In mid-October, women began to post #MeToo following the exposure of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s grotesque behavior. Within days, millions of posts and tweets from men as well as women stripped the veil off sexual harassment on the job as a pervasive reality.
Though most of the #MeToo coverage has focused on celebrity predators, a few shards of light have penetrated the darker corners of workplace sexual humiliation and violence. While anyone can be targeted, the lowest paid women of color and immigrants are especially vulnerable. As many as 80 percent of those employed in restaurants and hotels, domestic and janitorial work, migrant agricultural labor, blue-collar and nontraditional trades, and the military suffer abuse.
Identifying the origin. #MeToo has begun to address who is affected by looking at all working women, but little has surfaced that explains why. The mainstream story describes character flaws of individual men; castigates the example set by our molester-in-chief; correctly observes that sexual violence is about power, not sex; and sometimes references the nebulous concept of “rape culture.” But what are the material and historical causes that have so entrenched sexual abuse in the workplace?
The genesis lies in the position of women in society. As soon as private property and social class divisions emerged about 5,000 years ago, women and children became men’s property. Rape was not a crime against a woman’s person, but an attack on the property of her father or husband. This principle persisted in U.S. law until the 1990s, when finally, all states recognized that a husband did not have the right to rape his wife.
This residue of ownership permeates the work environment, and not just for women. Clara Fraser, founder of Radical Women, observed decades ago that the job site was the one place in American society where dictatorship was considered acceptable and the Bill of Rights didn’t apply. Seattle Radical Women Organizer Gina Petry points out that, “The workplace sharply demonstrates the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy. Sexual bullying is a devastating way to bolster the bosses’ power, and to keep women subordinate and all workers intimidated.” Pressuring male workers to be complicit undermines solidarity and the ability to organize.
Fighting back. The #MeToo reckoning appeared to burst out abruptly, but resistance to workplace sexual violence has deep roots. The first women-led workers’ actions in the U.S. were in the 1830s when Lowell, Mass., textile workers went out on strike to protest inhuman conditions, including physical and sexual abuse.
The battle against sexual assault on the job swelled in the wake of feminism’s second wave, with strong leadership from women of color. In 1978, Mechelle Vinson filed a lawsuit against her supervisor that resulted in the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court unanimous ruling that sexual harassment violated federal laws against discrimination and companies could be held liable.
Five years later, Anita Hill was thrown into the national spotlight when she testified before Congress about the lewd and demeaning treatment she received from her previous boss and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. She was met with disbelief and scorn. Her account was dismissed as a “he said, she said” situation, the same fate that awaits others who challenge their tormentors. Studies have shown the overwhelming majority of complaints are true.
It was also an African American woman, Tarana Burke, who began the #MeToo campaign ten years ago to provide support to sexual assault survivors, especially girls of color.
Making real change. In 2018, the #MeToo movement will face new challenges and must go beyond revelations to addressing remedies. The vast majority of workplace predators are not subject to Twitter-shaming, and justice via Facebook is no option for low-paid or undocumented workers desperate to hang on to their jobs.
The movement must also deal with distortions by a host of opportunists, including unscrupulous types fabricating false reports to discredit genuine outcries, and entrap political opponents and journalists.
Activists must reject going overboard with calls for “zero tolerance.” Such overreach only feeds the backlash that is already emerging against #MeToo. The majority of feminist women and men recognize that dealing with offenders requires proportionality. Crude comments are not acceptable, but are a far cry from raping 14-year-olds, and there must be a comparable range of responses. Alleged perpetrators should have due process. But the standards of proof must take into account that there are usually no witnesses. For starters, multiple complainants should be considered corroboration and retaliation against accusers barred.
Leadership from the labor movement is critical. But as women at Ford’s two Chicago plants found, the union can be part of the problem. Faced with sexual assault, insult and coercion, women in this mostly male bastion found union officials soft on the company and prioritizing defense of their co-workers over helping them. The women won suits against Ford in the 1990s and 2017.
There are notable efforts to empower the most vulnerable, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which includes commitments against sexual harassment in their Fair Food Program agreements with agricultural and fast food companies. Others, such as the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas have extended solidarity to Hollywood #MeToo campaigners. Many unions and organizations representing the predominantly female service industry, including domestic and janitorial workers, are focusing on these issues.
Going after individual offenders will inevitably fail if the social and economic conditions that foster humiliation and coercion persist. This is basically not about aberrant individuals, but a system that devalues and seeks to control women, people of color, and all workers.
Key elements in combatting sexual harassment and violence include ending gender discrimination and all forms of bigotry; implementing affirmative action and comparable worth wages; providing paid leave to recover from harassment, and disability benefits for those who develop PTSD, including military women and men.
#MeToo is most powerful when embedded in a broad socialist feminist fight for fundamental change, including workers’ democratic control of the work place and strong unions led by strong women.
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