After the Clarence Thomas hearings, everything was going to change.
“The hearings certainly brought this issue into the public eye, and people started being willing to say, ‘This happened to me,’” University of Colorado law professor Melissa Hart said in 2011 of that moment in 1991 when the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of harassment by a woman who worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education, Anita Hill.
It was also all going to change after Bill Cosby’s accusers stepped forward.
“Cosby rape allegations changing the conversation about sexual assault” announced the headline on a Chicago Tribune editorial in 2014, after a series of accusations from women who said he drugged and assaulted them.
Two years later, it was the firing of Roger Ailes that would certainly be the moment we’d all been waiting for, after a lawsuit by anchor Gretchen Carlson resulted in numerous Fox employees coming forward.
“This story is a huge turning point,” Betsy West, former correspondent at CBS and ABC and a professor at Columbia School of Journalism, told NPR at the time. “It’s a signal that men, even the most powerful of men, will be held accountable for their behavior. And I think, despite the fact that Roger Ailes is walking away with a giant golden parachute, he lost his job. And that’s a big deal.”
Enter Bill O’Reilly. “I feel like when this story broke … there were women, and men too, who said, ‘No, this isn’t how we treat women. And we’re not going to stand for it,’” said Emily Steel, the reporter who broke the story in the Times, said in an interview.
And then, of course there was Donald Trump. The “Access Hollywood” tape was not only going to end his chance at the presidency but also stop powerful men from preying on women once and for all.
Which brings us to Harvey Weinstein.
Years of whispered gossip exploded onto the public arena this week, first on the front page of the New York Times, and then in the pages of the New Yorker. As with O’Reilly and Ailes before him, it was not the facts of his actions that led to Weinstein’s downfall — for years their companies had been paying out settlements to their accusers — but rather the critical mass of publicity after famous faces spoke out.
And one major thread in the post-revelation commentary is that the reason so many were willing to speak on the record to Jodi Kantor and Rachel Abrams, who wrote the expose in the Times, and Ronan Farrow, author of the New Yorker article, was that all the previous scandals had changed the context.
“It takes one brave whistleblower and then two to get the ball rolling and give the shattered sharers of the same story permission to speak out,” wrote Tina Brown, who partnered with Weinstein years ago in the creation of the now defunct Talk magazine. “Harvey is an intimidating and ferocious man. Crossing him, even now, is scary. But it’s a different era now. Cosby. Ailes. O’Reilly. Weinstein. It’s over, except for one — the serial sexual harasser in the White House.”
We’ll get to the “one” in a moment, but first let’s explore whether it truly is over. What exactly would constitute a victory over sexual predation?
Is it that more women are willing to speak out? In part, yes, but that alone assumes that the responsibility to stop men from acting like criminals lies with women. That assumption, in fact, is reflected in the questioning over the past few days of why Weinstein’s accusers didn’t step forward sooner, why some female stars who knew of his reputation continued to work with him, why a certain female presidential candidate took five days to condemn him. Condemning women for not fighting back against someone who hurt them is not exactly progress.
Is victory measured by the price paid by the men who have been shown to be abusers? It would be, if the price were indeed high. Clarence Thomas was approved to the Supreme Court. Cosby finally faced a trial, which resulted in a hung jury. Ailes did lose his job, but it didn’t cost him his $40 million severance package. Bill O’Reilly is now on some kind of a comeback tour. And the “one” exception that Brown spoke of is indeed in the White House.
Perhaps, then, these metrics are too broad, too optimistic, unrealistic for the times. The effects may be more incremental than that. Everything doesn’t change all at once.
Meryl Streep suggested as much yesterday when she spoke out against Weinstein’s actions. “The behavior is inexcusable, but the abuse of power is familiar,” she said. “Each brave voice that is raised, heard and credited by our watchdog media will ultimately change the game.”
While incremental is better than nothing, while some progress is always welcome, this is not the sea change that optimistic observers have been detecting for decades. Because true victory, after all, is not when more women speak out forcing more men to lose their jobs, but when they no longer need to speak out because the behavior they have been subjected to for generations has finally stopped.
And while it is tempting to think that Weinstein’s abject humiliation this week might cause other abusers to think twice, the more likely lesson of his story is that it only happened after 20 years of rumors, amounting to an open secret. If Weinstein didn’t stop after Thomas and Cosby and Ailes and O’Reilly, why should we expect others to stop because of Weinstein? If movie stars were afraid to stand up to a sexual predator, how much can we demand from an Army private? How does Weinstein’s fall help the entry-level assistant working for a not-so-famous corporate executive?
In other words, how many increments must it take? The endless cycle of women and abusers, followed by different women and different abusers, gives added irony to the fact that last year, Bill Cosby quoted, of all people, Gloria Steinem: “The truth shall set you free, but first it might piss you off.”
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