By now, there’s a familiar sensation that comes over you when you hear stories like Jamie Eisenwald’s. A story of sexual harassment, manipulation, and abuse of power. A story of a woman whose career is derailed, whose innocence is compromised, whose insecurities are exploited. A story to which too many of us can relate.
It was the late 1990s, and Eisenwald (not her real name) was working at a company in New York City when her boss brought in his best friend to serve as a consultant. In her late 20s at the time, Eisenwald worked closely with the man, who was about 10 years her senior, and, she recalls, very predatory.
“He started playing the ‘How can I help you get ahead card,’” she explains. “He said, ‘If you don’t feel empowered as a woman, I can help you.’” Projects turned into a relationship, which turned into, as Eisenwald describes it, a miserable, monthslong ordeal. “I was in a horrible trap,” she says. She felt coerced into spending late nights in the office working with him—when she asked to work normal hours, he threatened to tell her boss that she couldn’t be trusted.
While she can’t recall the exact breaking point, Eisenwald says she grew so angry about feeling manipulated that she kicked a hole in her office wall—a shocking, uncharacteristic move that led to the building super confronting her. Because she didn’t want the event to seem without context, Eisenwald wrote a letter to the executive director of the nonprofit detailing her relationship and the trauma surrounding it. In a strange series of events, her abuser responded by trying to sue her. Eisenwald broke off all communication with him, quit her job, and left New York City to attend graduate school. “Every time I go to New York City,” she says, “I still feel traumatized.”
As we all learned this fall, Eisenwald’s story is not unique. She joined the millions of women who shared their stories of sexual assault or harassment as part of the social media phenomenon known as #metoo. The phrase was first coined 10 years ago by activist Taran Burke as a way to support young African American girls who survived sexual violence. In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano brought it to the national stage with a tweet in response to the shocking
Harvey Weinstein profiles in The New York Times and The New Yorker, which exposed decades of abuse of actresses like Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Salma Hayek, Kate Beckinsale, Brit Marling, and dozens more:
Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Within 24 hours, half a million tweets were posted with the hashtag “metoo” as the movement spread to other platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Some women detailed personal stories, some shared an emotional response, and some simply posted the hashtag. The tweets and posts were painful, if not shocking: “I was 13, he was 19. He lied to me and said he was 17. I was a child, but I was told it was my fault. #MeToo.”
As the movement grew, so did accusations about men in the public sphere. Every day, new allegations resulted in the removal of powerful men from their jobs. TV shows were canceled; public apologies were issued. CEOs, directors, and government officials stepped down. Abusers—seemingly untouchable just a few months ago—were finally being held accountable for their inappropriate, and in many cases, illegal behavior. Comedian Louis C.K., actor Kevin Spacey, news anchors Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer, Minn. Sen. Al Franken, TV personality and chef Mario Batali, and many others resigned or were fired in disgrace. With the dam now broken, we are experiencing a cultural shift in which women are finally being believed when they speak up about gender-based violence instead of being vilified for calling it out.
How did we get here?
While the #metoo movement seemingly blew up overnight, there was actually a slow build towards it, a series of tumbling dominoes that ultimately brought the wall of silence down. The accusations against Bill Cosby, Fox News’s Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, the spotlight placed on sexual harassment and discrimination in Silicon Valley, and the Obama Administration’s focus on sexual violence on college campuses all played a vital role in starting the conversation about gender-based violence and harassment.
But outside the allegations against high-profile individuals and industries, it’s important to focus on the current political climate, says Dr. Lisa Huebner, a women and gender studies professor at West Chester University. “I do think we have to consider the Women’s March in January after Trump’s inauguration,” she says. “It didn’t just occur in Washington, DC. It occurred all over the country and the world. That climate and that election really woke people up.”
The Women’s March was the largest single-day protest in history—estimates say that anywhere from 3 to 5 million protestors participated, with 400,000 to 500,000 in Washington, DC alone. “I think women have been really angry about the normalization of harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace for decades,” Huebner says. “It was horrifying and angering to us when President Trump won the election after having admitted to both committing acts of harassment and also being clear about not understanding what that meant—in the public news media.”
What a difference 26 years makes. In 1991, attorney Anita Hill accused then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. During her infamous televised testimony before an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, Hill’s character was attacked and her trustworthiness was frequently called into question as she was forced to describe in detail the sexual misconduct that she experienced at Thomas’s hands when he was her supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Senate—and the public at large—decided to take his word over hers. Thomas received a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the country; Hill became a cautionary tale for women.
That’s why the swift takedown of the all-powerful Harvey Weinstein and those who followed was so shocking to so many of us. Not only were the women who went public with their harassment stories now believed by their employers and the public, their alleged perpetrators were also held accountable. Suddenly, and perhaps for the first time, society began to value the “she said” over the “he said” in these cases, which clearly had a domino effect—with more and more women feeling empowered to speak up. “Women in these more public spheres have come forward, and that has provided a model for others to feel empowered to do so too,” says Sarah McMahon, associate professor and associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers University.
It’s also important to note that #metoo stories span different ages, races, and social groups, Huebner adds. “What makes it different from other social media movements is it’s very personal and brave to come out and say #metoo,” she says. “It’s not saying, ‘I’m supporting a particular social issue.’ It’s saying out loud, ‘This happened to me, so I am breaking the silence on gender-based violence.’ All of these women, from all of these different backgrounds, saying this out loud—this happened on the street, this happened to me at school, this happened in my family, this happened in my job in corporate America—that’s what’s so powerful about this.”
Still, we should also give credit to all of the people who worked behind the scenes for years to spread awareness about sexual assault, both McMahon and Huebner say. “At this point, many of our youth have been exposed to some sort of educational program or information about issues such as violence, bullying, or harassment,” McMahon says. “There has been a gradual shift in people’s attitudes and perceptions. But while there is a cultural shift going on, it’s not over. We are not where we need to be. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Where do we go from here?
It’s so easy to turn off your computer or the TV or simply change the subject each time a new accusation comes out—especially when the enormity of the situation becomes overwhelming, or worse, triggering. But if #metoo has taught us anything, it’s that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the realities of sexual harassment and assault. “This has been happening a long time—gender-based violence—and the way we respond, open our eyes or close our eyes, is in peaks and valleys; it’s not linear,” Huebner says. “Men and women are responding and trying to dampen and temper the sentiments of the #metoo movement, but what is also happening—men and women are rising up and saying, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’”
Still, let’s face it, the litany of men who have been accused and/or admit their roles in workplace harassment is staggering, leading many women to ask: are all men guilty? And when we find out a beloved actor or journalist or worse, a friend or family member, has committed an act of sexual harassment, how are we supposed to feel?
McMahon, who sits on the board of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that the organization recently put out an article on what to do when the people we love, care about, or admire are accused of harassment and how can we have space for both the admiration and the disappointment. “I think it’s about understanding that we have the right to hold people accountable for their behaviors and express disappointment, but we also need to make space for them to learn from their mistakes and move forward,” she says.
Moving forward also means re-examining the workplace policies and dynamics that have allowed sexual harassment to thrive. But will it spur real change? “I’m not sure,” Huebner says. “I think of all of the workplaces: some are private; some are not federally or state regulated; some of those are small businesses, and they are not required to have Title IX or a sexual-harassment policy. I don’t know that this movement will result in policy change in the paid workplace, private or public. I do think it will change the way we socialize children, young people, each other. I do think there will be cultural change, which could influence policy in the workplace.”
McMahon says we need to focus on building communities and environments that are rooted in respectful relationships and environments where people feel safe and supported: “We need more resources from employers about how to create these environments, and incentives to create and implement procedures that support the creation and maintenance of the environment.”
She also worries that women and men working in lower-wage jobs may not have as much recourse as those who expose the sexual misconduct of people in public positions. “I do think we need to do some careful thinking about how to ensure that those individuals without power can reach out for support when needed,” she says. “We need to hold employers accountable for all employees, including people who are in low-wage positions or without as much power. I’m hopeful that this will lead to a broad examination and hopefully some accountability for organizations to take that deeper dive, but I’m not convinced we are at that point yet.”
Of course, instituting workplace policies that protect against harassment doesn’t have to make the office a no-fun zone. To men complaining about the new workplace order, Huebner says: “For the naysayers to say they can’t talk to women now because they’ll get fired, that’s just another way of promoting inequality. That is another way of not being accountable. That’s just another excuse.”
And that gets to the core of the problem: gender inequality. “We need to look at larger things like gender norms and expectations, and that’s a huge transformation that we need to work on,” McMahon says. “We are seeing work toward that and gender norms shifting. Girls today are doing things that were typically labeled masculine, and vice versa. But for there to be change, we need more women in leadership.”
Women’s voices are being heard, but for a more definitive shift to take place, their voices also need to be heard in C-suites and the political arena so that significant changes in policy and procedures can be made and enforced more broadly, not just when a company is in the public eye with its back against the wall.
It may not be clear yet how #metoo will change the workplace, our relationships, and our culture, but it’s evident that change is here thanks to the deafening roar of the collective female voice. “If I had to say one thing to a woman reading this magazine: Do not endure this alone,” says Huebner.