Like any good movie, the story of the downfall of Harvey Weinstein resonates because it’s more than a story about one man and the women who accused him of harassment, rape and assault.
It’s the story of many men in power and many women victimized. And it’s the story of not just Hollywood, but also of Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill. Newsrooms and sports teams. Big business and small. Hotels and restaurants, and farms and assembly lines.
It’s the story of the many industries and companies where supervisors and bosses have, at least until now, turned a blind eye—or even given a wink and a nod—toward allegations of harassment and assault.
It’s the story of a country that likes to think of itself as a leader in gender equality, but in fact has a long way to go.
For the moment, there’s been some reckoning. Powerful men have been brought down by women who’ve accused them of sexual harassment or assault and the torrent of accusations shows no indication of abating.
In the weeks since the Harvey Weinstein article appeared in The New York Times, more than 100 women have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault or rape by the movie mogul. Comedian Louis C.K. saw the release of his latest movie canceled and ties to media companies FX Networks and FX Productions severed after five women accused him of sexual harassment. Gal Gadot—aka Wonder Woman—refused to sign on for a superhero movie sequel unless director and producer Brett Ratner, accused of sexual harassment by six women, is cut from the franchise.
MSNBC commentator Mark Halperin was fired after a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. Roy Price, Amazon Studios chief; Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and The Atlantic magazines; Michael Oreskes, NPR chief editor—all gone after women came forward to expose them.
Women senators and congresswomen have recounted their own stories of sexual harassment. Allegations have surfaced in legislatures in Minnesota, Kentucky, Illinois, Oregon and Rhode Island, while in Sacramento, Calif., nearly 200 women added their names to a letter detailing an environment of pervasive sexual wrongdoing in the statehouse. Women farmworkers joined the “Take Back the Workplace March” in Los Angeles to demand an end to decades of abuse by foremen, and women hotel workers are insisting on pro- tections that shield them from hotel guests who harass and assault them.
At press time, nearly 2 million women and men had come forward using the hashtag #MeToo to recount their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. The hashtag has gone viral globally, trending in 85 countries, according to news accounts. A local variant in France, #BalanceTonPorc (roughly translated as “squeal on your pig”), urged users to name their alleged abusers.
There is no doubt that as the numbers of women speaking out increase, others feel comfortable coming forward as well. Still, it will pass, as all moments do, and what will be left behind? Will the shrugging culture of “boys will be boys” give way to a new culture that allows women to be women—as equals—in the workplace?
What can be done to ensure that when the waters recede from this watershed moment, the land that’s revealed underneath is forever changed?
Feminists had been working since the 1970s to have sexual harassment in the workplace defined as illegal discrimination, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the Supreme Court, in the case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, ruled that sexual harassment was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Five years later when Anita Hill came forward to speak out against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the country—especially women—got a three-day lesson about what sexual harassment looked like and how the law prohibits it. At the time of her testimony, 60 percent of Americans didn’t believe Hill. Perhaps more people would have believed her if the other women who had worked with Thomas and were prepared to testify about his inappropriate behavior had been allowed to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Thomas, who denied all allegations, was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice by a vote of 52 to 48.
Many predicted the treatment of Hill by the Judiciary Committee would discourage women coming forward, but in the aftermath of her testimony, the EEOC saw a more than twofold rise in sexual harassment claims by women. Moreover, Hill’s testimony contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which expanded the remedies available to victims of workplace discrimina- tion. The law provided, for the first time, that women could sue for punitive damages in cases of sex discrimination, though the damages were capped at $300,000 per individual plaintiff.
And then there was the presidential election of 2016 featuring Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” remarks. Trump’s victory in the election— despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes—radicalized women throughout the country. Some 5.9 million marched the day after his inauguration; a tsunami of women wore pink “pussy hats” in repudiation of Trump and his misogynistic agenda.
Millions more have marched and protested since the massive Women’s Marches. Thousands of women have stepped forward to run for political office, winning big in November. And millions of women have joined the #MeToo movement, speaking out against sexual harassment when they see it.
The anger is real and the backlash to Trump is helping fuel a shift in the way women are believed and the way they’re treated in the workplace. “This moment feels like a new opportunity to finally get at the cultural pieces that have allowed harassment and workplace violence to persist,” NWLC’s Andrea Graves observes.
Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps this is “the moment” so many women have been waiting for. Perhaps, as unlikely as it may seem, the election of Trump, putting a harasser in the White House, will usher in an era of positive change in America. Two things are for sure: This is only the tip of the iceberg. And Pandora’s box has been opened.