The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements are a revolution that could not have taken place without decades of quiet, painstaking groundwork
Thu 8 Mar 2018
This International Women’s Day comes five months after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s long campaign of misogynist punishments of women first broke, and with them more things broke. Excuses broke. Silence was broken. The respectable appearance of a lot of institutions broke. You could say a dam broke, and a wall of women’s stories came spilling forth – which has happened before, but never the way that this round has. This time around, women didn’t just tell the stories of being attacked and abused; they named names, and abusers and attackers lost jobs and reputations and businesses and careers. They named names, and it mattered; people listened; their testimony had consequences. Because there’s a big difference between being able to say something and having it heard and respected. Consequences are often the difference.
Something had shifted. What’s often overlooked is that it had shifted beforehand so that this could happen. Something invisible had made it possible for these highly visible upheavals and transformations. People often position revolution and incrementalism as opposites, but if a revolution is something that changes things suddenly, incrementalism often lays the groundwork that makes it possible. Something happens suddenly, and that’s mistaken for something happening out of the blue. But out of the blue usually means out of the things that most people were not paying attention to, out of the slow work done by somebody or many somebodies out of the limelight for months or years or decades.
Same-sex marriage arrived suddenly in the US when the supreme court legalised it nationwide, except that many states had already legalised it, and that came about as the result of the valiant work of countless non-straight people and their allies, making visible that not everyone is straight, making it important that everyone get rights, making queer people themselves believe they deserved and could win those rights. And it happened because the test case in California went before what appeared to be a conservative judge – federal judge Vaughn Walker, appointed by George Herbert Walker Bush – who had been in the closet himself at the time of his appointment, but was gay, and whose own attitudes toward his orientation must have evolved as the culture around him evolved. He found in favour of marriage equality and set up the case to be clear and thorough when it reached the supreme court. When judges rule on what seems self-evident common sense – be it Brown versus Board of Education or marriage equality – it often seems that way because of slow incremental changes in societal norms and beliefs. The judge gets the public finale, but the shift comes from the cumulative effect of tiny gestures and shifts.
This #TimesUp/#MeToo moment is no different; it is a revolt for which we have been preparing for decades, or perhaps it’s the point at which a long, slow, mostly quiet process suddenly became fast and loud. Part of the work was done over the past five years, more of it over the past 50. We have had a tremendous upheaval over the past few years – at the end of 2014, I wrote in these pages: “I have been waiting all my life for what this year has brought.” What this wave brought is recognition that each act of gender violence is part of an epidemic. It’s brought a (partial) end to treating these acts as isolated incidents, as the victim’s fault, as the result of mental illness or other aberrations. It’s meant a more widespread willingness to recognise that such violence is extraordinarily common and has an enormous impact, and arises from values, privileges and attitudes built into the culture.
It’s a shift that’s often happened before, for other rights issues, as something long tolerated is finally recognised as intolerable, which means that the people for whom it was not a problem finally recognise the suffering of those for whom it was. This shift from tolerated to intolerable is often the result of a power shift in who decides, or a shift in what stories dominate, or in whose story gets told, or believed. It’s a subtle shift in who matters that precedes dramatic change.