From Trump’s trashing of women to #MeToo: Which way forward for women’s liberation?

Here is a presentation given by Terry Moon to the Chicago Local of News and Letters Committees on Dec. 11, 2017.

From Trump’s trashing of women to #MeToo:
Which way forward for women’s liberation?

–Terry Moon

INTRODUCTION

The story in The New York Times (“‘The Silence Breakers’ Named Time’s Person of the Year for 2017,” Dec. 6. 2017) about how Time magazine’s person of the year is who they dub “the silence breakers” begins by saying “First it was a story. Then a moment. Now, two months after women began to come forward in droves to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment and assault, it is a movement.” Well, no, Jonah Engel (that is the name of the man who wrote the article). First there was a movement, then there was decades of retrogression and reaction topped off by the election of the Abuser in Chief, then there was a moment—it was called the Women’s March and it was almost a year ago on Jan. 21. As part of that revitalized movement, given impetus by the Women’s March, women started speaking up and men began to fall.

When that movement first began in the mid-1960s, the Marxist-Humanist revolutionary philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya caught its essence in the category she created then: “The Women’s Liberation Movement as revolutionary force and Reason.” In her works that followed she made explicit that force and Reason in different periods, always also making explicit its relationship to Marx’s revolution in permanence. She caught the humanism that runs through over 50 years of the movement—a red thread of a different kind of revolution than had been articulated by the Left. In “The New Voices” section of Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution,” in showing how what was then the new Women’s Liberation Movement had transcended even the great organizing of the German Socialist Women’s Movement, she wrote that Clara Zetkin’s “superiority in organizing women on class lines left hidden many aspects of the ‘Woman Question,’ most of all how very deep the uprooting of the old must be” (p. 100).

The latest length of that revolutionary red thread, #MeToo, shows this truth in a different visceral way again, that revolution must deepen at every point in order to finally make the relationships we have with each other actually human relationships. Because if #MeToo shows us anything, it is that men are certainly not treating women as if they are human beings.

There is no doubt that in some ways the explosion of women coming forward with their reports of rape, sexual abuse and harassment has made an impact—first of all in the U.S., and now spreading worldwide. The clamor has exposed how many powerful men—concentrated in high-end businesses, government, and the entertainment industry—are rapists and abusers. It has revealed how so many of these men who have power over women view women and abuse that power.

But we need to keep in mind that who this information is revelatory to is not so much women—that is after all what #MeToo means—but men. That certainly includes many of those powerful men who run the media, who have kept women underrepresented as reporters, underrepresented as those who are interviewed, as those considered experts, as those whose voices have a right to be heard, as those who actually have a viewpoint that is important, an expertise that can throw light on objective events.

These media men have always been part of the problem, so much so that women staffers sat in at the so-called “radical paper” Rat in 1970 and took it over. That same year in March, over 50 women sat in at the Ladies Home Journal for 11 hours, forcing the editor to give them a section in the next issue. Our WL group in Detroit refused to talk to male reporters, forcing news stations to find a woman to interview us—often a woman who had been confined to reporting the weather. (I think of this often when watching those horrible anti-women racists women anchors on Fox News who have no idea that they owe their jobs to the Women’s Liberation Movement.) Then women began starting our own papers so we could finally have a voice. Remember: then there were no women anchors; Helen Thomas was the only woman reporter people knew; if you heard a woman’s voice on the news, she was talking about the weather.

And by the way, Time is so out of line by calling the women on the cover “the silence breakers.” Women have always been speaking out, struggling to break the silence! We have fought; we have gone to the police, who for decades treated domestic violence as nuisance calls, taking the abuser for a walk around the block to “cool off.” We have reported rapes, put up with the invasive procedure needed to collect evidence from our battered bodies and then had those rape kits pile up by the tens of thousands in police basements and storage rooms, forgotten, leaving serial rapists free to strike again and again. Women have spoken up at work against their abusers and been demoted and fired. Women in non-traditional jobs spoke out against brutal harassment by their co-workers, often to no avail. There certainly has been a “silence,” but it is not because we’ve had to wait for women to speak out.

Everything about this Time front cover pisses me off. First, they leave off the cover a picture of Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo. Then Time’s editor in chief, Edward Felsenthal, claims, according to The New York Times, that “the #MeToo movement represented the ‘fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades…’” That is only true, of course, if you ignore Black Lives Matter—another movement begun by women; or the Arab Spring for that matter.

I. From the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, to #MeToo

Let’s remember for a moment that fantastic march on Jan. 21 as the country faced a future ruled by the inhuman insanity that is Trumpism. We wrote then:

It meant something that the women’s marches caught fire. It wasn’t explicit that it was a humanism that brought people out, but it was implicit in all the signs calling out Trump for hate, in the insistence that we were there because we welcome immigrants and refugees, that we know in our bones that Black Lives Matter and police killings must stop and that we want justice for LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and others.

It was a beautiful day and not only because of the weather, but because of the comradeship. The march projected the kind of America Trump aims to destroy—multi-racial; multi-ethnic; tens of thousands of spirited feminists, immigrants, LGBTQ people being who they are and proud. We were united because we oppose Trump’s inhuman plans for the U.S., but also in what we were fighting for—and the “for” was also what the demonstration itself embodied: the desire for a country that is committed to the well-being of its citizens, the world’s citizens and the planet. (“Democracy in the streets votes Trump out! In Chicago,” Jan.-Feb. 2017 News & Letters)

The Women’s March was not explicitly revolutionary, but we saw that red thread within it and tried to make it explicit. Those who are misleading this country saw it too, which is why we could write in the editorial in the current issue that what “we are faced with [is] a blatant attempt to not just control women’s bodies and lives, but to crush a movement” (“Abuser-in-chief trashes women,” Editorial, Nov.-Dec. 2017 News & Letters).

While it is certainly not just the women’s movement that is under attack but all freedom movements—and especially the movement for Black liberation as seen in the demonization of the Black Lives Matter coalition—almost all of Trump’s anti-human actions affect women more and Black, poor, and minority women more than white women: from the attack on immigrants—most whom are now women and children, especially if they are from Mexico or South and Central America—to the gutting of the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act, the crippling of ACA, the elimination of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), to the planned cutting of Medicaid and Medicare, both of which serve more women than men. There is as well the appointing of rabidly racist anti-gay and anti-abortion fanatics to positions of power in agencies that have been transformed into their opposites—from entities meant to better the lives of the poor, women, people of color, LGBTQ people, children and the disabled, into agencies now dedicated to destroying any rights these people have fought for in the last 200 years and, in the process, destroying the people themselves. Furthermore, Trump et al are making sure their people-destroying polices will last for decades with the ramped up installing of dozens of Right-wing judges—some woefully unqualified but all Right-Wing fanatics of one stripe or another. To show the lengths Trump will go in order to kowtow to every whim of his racist, sexist, capitalistic base, one of his latest outrages is that his (anti-)Labor Department proposed rescinding another Obama-era rule mandating that tips belong to the servers and the owners of the restaurants cannot steal them. Of course most servers are women, many who make less than $10/hr—partly because the rationale has always been that they get tips! But since the National Restaurant Association lobbied for this takeaway from the poor, Trump wants to deliver.

It is the outrageousness of the current objective situation that has given impetus to the movement, pulling in women from several walks of life. Thus in the last few weeks we’ve heard from:

  • Women lobbyists who are in a bind because they are being raped and harassed by those who they are trying to convince to vote in a certain way and who, if they alienate, will not vote their way, and the women will also lose their jobs. As one lobbyist for NARAL said, who would care that a NARAL lobbyist had been sexually attacked?
  • In 24 hours more than 125 women artists signed an open letter condemning the publisher of an important art journal for harassment and misuse of power. When the letter was published, over 1,800 had signed, including Trans women and gender-nonconforming artists from around the world.
  • Close to 200 California women who work in local government signed a letter “denouncing a culture of rampant sexual misconduct in and around the state government…in Sacramento.” The letter complained “of male lawmakers groping them, of male staff members threatening them and of a human resources system so broken that it is unable to give serious grievances a fair hearing” (“Sexual Misconduct in California’s Capitol is Difficult to Escape,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2017).
  • The president of Emily’s List “said that in the 10 months before the election in 2016, about 1,000 women contacted her organization about running for office or getting involved in other ways. Since the election, she said, the number has exploded to more than 22,000.”   (“Women Line Up to Run for Office, Harnessing Their Outrage at Trump,” The New York Times, Dec. 4, 2017.)

As the movement expands, it is clear that sexual abuse is not limited to what happens on the job. #MeToo has given new life to the movements to stop childhood sexual assault. For example those struggling for 11 years to pass the Child Victims Act in New York—a Bill which would lengthen the time victims of childhood sexual assault would have to sue their attackers as well as the institution where the abuse happened, has taken on new life and urgency. As one of the Bill’s advocates, who herself had been abused as a child, said, “The people who are speaking up are famous people, with fortunes and legal teams and PR teams.” And yet for years “They were too scared to talk. So how do you expect a child to do it?” (“A New Push to Expand New York’s Childhood Sexual Assault Law,” The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2017.) Soon #MeToo will include people speaking out about incest.

#MeToo is just getting started, which is a good thing because it needs to continue to deepen.

II. #MeToo needs to also be #YesAllWomen

There is a reason that so far most of the men who have had to leave their jobs or positions of authority are clustered in the entertainment industry, politics or the academic world. It is at least partly because the women accusing them can afford lawyers. Another reason may be that, like the women artists, women who’ve been able to for once actually be heard have a network so that they can more easily organize and speak out loudly in one voice.

But what we’ve seen and read is just the tip of a huge iceberg. #MeToo has to also be for waitresses or women who work in kitchens, for house cleaners and those who work in people’s homes, migrant women jailed—for that’s what it is—in detention centers as well as women in recognized jails and prisons; and for any number of low-paid, low-status jobs that put women or men too in contact with those who have power over them.

The jobs of women who work in the fields is dependent on the overseer. If he rapes or harasses them, fighting back means you get fired or worse. Living this reality, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of women farmworkers and women from farmworker families who represent 700,000 women field workers, wrote an open letter to their “Dear Sisters,” “actors, models and other individuals” “who have come forward to speak out about the gender based violence they’ve experienced.” They wrote in part:

Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well. Countless farmworker women across our country suffer in silence because of the widespread sexual harassment and assault that they face at work. We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country….

Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option. Complaining about anything—even sexual harassment—seems unthinkable because too much is at risk, including the ability to feed our families and preserve our reputations” (“700,000 Female Farmworkers Say They Stand With Hollywood Actors Against Sexual Assault,” Time, Time Staff, Nov. 10, 2017).

They are saying that in many ways, as hard as it was for the women attacked by Harvey Weinstein and so many others like him to speak out, these women have a harder row to hoe.

Tarana Burke spoke directly to the problem the day Time announced their “Silence Breakers” cover:

Today’s announcement should be an opportunity to ask ourselves: are we really committed to the hard work of ending sexual violence.

What about young people having to break bread with their abuser at a family gathering year after year, in silence and solitude? What about women of color and transgender people, who struggle to be believed by friends, families, and those in power? What about those regularly assaulted by officers of the law, on our streets and in our jails—do they get to say #MeToo as well? Will we listen when they do?”

Burke calls for “a complete cultural transformation…build our families differently, engage our communities and confront some of our long-held assumptions about ourselves,” and actress Alyssa Milano, who brought Burke’s #MeToo to the world’s attention when she confronted her harasser, said, “I want companies to take on a code of conduct, I want companies to hire more women, I want to teach our children better. These are all things that we have to set in motion, and as women we have to support each other and stand together and say that’s it, we’re done, no more” (“‘The Silence Breakers’ Named Time’s Person of the Year for 2017,” The New York Times, Dec. 6. 2017).

But what that red thread we’ve been tracing, which is the dialectic of revolution, tells us is that we need something more total for women and others to be free. One reason that is so is because rape and sexual abuse and harassment are institutionalized, just as racism is, so it will never be enough to raise our children differently or have companies hire more women. And with Trump in office it is getting worse by the minute.

III. The institutionalization of rape, sexual abuse, harassment and so much more

There is so much that can be said here, but we can’t talk all night, so let’s just pick three things. First and briefly, is what Harvey Weinstein was able to do. The facts by now are pretty well known. He had power and money, could make or break people’s careers, and he did that whenever he felt like it. When there was actually a chance to at least bring his despicable, criminal behavior to light, the system protected him.

Despite what police who worked on the case that actress Ambra Battilana brought said, including: “We brought them a very good case,” nothing was done. Knowing that Weinstein was a serial harasser, he could have at least been arrested on third-degree sexual abuse. That might have cramped his style. But Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. would not press charges. Some prosecutors thought Vance should have prosecuted as, “‘The idea that Weinstein’s criminal intent was unprovable because of his stated “professional need” to personally inspect [Battilana’s] breasts doesn’t pass the laugh test.’” Supposedly his “professional need” to see if she wore breast implants made it OK for him to lunge forward and grab her breasts and when she protested and pushed his hands away, to persistently put his hand up her skirt and ask to kiss her, according to the police report. (“For Weinstein, a Brush With the Police, Then No Charges,” The New York Times, Oct. 15, 2017.)

Weinstein was not only protected by his money but also by his aides and his contacts, who enabled him to savage woman after woman, ruining careers and lives, changing women in ways that no one should be changed, creating events they could never forget or forgive—unfortunately often including themselves—for the rest of their lives. He is an example of someone using the institutionalization of sexism for his own ends.

The second example is different. Trump reversed an Obama order that “forbade federal contractors from keeping secret, sexual harassment and discrimination cases.” The “rule prohibited these companies, which employ about 26 million people, from forcing workers to resolve complaints through arbitration…” (“Trump Is Quietly Making It Even Harder To Report Sexual Harassement And Discrimination,” Portside, Nov. 26, 2017).

Lastly this institutionalization of rape culture, of abuse and harassment of women is clearly seen in what Trump, et al, are doing to Title IX, specifically the gutting of protection for women who have been raped and/or sexually harassed on college campuses.

The white nationalist Candice Jackson, who now heads the Education Department Office for Civil Rights, blurted out her true belief to The New York Times “that in most sexual assault investigations, there’s ‘not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman. Rather, the accusations—90% of them—fall into the category of “we were both drunk,” “we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right”’” (“Education Dept. Civil Rights Head: 90% of Campus Sexual Assaults Amount to ‘We Were Both Drunk,’” Time, July 12, 2017). The truth is that women don’t lie about this, false reports of rape and assault are between 2% and 10%.

The greater truth is that the Obama 2011 Dear Colleague letter was only issued because women’s decades-long battle on campuses grew large and militant enough to force some changes. Without going into details—which we can take up in the discussion—moving from a “preponderance of evidence” criterion, which the Obama letter called for, to a “clear and convincing” criterion, which is what De Vos will do, means that once again, men who rape on campus get a free pass. When women accuse a man of rape, it is often, but not always, a she said he said, and if you believe, as De Vos and Jackson do, that he is telling the truth and she is 90% of the time lying, then he gets off at least 90% of the time.

Remember the Brock Turner case? This was not a case of she said he said because two students caught Turner raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He got a slap on the wrist sentence of six months in jail and three years’ probation. He could have been sentenced to 14 years in prison. Now—long out of jail—he’s appealing his conviction claiming he did not get a fair trial because character witnesses who would have talked of his swimming career, his school performance and honesty were excluded. Most telling is that over a third of his 172-page brief is devoted to raking his victim over the coals; concentrating on how drunk she was on the night he raped her. You would think that should give a man pause, if a woman is falling down drunk perhaps he shouldn’t try to have sex with her, but in our rape culture he is freed of responsibility while she is condemned. (“Brock Turner Is Appealing His Sexual Assault Conviction,” The New York Times, Dec. 2, 2017.)

After decades of struggle by young women—because no one else was doing a damn thing to help them—and after Obama’s Dear Colleagues letter, here is what women are still facing on some campuses.

Six women are suing Howard University for ignoring their own policy of following a 60-day timeline to address sexual assault. (The reason Howard is having so much trouble is they lack funds. That is part of why the blowback: enforcing Title IX cost money.) Jane Doe 2 first reported her rape in October 2015 and was concerned because her rapist was a resident assistant in her dormitory who had keys to her room and had stalked her for months. Howard’s Title IX coordinator, Candi N. Smiley, informed her that nothing could be done until the investigation was finished. At that time Doe 2 had sent Smiley email and text messages that backed up her claim of harassment and rape. She heard nothing from Smiley until December when Smiley asked her to resend her the emails and texts. At the end of the fall 2015 semester, after hearing nothing, she tried to drop out; was on the brink of losing her scholarship, depressed and afraid. She moved out of her dormitory to get away from her rapist, but was charged for it when the administration had told her she would not be. They also removed her Pell grant and need-based scholarship from her transcript and charged her for it, sending “her multiple notices threatening to send her to collections.” She heard nothing from them until March 2016, which was not until Doe 2 contacted Doe 1, “who had gone on a ‘storm’ on Twitter [about] how the university had similarly botched her report of rape—against the same man.” And get this, “He had transferred from the University of California…after being accused of sexual misconduct there…” It was then that the idiot Smiley asked for the third time that Doe 2 resend the text and email messages!

Finally, in April 2016, Smiley told Doe 2 that Howard had suspended her rapist for two years but, unbelievably, they didn’t tell this to Doe 1. She had reported her rape in February 2016, but didn’t hear anything from Smiley until the end of March “except for Smiley contacting Doe 1 to ask if she had been discussing the rape in text messages with her friends… Doe 1 called Smiley four times during that period with no response. Doe 1 ended up being fired from her resident assistant position “based on a report her [rapist] gave to residence life. No one ever told Doe 1 that her rapist was kicked off campus” (“Lawsuit alleges Howard University kept serial rapists on campus,” Insidehighered.com, Dec. 7, 2017.) This is what life can be like for women who are raped on campus. Who is being punished here? And remember, the worst thing that a university or college can do to a rapist is expel them. And when they do, they do what Doe’s 1 and 2’s rapist did, go to another school. That is rape culture; that is what it means to say that sexism is institutionalized. At least in part. While this sounds fantastically horrible, before women started the campus movement against rape and abuse, this kind of thing was actually very common.

IV. Where do we go from here?

The red thread we saw in the Women’s March in January has certainly not been obscured by Trumpism, only strengthened. That can be seen by the over 4,000 who found their way to Detroit to attend the Women’s Convention. That strength was seen, not so much in the leaders, or the women politicians who spoke from the dais, but in the issues women insisted on taking up, issues that reflected those addressed in the Women’s March: healthcare, global warming and environmental justice, mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter meaning police gunning down unarmed Black people, women’s right to control our own bodies, discrimination in work and in life, children and childcare, immigrants’ rights and the rights of LGBTQ people, and of course, sexual assault and harassment. Every time Betsy De Vos’ name was mentioned, everyone booed.

So on the one hand you have this red thread of humanism emerging again at the Women’s Conference; and on the other hand there is the same impulse coming from the leaders, coming from the press and also, in a way, coming from the Left, to tie this thread into a knot that is either electoral politics or vanguard partyism. The New York Times reported in a gush of wishful thinking, “Yet for all the disparate topics at this meeting, one thread ran through them all: opposition to the Trump administration and a pointed focus on elections next year” (“At Women’s Convention in Detroit, a Test of Momentum and Focus,” The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2017).

No one can be blamed for hoping that elections will throw the racist, sexist, money-hungry, anti-human Republicans out the door. Elections got us into this, so the hope is that elections may get us out. But what else is evident by leaders of the March and Convention and certainly by the elected officials who spoke at both is their drive to narrow the scope of this movement into electoral politics. What they fear is revolution. The Trump administration fears it too, thus their unrelenting attack on forces fighting for a better world, especially women.

So where we go from here, as we have done so many times before, is to fight against the narrowing of this passionate movement for a more human world, including making that fight explicit to those engaged in it. I can write this in one sentence, but it takes a philosophy of freedom and an organization of people willing to take responsibility for the idea of freedom, to make it a reality.

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