The Harvey Weinstein scandal has prompted a flood of accusations and admissions – but, unlike previous sexual harassment flash points, it has also sparked a moment of national reckoning.
Women once silenced by fear are speaking out, and the names of perpetrators keep coming: in recent days, TV hosts Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose were fired, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was suspended, and the head of Pixar, John Lasseter, said he would take a six-month sabbatical.
The huge number of stories, covering lewd texts to predatory advances to rape, is unparalleled. The power structures that used to protect the harassers are crumbling. Companies are acting more swiftly and punitively than ever before.
Anger at men’s behaviour has erupted in the US several times in the past: from the “smash the masher” movement of the early 1900s, where women fought back against street harassers with hatpins and umbrellas, to the feminist “speak-out” sessions of the 1970s to the support for Anita Hill in the 1990s.
But what led to today’s tipping point? While the #metoo campaign played a crucial role, other elements also helped create a tinderbox waiting for a Weinstein-like spark.
Estelle Freedman, a history professor at Stanford University, said: “It’s not technology alone, it’s also about the other contexts. It’s a gradual, accumulative process and then a tipping point.”
Among these factors are the election of a president who once bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy;” the increasing economic and political power of women in recent years; and corporate awareness of the national mood and worries about brand reputation. It is also suggested that because many of the women involved in the Weinstein revelations are famous, powerful and named, their testimonies are more credible and have encouraged others to feel they would also be believed.
Freedman says the story of disbelieving women is long and deep. “This works through culture, in Anglo-American law and in popular culture.
“It’s privileged men who are protected by this mechanism, more than immigrant men or African-American men. They had a long history of privilege, of being able to say: ‘She’s lying. I didn’t do it’ or ‘We did it. She consented’. Those men are losing a long legacy of privilege right now.”
Anita Hill, a trailblazer against sexual harassment
The #metoo hashtag went viral, as women gave voice to decades of latent anger and resentment.
Emily Martin, vice-president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), said: “It’s incredibly empowering to hear other women expressing what you have experienced and never expressed.”
This was the case too in 1991 when Anita Hill testified before a Senate panel that the Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her for years. Her credibility was attacked and Thomas was confirmed.
Martin said: “There was this cultural moment then as well about sexual harassment and whether we believe women. A lot of women felt activated at that moment. The next year women came into Congress in greater numbers than ever before.”
The number of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rose from 6,126 the year before Hill testified to 10,578 the year after, a 73% increase. Back then, women showed their support by wearing “I believe Anita Hill” buttons, now they have a means to show solidarity in an instantly accessible and more far-reaching way with #metoo.
Martin said: “This (Weinstein) moment is different because we have social media which magnifies and amplifies the power of individuals sharing their stories. It allows women to talk to each other and hear each other in a way that makes you feel less isolated and alone, which is the way harassment works.
“The internet can definitely be a harmful and harassing place itself but we’ve seen the capacity here for the opposite, the capacity to build a movement.”
Many point to the election of Donald Trump, a man accused of sexual assault, harassment and misogyny, as a time of political awakening.
Freedman said: “The fact that a man who feels he has that privilege – ‘I have a right to speak this way, to touch, to feel, to intimidate’ – could be the president of the United States is a wake-up call to anybody who didn’t speak out before.
A surge in female activism followed the election.
Martin said: “We can see it from the Women’s March and all the levels of increased political engagement that have happened since, where people report it is women who are calling Congress and who are showing up at the town halls.
“When these (sexual harassment) stories broke it happened in a cultural moment when women were all ready to stand up and say: ‘We are not going to accept what is unacceptable. It is not a sufficient response to say this is how the world is. We want to make a change.’”
With more women in power, speaking out becomes easier
Sexual harassment is as old as US history, a fact of life for slaves and domestic workers in the 18th and 19th century. When women started to work in manufacturing and clerical jobs in the early 20th century, their complaints of being harassed were dismissed as trivial.
Around this time, a “smash the masher” movement grew up against aggressive street harassers (“mashers”). Women defended themselves against these men, and in Chicago some trained in parks to build both physical strength and confidence so they would be left alone. Female police officers were hired specifically to protect women.
Public outrage over the masher fell away after women got the vote in 1920 and the flapper embodied a new sexual era where public “flirtation” was more acceptable. It wasn’t until the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s that anger over street harassment emerged again.
As increasing numbers of women joined the workforce in the 1970s, the issue of sexual harassment at work became ever more pressing. Women shared their stories at consciousness-raising sessions and a group at Cornell University came up with the phrase “sexual harassment” to define a range of inappropriate behaviours.
In 1975 the term entered the national lexicon when journalist Lin Farley, then a lecturer at Cornell, used it publicly for the first time at a Human Rights Commission hearing into women and work, and it was reported in the press.
But it was 1980 before sexual harassment was recognized by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a form of discrimination, and something women could sue over.
Freedman, author of Redefining Rape, said that although there was “an eruption of information” about sexual harassment during this time which was documented in the press, memoir, poetry and fiction, women had little political power to effect change.
“They were not very represented in state houses or in Congress. They did not have economic clout. They did not run companies,” she said.
“Now there are so many more women with access to power and privilege. I’m not saying it’s not extremely hard for them to speak out given there’s still a culture of disbelief and given the stakes, but there’s a bigger, critical mass of empowered women who can do something about this.”
Employers now have to deal with the court of public opinion
Companies are also rethinking their approach. A zero-tolerance attitude towards perpetrators is apparent, with high-profile figures being fired or resigning following accusations of sexual misconduct. Businesses don’t want their brand sullied by association.
Netflix has cut its ties with Kevin Spacey following sexual assault claims by multiple men; Condé Nast has banned the work of photographer Terry Richardson, who is accused of sexually harassing models; and the Republican National Committee has withdrawn financing from the Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore, following allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.
Elizabeth Tippett, a law professor at the University of Oregon, said: “Nowadays employers have to contend with the real possibility when they’re investigating a harassment complaint that the victim will speak out publicly at some point and the employer will have to account for the decision it made. It has to think about whether it will be able to tell a story that is defensible in the court of public opinion.”
There is now a greater incentive for firms to discipline the harasser, she believes.
“Courts tend not to enquire very much regarding whether the employer disciplined the harasser, they care more about whether the employer took remedial measures to protect the victim, like whether they offered a change in schedule to accommodate them, or training for the harasser. Courts care a lot about whether there was a complaint process and an investigation process. They care somewhat less about what happens after that process is over.
“But now employers have to think: ‘Well, the court might say what we did was ok, but is the average person on the street going to buy our products if we kept this harasser on the payroll?’
Martin, of the National Women’s Law Center, said that when employers feel they have something to lose they are much more likely to prioritise fixing and addressing an issue.
“I would expect a lot of employers are thinking about what they need to do to prevent a problem before it happens. If they’re doing training, is it the right sort of training? Are there other things they need to do to identify if there is an issue – whether it’s anonymous workplace surveys, or bystander training so that the entire workplace feels some responsibility to address harassment if they see it happening.
“Employers are looking at the current landscape with a certain amount of trepidation and that’s good.”
It’s too soon to tell if this is the dawn of a new era of social justice, with sexism replaced by equality and respect. Anita Hill told NBC’s Meet the Press on 26 November that for all the take downs of icons in Hollywood, politics and the media, there were many other ordinary women – including minimum-wage workers, immigrants, women of colour – who still felt too marginalized to speak out.
However, there seems no doubt that Weinstein will be seen as a major moment in the history of sexual harassment. As Tom Hanks recently told the BBC, the name Weinstein will become “an identifying moniker for a state of being for which there was a before and an after.”