Is the patriarchy finally falling?
Over the past month, the commemoration and celebration of women’s achievements through history have gone hand in hand with the continuing drive to recognise the economic, political, social, and cultural inequalities still faced by women today. From the #MeToo movement to the Time’s Up initiative, women, girls, men, and boys are coming together to demand justice. But are we really on the verge of smashing the patriarchy?
Behind these very public manifestations of anger, solidarity, and strength, the practice of harassment and assault is perpetrated against the most intimate of women’s spaces: their bodies — bodies which traverse private and public spaces, but the violation of which produces very personal responses, emotions, and fears which control the way women are able to interact with and move through the world.
I have always considered myself lucky with regards sexual harassment and abuse; I think I've experienced less of it than the average woman. Over the years, though, I have had my breasts fondled and my arse pinched, I have been flashed, I have been told I would “be beautiful if I wore more makeup,” and I am the object of street harassment about 30% of the times I leave my apartment unaccompanied. According to a 2014 study, 94.3% of women around the world have experienced street harassment, and more than half have been fondled or groped, too.
My first experience of sexual assault was when I was groped repeatedly at a Goldfrapp concert, and did nothing about it. I was paralysed for an hour and a half and then slunk home alone and kept my mouth shut, ashamed of my weakness. Even now, I am filled with guilt for not challenging the men who call, whisper, and kiss at me in the street. I am a white, middle-class, cis-gendered woman; I consider myself a feminist; and, I still shy away from confronting sexual harassment because I know I will either be met with flat denials and/or will be called irrational, angry, or a liar, as I have seen happen to other women. I mean, Donald Trump has so far been able to claim that all 18 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct are lying. The unequal politics of power makes it incredibly difficult for women to report sexual harassment in almost every case, and especially when they are in some way dependent on the man in question’s good will, as has been the case with Harvey Weinstein. Of the 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18 to 34 who have been sexually harassed at work, 71% did not report it.
For me, the power of the #MeToo movement is in collecting these invisible, visceral, stories together, identifying the scale of the problem, and giving women (and men) an outlet for their justified anger and frustration. The task now, though, is to use this momentum to push against systemic sexism and sexual harassment; to recognise the economics of power which mean that women are not always able to walk away from or report harassment; to push for a more inclusive movement which takes into account the diversity of women’s and men’s experiences (bearing in mind their race, class, sexuality, migrant status, etc.); to believe individuals when they say they have been abused; and to take legal and political action to effect long-lasting, wide-reaching change. The Time’s Up campaign is a move in this direction with regards to workplace harassment, calling as it does for an improvement to laws, employment agreements, and corporate policies, as well as incorporating a legal defence arm (with funding).
Now that we’ve begun making the invisible realities of women visible and have started building collective action and solidarity with women’s human rights defenders, we need to transfer this into political will to demand that our governments implement policies which consider and promote gender equality across the board. Many policy decisions in recent years have been disastrous for women’s rights. Examples in the US include the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, reintroducing the global gag rule on abortion, and suspending tracking of the gender wage gap while in the UK, austerity policies have been 86% paid for by women as the result of tax and benefit changes since 2010. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, young women are on average 11% less likely to be in paid work than men (23% for mothers as compared to fathers), and there is a gender pay gap of 15%; only 33% of managers in central government are women, and only 29% of seats in national legislatures are held by women.
To build a safer, fairer world where we are all truly have control over our own bodies, gender needs to be at the centre of policy-making, and countries need to think about how policies will have differential impacts of women and men; they need to consider the issues of gender budgeting, quotas, the unequal sharing of unpaid work, labour market outcomes, migration, reproductive rights, and gender-based violence from a public policy point of view. Then the current surge of indignation will not only have helped create a space for women and men to report cases of sexual harassment, but will also help them to use their bodies to bring about broader political, economic, social, and cultural change in favour of all of our human rights.
That’s an accomplishment I look forward to celebrating during future Women’s History Months.