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#MeToo continues to evolve, says W&M professor

  • A student of social movements
    A student of social movements  Visiting Assistant Professor Caitlin Brown in government said the #MeToo movement has been legitimized, in part, by the amount of backlash it has lately received.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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When the first explosive headlines appeared and accusations of sexual harassment against men from high-profile professions were shown to have merit, Caitlin Brown cautioned against terming #MeToo a “social movement.”

Brown, visiting assistant professor of government at William & Mary, specializes in civil society and social movements. Her reluctance was based on the fact that #MeToo seemed to be episodic, one-off expressions of posting on Facebook.

“Social movements require more sustained action and connections between participants,” she said. “I still don’t think we should necessarily consider those who posted #MeToo once on Facebook to be part of the social movement, but we are definitely at a point now where we can speak of #MeToo as a social movement.”

What changed from a month or so ago? Interesting enough, Brown said, among the factors is the pushback against #MeToo. That adds to its legitimacy.

“That is a sign of the movement having reached a certain degree of prominence and success,” Brown said. “I’m not surprised by the pushback, as erstwhile supporters are pulling back from #MeToo and some on the left are calling it a witch hunt.

“As soon as a social movement starts having a tangible impact, some who supported it when it was just an idea or slogan are forced to rethink their position. In this case, I think some men on the left are realizing that this could result in potentially unsettling changes for them as well. And it also reveals what has long been the case, which is that there is a great deal of diversity of thought within the broader feminist movement.”

The movement has also reached a point of institutionalization, with formal initiatives such as Time’s Up and an emerging leadership structure. The fact that the initiative’s leadership is emanating mostly from Hollywood may lessen its support base, but Brown isn’t surprised at the way it’s taken shape.

“The [movie mogul Harvey] Weinstein scandal obviously has a lot to do with this, but I also get the sense that some Hollywood actresses have come to the conclusion that their position of relative privilege compels them to take action, in the hope that it will ‘trickle down’ to women who can’t take the professional risks of speaking out,” she said.

“#MeToo at the Golden Globes has been derided by some as ‘political theater,’ but that may be how Hollywood is best suited to contribute to social movements: by raising visibility. We can argue about whether it was mostly empty gestures — the pins most male actors wore struck many as precisely that — but it did get people talking about what support of the movement should actually look like.”

While Oprah Winfrey’s speech received the most attention, and was so powerfully delivered that it sparked a conversation about whether she should run for president of the United States, Brown wouldn’t call Winfrey the movement’s emerging leader.

“The true leaders of the social movement are the activists that many actresses brought with them to Golden Globes, women whose names most of us will never know,” Brown said. “Well-known figures like Kirsten Gillibrand, Oprah, Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek and the Hollywood actresses behind Time’s Up are more the symbolic leaders of the movement.”

Historians have traced sexual harassment in the United States back to slavery and an era when domestic servants were vulnerable to sexual coercion, with laws doing little to protect them. The passage of Title VII in 1964 formally prohibited sexual discrimination in the workplace. Yet, according to, one in three women age 18 to 34 have been sexually harassed at work, though 71 percent admitted they did not report it. Today, nearly half of working women in the U.S. say they have experienced sexual harassment in the work place.

After all these years, what happened to bring the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements alive?

“I really think the turning point was the election of President [Donald] Trump,” Brown said. “I see it as directly following from the Women’s March right after his inauguration. Not only did the sexual misconduct allegations — and the reported misogyny heard in the Access Hollywood tape— not derail President Trump’s candidacy, but a very well-qualified woman lost to a man with no governing experience.

“For many women, this reconfirmed what they had experienced in their professional and personal lives. It suggested that things might not naturally get better. They needed to speak out.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Brown said, was an invigorated left, and the swift supportive reactions to the earliest public accusations. The firing of [CEO] Roger Ailes and [talk show host] Bill O’Reilly by Fox News and journalist Charlie Rose at CBS and PBS sent a message to people that their accusations had merit and would be taken seriously. But the enormous buyouts some of them reportedly received insults and further “galvanizes” people, she said.

“It drives this kind of anger,” Brown said. “We put our allegations out there, but they still get off with a generous payout.”

In general, social movements are categorized as reformative, redemptive, revolutionary or alternative in nature. Brown sees #MeToo as redemptive for many women in that it has helped them deal with past pain and issues they’ve been holding inside.

She acknowledged that there are some within the #MeToo movement who desire revolutionary change in the relations between men and women and society’s treatment of women, yet she is skeptical it will go that far. Trump has provided the left with so much fodder on a daily basis, she said, that it’s hard to see it having the time or energy to focus on one social movement.

Additionally, the backlash from the left suggests to her that the political will to fully realize #MeToo’s more revolutionary ideals is not there.

“I think the fact that the conversation following Oprah’s speech was about her future as a presidential candidate, not as a leader of a women’s movement, is a symptom of an overall wariness to feminist political projects.”

However, Brown sees the institutionalization of #MeToo sparking reform in the workplace as well as the political arena.

“I think we are going to see an increase in women running for office,” she said. “Popular culture will likely go through a ‘girl-power’ phase, which is something we are already seeing.”