women are overrepresented tend to be low-wage vocations. Those differences in privilege among women need to be recognized and addressed in order to further meaningful justice.
Women of color are already taking the lead in the movement emerging out of #MeToo. The hashtag itself was the brainchild of Tarana Burke, whose work on sexual harassment and assault began 10 years ago. Now, a new campaign called Time’s Up has emerged, led by Hollywood powerhouses like Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay and Eva Longoria. The campaign is a high-profile multipronged approach that laudably includes the concerns of women of color and working-class women, such as domestic workers and farm workers. Hundreds of women in the industry have signed on, saying in a letter of solidarity that they “recognize our privilege and the fact that we have access to enormous platforms to amplify our voices.”
Among the remedies that Time’s Up is adopting in the hopes of turning #MeToo into a movement is creating a legal defense fund for women fighting gender-based injustices. If men fear successful prosecutions, they may think twice before they harass or rape.
It is also important for us to acknowledge that there is already a well-established infrastructure of movements and organizations that have been working toward gender justice. Examples include activism around campus rape, against sexual assault in the military and promotion of women’s access to jobs in the fields of science and technology. Groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the National Women’s Law Center, and even reproductive rights groups like Planned Parenthood have the experience and machinery for nonactivists to plug into, as well as the potential to join forces under a common demand for gender justice. The urgency that #MeToo has galvanized among the American public could be a huge boost to such existing organizations and perhaps build toward a common goal of broad-based justice for women.
Women’s education, health, employment and general well-being are one of the best measures of societal health. This fact is so well-established that internationally there is a “Gender Empowerment Measure” that social scientists rely on in order to evaluate societies and nations. The only thing that women’s equality and justice actually threatens is the well-being of the men who perpetrate injustice against women. The status quo is dead, and, if #MeToo successfully manifests as a movement for gender justice, those men and their power will become a thing of the past.