The Ms. Q&A: Gloria Steinem on #MeToo and Believing Women After Weinstein

The #MeToo hashtag inspired 4.7 million people to share personal stories of sexual harassment and assault in just 24 hours. As it shook the web, Ms. connected with co-founder Gloria Steinem to discuss the campaign’s place in the history of the women’s rights movement, the strengths and limitations of social media, the need to believe survivors, the role of male allies, systemic shifts and solutions and power in numbers.

What is the impact of having Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reily and Harvey Weinstein’s stories come out in a row?   

It’s crucial because this impact is cumulative. If somebody steals money, he or she is likely to get arrested and convicted—because society understands stealing is wrong. But if someone commits a racist or sexist crime, it may not result in arrest, much less conviction—and the crime may even be blamed on the victim—because a critical mass of people still see racism and sexism as inevitable, even justified. Also all those instances were within easy memory, and they extended across race, and from right to left politically. Now more and more women are feeling safe in coming forward and telling the truth, and so they are being believed together when they might not have been believed singly.

How can social media help elevate the conversation?

The “Me, Too” campaign is an example of social media at its best. But also online, a hugely disproportionate number of women are harassed, threatened, photographed illegally, and trolled, sometimes even in life-threatening ways—often young women, and especially those who dare to criticize the woman-hatred in computer games or otherwise challenge other masculinity. They are in danger. Perhaps we should talk about social media and anti-social media.

Is #MeToo reminiscent of historic moments in the women’s movement where the public consciousness began to shift?

The most obvious is the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 1991, when Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas testified, and the country got educated about the fact that sexual harassment was a term and a crime. But “sexual harassment” didn’t even exist until the mid 1970s. Until then, it was just called “life.” The first legal cases were brought by African American women against a bank and the U.S. government, and it was still thought to be pretty rare—until the bravery of Anita Hill showed millions of women that they were neither crazy or alone.

Of course, that Senate Committee knew there were other women survivors of Thomas’s harassment who could have testified, yet they were never called. I don’t think a Committee could get away with this now. Yet it’s also true that we have a sexually abusive man in the White House. Partly because of millions of dollars in nondisclosure agreements that made The Apprentice executives afraid to release tapes of Trump’s sexist, racist and anti-Semitic tirades including labeling his youngest son. Also because those TV executives wanted to keep Trump on camera because he got an audience and sold ads. As Les Moonves famously said, “It may not be good for America, but’s it’s damn good for CBS.” Trump got viewers in the same way that a traffic accident gets viewers. Yet advertisers reward media for quantity, not quality or accuracy.

Can you speak about the barriers survivors experience after they are assaulted? 

Everyone should speak for herself—or himself—but “Me, Too” [demonstrates] there is often self-blame. As if somehow they invited abuse, and unequal power that makes them fear losing a job or approval, plus a fairly realistic fear that they won’t be believed, even that they’ll be blamed. The crucial thing is to speak out, and seek out others who’ve had the same experience with this guy, then speak out together.

How might these stories contribute to the larger conversation of women’s harassment in the workplace?  

I hope and believe they’re leading to an understanding that harassment is not about sex in any inevitable way. It’s about power. Harvey Weinstein produced very good movies with very powerful women—Meryl Streep, Julie Taymor and others—and he even distributed “The Hunting Ground,” a good documentary about rape on campus. Yet he sexually assaulted young women with a lot less power. The deep reasons are the “masculine” and “feminine” roles that we grow up with, and that some people become hooked on, like a drug, so men may sexualize dominance and women may believe this is fate or human nature or just the way things are. But in original cultures, some of which are still around—for instance, much of Indian Country before Europeans showed up and still now—there are languages with no gendered pronouns; no “he” and “she.” Yes, there were differences and divisions of labor, but they were in balance because all the work was valuable. The paradigm of society was a circle, not a pyramid or hierarchy.

How can men be allies to women in their daily lives?

They have credibility with other men that women may not, so men can make clear that unwelcome sexual attention is not okay, they can talk about it, they can name it when they see it. And they can believe women. There is so often punishment for coming forward that sexual abuse, including of children, is the least lied about crime by victims. Believe the women! Believe the children! And also believe the men who have been abused! In the military and in prisons, the absence of women means that some men who are hooked on power sexually abuse younger or weaker men. They are not homosexuals; they are addicted to power. Oh, yes, and remember the crucial word difference that the wise Catharine MacKinnon used in sexual harassment law: the standard is not consent, because consent can be coerced; it’s whether or not the sex was welcome.

Is there a particular aspect of #MeToo that inspires you? In what ways is internet activism limited?

Everything comes out of being truthful, sharing our stories, discovering we are not alone, and that together, we can take action and create change. The web allows us to do that in large numbers and from safe places, but we do also need to be together with all five senses so we can empathize. Not just learn intellectually, but understand. The web isn’t complete on its own, it’s a crucial tool. We should try to spend at least half as much time in talking circles with people as we do with computers and inanimate things.

What systematic changes would you like to see?

To understand that male control of reproduction—and thus women’s bodies—is the source of gender roles, and control of reproduction is also a necessity for continuing racism. Each woman controlling her own body is a first step out of gender roles and out of hierarchy. Whether or not a woman can decide to have or not to have children is the single biggest determinant of whether she is healthy or not, educated or not, active outside the home or not, and how long she will live. Globally, forcing women to have children they don’t want is also the root of global warming. Women deciding our destiny from the skin in will change the world from our skin out.

Since half the human race can’t control the other half without violence or the threat of violence, the presence or absence of polarized gender roles is the biggest determinant of all other violence, from the street to the military. Look at terrorist groups: gender roles are polarized in the extreme. Look at peaceful and democratic groups: gender roles are porous and flexible. Read Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur. She will convince you that men raising children as much as women do (and women being as active outside the home as men are) is the key to world peace.

How would you advise concerned citizens to continue advocating for this issue once it stops being part of the national conversation?

Never let it stop being part of the national and local and campus and neighborhood and workplace conversation.

Are there resources that you’d like to highlight? 

Dinnerstein is great for questioning gender and proving that men become whole people by raising—or being raised to raise—children. The best book I know about trauma of all kinds from child abuse to concentration camps is Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. And as she says, using what happened to us to help others is the final stage of healing. And now, she is a fearless psychiatrist explaining that Trump is a classic case of narcissistic personality disorder: he lashes out at the smallest criticism, slavishly follows any praise, and so can’t tell fact from fiction. There are also many great books and documentaries. The important thing is to find one that speaks to you.

When speaking about Harvey Weinstein, Actor Lupita Nyong’o, who once graced the cover of Ms., said: “I didn’t know I lived in a world in which anybody would care about my experience with him.” What can we as a country do to take women’s voices seriously and help them be supported and believed?

We who make up the country can act as we want our country to act. We can vote and organize and give money and ask questions and listen to each other. A forest is a pretty good symbol of a country. Like a tree, change grows from the bottom up. And if we each take care of the tree next to us, a forest will shelter us all.

Our next issue will zero in on the fight against sexual harassment, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Click here to tell us your #MeToo story—and talk to us about how you’re fighting back. You can also share in the comments!


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.