Power, Sex and #metoo: Now What?


A GWC Panel Discussion

by Jessica Craig, DA Women's Caucus Barcelona

The Global Women’s Caucus kicked off the EMEA Regional Meeting in Madrid (9th – 11th February) with a timely and provocative panel discussion about “Power, Sex and #MeToo: Now what?”. The informal and fun atmosphere of New Orleans-style restaurant, Gumbo, helped create a feeling of warmth and closeness between the diverse panellists and audience. For those of us Democrats Abroad who have only been following the outrageous stories about Weinstein, etc in social media and in the press, and who are living in countries that have not yet been as impacted by #MeToo and #TimesUp as the US (and to a lesser extent the UK), this was a welcome opportunity to step back from the hashtags and headlines and to discuss with fellow Americans the underlying social and political issues, as well as to assess the potential for lasting change.

Anne Hesse, Co-Chair of Global Women’s Caucus warmed up the room by raising key issues and questions. In recent history, we seem to have moved through three stages in the US, socially and politically. And, the Democratic party has not always made the best choices:

With Anita Hill, came a new definition of Sexual Harassment. Senator Biden could have come to her defense, backed her up, but he didn’t. What is our liability as Democrats now?

Then came the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” era of President Clinton. Will we finally address this? Or remain vulnerable to all the "yeah-but-isms from the other side?

We have now arrived in a tough “Zero Tolerance Zone” Are some, like Senator Franken having to pay extra because we looked the other way with Clinton?

How well do we understand the concept of intersectionality? Do we understand that some women face layers and layers of oppression? Do we understand that privilege is not just about skin color? That class. education, sexual orientation, disabilities, all play a role?

Is a simple thing like grammar undermining us? When we say "John beat Jane", John is the subject. And we all ask “what the hell is wrong with John?” But when we say “Jane was beaten….. by John”, “or worse, “Jane is a battered woman,” then the problem belongs to Jane. What’s wrong with Jane? Or, What did Jane do wrong? What about John? Where’s John? How do we make this about John’s problem?

And what about the Enablers? There are 3 actors on this stage: The Perpetrator, The Victim, and The Bystanders: The friends, co-workers, teammates, supporters, fans, spouses. How can we, as bystanders do a better job of supporting the victim…and isolating the perpetrator?

There is bound to be confusion, gray areas, and push-back as we transition. It’s exactly these gray areas we need to explore. Let’s explore these questions and more today in an atmosphere of equality, empathy and trust: As men and women simply trying to live together in peace. As Democrats trying to win a crucial election And as Democrats Abroad, trying to engage our far-flung, And very diverse voters.

The first question from GWC Co-chair Salli Swartz to the panel was “Is #MeToo going to change anything?” And the panellists overall were cautiously optimistic. Anne Bagamery, an independent journalist based in Paris and former senior editor of the International Herald Tribune/International New York Times, said she is impressed and encouraged by the sheer numbers – so many stories, so many areas of economy and culture, and so many parts of the world that are paying attention. She believes this movement has “critical mass”, especially because so many young people are involved. Ronda Zelezny-Green, an African-American mobile technologist, educator and researcher based in London, also commented on the extraordinary numbers powering this movement. “Between 2010-2017 there were 96 million tweets relating to sexual harassment and there has not been any other hashtag used as much as #MeToo.” Ronda also thinks the movement has become more influential and “intersectional” after the incursion of “popular white women” helped publicize the movement that was founded in 2006 by a black woman, Tarana Burke. The youngest of the panellists, Laura Downer, a student at University of Wisconsin – Madison, feels excited that #MeToo is the first big push for change in her lifetime, and that for millennials it now feels like “our turn” to push forward. The only note of ambivalence on the panel was from Leselle Marie Hatcher, a multi-racial daughter of an immigrant, and a musician and writer from NYC currently based in Madrid. Leselle agreed with the comments of the previous panellists, but pointed out that “a hashtag in of itself is not change and will not effect legal change”, and we absolutely must not rest on our laurels.

Michael Elias, the one man on the panel, contributed his perspective as a high-level and long-term writer, director and producer of major film and tv in Hollywood. He reminded us that even with all the dirt flying around about Weinstein and others, behaviour in Hollywood has changed since the 1970s and it has become a more “careful” and “respectful” place. But clearly there was an industry-wide blindspot about Weinstein. Michael said “When I would talk to producers or agents about working with him, they would say ‘he’s a thief’, ‘a monster’, ‘a bully’. But they would never say he was a sexual predator.” And there has been a double-standard among men when it comes to actresses. “I dealt with a lot of powerful women – executives and producers – they had power and no one messed with them. But actresses took the brunt of this because they want to work…”

The most powerful response to the next question “How can change be effectuated and how can Democrats get behind this movement?” was from Liselle: “#MeToo has taken away the element of shame for women, and places [sexual abuse] on a global platform, and does away with the silencing. The law is an important tool, but there needs to be change in people on the ground. Police need to start believing women, especially black women and black-trans-women, and all women who say they are feminists need to start believing each other because we have not been so good at that until now.”

Anne added to this her perspective as a veteran journalist, saying while we should applaud the courage of the media, particularly the New York Times and New Yorker, for backing the Weinstein story, the media is also part of the problem in perpetuating stereotypes of women. And the mainstream media is still not giving enough attention to the plight of the trans or LGBT community, nor to people of color. What journalists are supposed to do is, “to shine light into dark corners” and “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” We should start looking more closely at “the people who we reward and what they (mostly men) have done – societally we need to change what we view as a successful person.”

A big part of the confusion around #MeToo is over definitions. How much can we complain about what is sexual abuse or what is sexual harassment? How much culture can go into drawing a line? Liselle’s direct response drew the first laughter mixed with applause from the audience, “No one’s trying stop anyone from getting laid! That’s not what this is about…But sex is more complicated than we want to think…” And in the US, the legacy of the puritans has given us extra obstacles in talking about sex. (So to those anti-#MeToo people in France who misunderstand the #MeToo movement and decry it for imposing American puritanism over libertine sexual relations, isn’t it really about freeing ourselves from puritanism which would have us be silent about sex?) Ronda thinks “We’ve placed far too much responsibility on drawing lines.” As an educator she is always aware that “change starts at home.” And “what are we doing to educate our men and boys, our women and girls?”

So how can we get more men involved in this conversation? Leselle says she tells her male friends, “When you go out, whenever you see something inappropriate, CALL OUT YOUR BOYS!” Both Anne and Michael (the one male panellist), and both representing the 50+ generation, think that younger people have a much better handle on this. There is a more “fluid structure” in their lives, and a “more open conversation going on” between women and men. Ronda thinks we need to find authentic male feminist voices for the cause, men who are interested in more than just likes and tweets. As a society we need to identify and create male champions for women. And again, this kind of change starts at home. Michael had a slightly different perspective, he seemed to doubt that men could be effective as feminists or to believe that women should continue taking the lead with the feminist movement. He said he would tell his sons to get involved in a different issue that still impacts the lives of women, such as to “fight as hard as hell against the NRA”.

One of the last questions for the panel was about an issue central to the Global Women’s Caucus: “Will the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) change our lives?” Most of the panel thought it would be a positive step forward for women, with the one dissenting opinion from Leselle. As a black+latino woman, she reminded us that her people have seen their constitutional rights constantly violated, and so she thinks the ERA would be a “nice gesture at best”. Laura, the youngest panellist, thinks it’s “dumb” we don’t have it in the constitution yet. And that passing it would be an important, not an empty, gesture. It would show incoming generations that women’s rights matter.

Two questions from men in the mostly female audience showed how uncomfortable even Democrat men are in responding to the #MeToo movement. One wanted to know “How can Democrats speak about these issues without pushing away 50% of Americans?” The best response to this was from Leselle: “The Democratic party needs to decide what kind of party it wants to be. I have trouble using the pronoun ‘we’ when I talk about Democrats because I don’t feel it represents me. We need to inspire. We need to more than just ‘not Republican’.” And the final question, awkwardly phrased from a man in the audience, revealed how personal these issues fundamentally are to men as well as to women, and how difficult it is for men to find the best words to describe communication with a woman. We heard in action one of the key questions raised in the intro to the event: “Is a simple thing like grammar undermining us?” Ultimately the man’s question was “How can men and women improve communication?” And just when it seemed like the panel would stay silent unless a psychotherapist appeared in the room, Anne, the journalist, came up with a great answer that reminded us how much the personal and sexual are now thanks to #MeToo inextricably linked to the political. “This is also a political problem and the only way male and female communication will improve is if more men and women are working together in the same room.” We just need to take one look at the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives to see how hard we Democrats need to work to bring this improvement about starting in 2018! And even while Democrats are more receptive than Republicans to taking action to address the issues raised by #MeToo, even when it brings up accusations against powerful men in our own party, we still have a lot of deeper listening and learning and changing to do, and this kind of change needs to be happening from the ground up - in our homes, our workplace, and in our own relationships.

The final questions Anne Hesse raised to “warm-up the room” at the start of the event are good to use as further questions we should keep discussing in the Global Women’s Caucus, in our local DA chapters, and in future DA conferences:

What kinds of questions should we as Democrats be asking?

Are we over-punishing our own legislators?

Is it fair to judge yesterday's conduct by today’s new rules?

Could a “zero-tolerance” climate result in keeping even more good, qualified people from running for office?

How do we uphold the “BELIEVE WOMEN” principle without falling prey to politically motivated, or even false accusations?

Is the Speier-Gillibrandt #METOO legislation adequate?

Do we need a South Africa-style “TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION” for our party?

The answers may not come today, but at least we will have begun the conversation. Many thanks to the Global Women’s Caucus for bringing together the topics, questions, and panellists that will help focus and guide us!

Jessica Craig

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