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Why the Me Too movement failed

Based on politically abstracted ideals, the popular online feminist campaign didn’t recognise the driving force behind gender inequality — power — and, most importantly, who has it, argues CHLOE KOFFMAN

THE formal exposure of serial creep Joe Biden as an alleged rapist should come as a surprise to no-one. 

No fewer than eight women have formally claimed that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee had either touched them or invaded their personal space inappropriately, with some uncomfortable incidents even captured on camera. 

However, the most serious of these allegations emerged last month when former staffer Tara Reade accused Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993 when she worked in his office.

Following this claim, questions were raised about the Me Too campaign, the supposed spearhead of the movement against sexual violence. 

When Reade publicly shared a graphic interview that described the assault and included #metoo in her Twitter post, high-profile champions of the movement failed to declare support. 

In fact, one of the primary proponents of Me Too and self-avowed Biden supporter and fundraiser, actor Alyssa Milano, removed the #metoo from her Twitter biography. 

Instead of acknowledging the credible accusations made against Biden, she then reaffirmed her support for him and claimed that Me Too was being “weaponized for political gain.” 

She also implied that the absence of coverage in the mainstream media was due to a lack of victim credibility and bemoaned the effects of the movement she helped create.

“I sent the Me Too tweet over two years ago and I never thought that it would be something that was going to destroy innocent men.”

It was also recently revealed that Time’s Up, a charity closely connected to the Me Too movement, claimed it was unable to fund the allegation Reade made against Biden as it would jeopardise its status as a non-profit. 

A movement once deemed the voice of an uprising against the scourge of sexual violence had fallen uncomfortably silent.

The quiet failure of a campaign once styled as the vehicle for women’s liberation reveals issues with Me Too that extend beyond Biden and the political elite. 

There are explicit ideological contradictions which, however uncomfortable, must be addressed in order to properly fight sexual harassment and workplace inequality.

The problem with Me Too is one of capitalist feminism. Originally promoted by wealthy and influential figures, the movement’s discourse lives within the confines of capitalism, isolating any issues of gender, race and identity until they are completely removed from notions of class and power. 

A type of “trickle-down” approach to empowerment, it is the same feminism concerned with the number of female CEOs rather than the number of women in minimum-wage jobs trapped with abusive bosses. 

This has resulted in acts of showmanship sitting at the crux of the movement, like actors wearing all black to the Golden Globes to protest against sexual harassment, rather than focusing on campaigning to strengthen protections for ordinary women. 

The contradictions at the top of the movement reach far beyond Milano’s capitulation. For example, Hollywood elites like Kate Winslet, Blake Lively, Greta Gerwig and Selena Gomez have all voiced supported for the Time’s Up initiative while choosing to work with a known sexual abuser, Woody Allen. 

Their solidarity, it seems, exists only until it impinges on their pay cheque. 

This ideological fault means that the achievements of the Me Too movement exist mainly in a circle of privilege, for both victims and perpetrators. 

The public outing of Harvey Weinstein as a serial rapist and the subsequent criminal conviction was a long overdue condemnation of institutionalised abuse in Hollywood. 

But ask yourself, would the eventual outcome be the same if Weinstein had been a boss employing and assaulting domestic workers making minimum wage? 

Would his victims have been able to publicly shame him and lay charges against him? Would Me Too have acted as a pathway for empowerment for these victims? The likely answer is no. 

These questions reveal the flimsiest elements of individualist strand of feminism that Me Too embodies. 

Upon further examination of the movement, a concrete lack of collective action and a focus on powerful individuals rather than mass empowerment, reveals its inadequacies in tackling one of the most crucial tenants of women’s liberation — freedom from sexual violence and harassment at work. 

The initial response following the emergence of Me Too in 2017 proved that this was a true crisis in the workplace, with thousands of women recounting their harrowing experiences online. 

However, research shows that despite the increase in media headlines, Twitter trends and pundit debates following the outbreak of Me Too, workplace sexual harassment remains “alarmingly high.” 

Some workplaces may even be experiencing a backlash from the movement, resulting in employers being less likely or reluctant to hire women for jobs that include one-to-one contact and travel. 

More broadly, the ideas behind Me Too have also failed to produce a pathway to material change for low-paid women workers. 

Let’s consider an industry where sexual harassment relentlessly persists: domestic work. 

Domestic workers, the majority of whom are women and a large portion women of colour or migrants, often earn close to or less than minimum wage. 

In the United States, they are frequently employed through independent contracts where they are unable to access workers’ compensation and employers can avoid enforcing anti-discrimination laws and other basic labour rights. 

This also includes protections for employees who report sexual assault from their colleagues or clients. 

This is a frequent occurrence, with research finding that around 36 per cent of live-in domestic workers have recently experienced harassment, threats and verbal assault. 

The lack of responsibility from their employer renders an independent domestic worker relatively unable to hold their harasser or attacker accountable.

Precarious conditions like these mean that women will not risk unemployment in favour of outing or even reporting their abusers. 

Me Too does nothing for women in these positions and instead asks them to shout into the void, risking their jobs, their ability to feed their children for the sake of “speaking their truth.”

The real uncomfortable truth is that the Me Too movement was never able to act as a vehicle for meaningful change. 

Based on politically abstracted ideals, it failed to recognise the driving force behind gender inequality — power — and, most importantly, who has it. 

The idea that the patriarchal structures that protect abusive men could be changed solely by individual women speaking out is a falsity, as it is predicated on the victim’s individual access to power. 

Me Too would inevitably provide no tangible solution for millions of working women who lack financial security, focusing instead on vapid platitudes which fade from memory as quickly as they appear.

The solution to the problems of Me Too will be found in politicised, grassroots feminism. 

Any credible mass women’s movement must involve unions and collective action. Women, especially low-wage workers should be encouraged to join a union or affiliate association to help solidify workplace and legal protections against abusive employers. 

The ideals of this movement should be based on the empowerment of working women, not those at the very top of society. 

When looking beyond issues of sexual harassment to the broader issues of gender inequality in the workplace, like equal pay, working-class movements have undoubtedly transformed the lives of working women. 

History is filled with stories of women banding together in displays of immense strength against exploitation. 

The “Uprising of the 20,000” in early 20th-century New York City, in which thousands of Jewish and migrant socialist women fought police violence and corrupt bosses to save the lives of garment workers from horrific factory conditions.  

At the height of the sexual revolution and in the glow of abortion legalisation, Ford sewing machinists went on strike in 1968 in protest of being paid less than male workers, marking the one of the first tangible steps towards equal pay in Britain. 

During the 1984-5 miners’ strike, Women Against Pit Closures fed families in the face of Thatcher’s attempts to starve miners back to work. 

They not only built solidarity networks across working-class communities but brought feminist ideals into the mainstream of industrial action. 

Their activities helped to sustain the strike for many months and their opposition to pit closures was so fierce, a police officer was quoted as saying: “I’d rather face one hundred striking miners than half a dozen of those bloody women.”

Working women have also been intrinsic to dismantling systemic racism and prejudice. 

The migrant and ethnic-minority women workers at the Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London stood boldly against racist management during their 1976-78 strike, commanding unprecedented support from the trade-union movement across the country.

But unions and collective action are not just necessary for pay equality and securing better rights for working women. 

When it comes to modern examples of tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, the Me Too movement pales in comparison to collective efforts. 

Returning to the case of domestic work, the Voice for Domestic Workers (VFDW) works with trade unions and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) to secure rights for migrant workers who are trapped with sexually abusive employers. 

As of 2018, it had also helped rescue 75 domestic workers from exploitative environments, many of whom were experiencing sexual abuse and withheld pay.

Earlier this year, renowned opera singer Placido Domingo was forced to resign as the general manager of the Los Angeles Opera after more than three dozen performers and teaching staff accused him of inappropriate sexual behaviour. 

Though he initially disputed the claims when they first came to light last year, he was forced to apologise and resign following an investigation funded by the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), a union representing musical performers and industry professionals. 

The AGMA was able to investigate complaints and produce a victory for those affected by Domingo’s behaviour, through the power of collective action and resources. 

These are ordinary women and men, who don’t have access to public platforms or millions for legal fees, but together are able to take down powerful abusers.

Last year in Britain, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) exposed a “toxic culture” of sexual harassment within McDonald’s franchises. 

The BFAWU reported that over 1,000 women had been the subject of sexual abuse or harassment, often from more senior members of staff or management and consequently, accusations had been swept under the rug. 

The BFAWU also found that predatory employees had been moved around from store to store following complaints to avoid scrutiny or further action. 

Female workers said they had been threatened with termination or legal action following complaints and some had even suffered panic attacks over continued harassment that went unchecked by management.

The investigation was able to bring attention to the thousands of women who were not only barely getting by on low wages and unsteady hours but also facing the daily threat of being assaulted at work. 

Without union representation, workers at McDonald’s would have struggled to organise and bring light to this abuse on a public platform. 

It is a direct consequence of women working together that the BFAWU was able to lead the charge against sexual harassment in hospitality, as well as call for higher wages, guaranteed hours and union recognition.

This is the type of collective action that produces tangible changes that prevent workplace sexual abuse, led by female workers who understand that their strength lies in numbers. 

There are no flashy protests or attention-grabbing headlines but simply grassroots activism, with a nuanced understanding of the issues that matter to ordinary working women. 

Me Too cannot address these problems as it fundamentally fails to understand the causes of exploitation in society and subsequently only challenges abusers when it is in the interest of a few privileged people. 

Milano and other elites have inevitably forgotten that society has a responsibility to all women, not just those whose abusers fail to challenge the interests of the ruling class. 

It therefore cannot be the guiding principle of any modern feminist movement.

Despite its structural failings, we should not disparage the women who felt empowered by Me Too nor the convictions of high-profile abusers. 

The spirit of the movement is its most valuable element. Me Too has undoubtedly pierced the veil of silence that lay over sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace and wider society. 

Women sharing their experiences not only creates a new level of awareness but, more importantly, produces a cathartic space to release tension surrounding traumatic events in their lives. 

This collective release creates bonds of solidarity against institutions of patriarchy and snarling disbelievers. 

But without calling for the structural change needed to dismantle the power of the ruling class, those bonds will break.

We need an international, transformative movement concerned with demonstrably improving the lives of working women. 

No amount of Twitter trends or all-black designer outfits will ever turn the tide on workplace violence or abusive bosses. 

Any modern feminist movement must be focused on workplace organising and fighting for victims everywhere, not just those who can afford the legal fees.

The failure to recognise the intersection between the politics of gender and the politics of class is a fatal one. 

It means nothing to virtuously preach the stories of a privileged individual while thousands of women struggle quietly through every day. 

Only collective action will provide the strength to bring abuse out of the shadows and into the light of justice. 

Feminism for the future must therefore be marked as a collective struggle, as best put by Marxist feminist Angela Davis.

“The process of empowerment cannot be simplistically defined in accordance with our own particular class interests. We must learn to lift as we climb.”

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