Anthony DiMaggio is an assistant professor of political science at Lehigh University. He holds a Ph.D. in political communication, and is the author of Selling War, Selling Hope: Presidential Rhetoric, the News Media, and U.S. Foreign Policy since 9/11 (SUNY Press, 2015). He can be reached at: [email protected]
Sexism has always been an integral part of American culture, and predatory businesses and men of power have long been exempt from responsibility for their transgressions. What did it for me was the Walmart class action lawsuit, which included an incredible 1.5 million women alleging sexual harassment of discrimination against the company, but was dismissed out of hand by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.
Ignoring countless stories of harassment on the part of lawsuit participants, and dismissing out of hand statistical evidence documenting how Walmart hires far fewer women for management positions than other national retail chains, the late Justice Antonin Scalia assaulted the very notion of women joining together to fight against sexism. In the court’s majority decision, Scalia wrote that women involved in the suit failed to demonstrate to the court “a common answer to the crucial question, why was I disfavored?” Scalia lamented that the case involved “literally millions of employment decisions” and the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that there was “some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together.”
Scalia’s claims were remarkable. Rather than conceding that guilt of an accused party is to be determined through a court of law, he preferred the a priori conclusion that, because such discrimination had not yet been proven in a court of law, it should be dismissed out of hand. Furthermore, it was hard not to see Scalia’s derogatory comment about millions of workplace and hiring decisions as anything other than a “too many women are complaining” justification for dismissing the suit. The Supreme Court’s dismissal of this case was a massive red flag for the nation. That the highest court in the land could so brazenly disregard so many claims, on the flimsiest of “evidence,” suggested that sexual harassment in the workplace persists under a political-economic culture of impunity.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the almost countless allegations of sexual abuse and assault against affluent, largely white men operating in various avenues of corporate America, politics, and the entertainment industry. The list is staggering, including comedians Bill Cosby and Louis CK, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, athletes Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb, Democratic and Republican politicians Roy Moore, Al Franken, John Conyers, and Donald Trump, and journalists/pundits Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Thrush, among many others.
It seems pretty obvious at this point that the main catalyst for the #MeToo campaign was the election of p*ssy grabber-in-chief, Donald J. Trump. That a plutocratic white male could so shamelessly brag about sexual assault, and still be elected (with 42 percent of women supporting him) speaks to a culture of impunity surrounding sexism and sexual harassment, in which conservative women place ideological and partisan considerations over gender and sexual-assault based concerns, not to mention basic self-respect, in choosing to vote for Trump.
With the rise of Trump to national prominence it became more common to hear about a backlash against “political correctness,” with the president giving voice to a strong undercurrent of nativist, racist, xenophobic, and sexist views that have historically persisted throughout American history. But with the anti-Trump uprising and mass protests of the last year – including #MeToo – it is also clear that there is now a backlash against the backlash, with 60 percent of the mass public unwilling to normalize a Trump administration that is the most shamelessly reactionary and bigoted the country has seen in modern history.
The American public is at a crossroads in this fight against sexism. We can choose to take the harassment and assault claims seriously, and recognize that the country has serious problems with basic respect for equal rights, and take steps to try and transform our political culture. Or we can ignore the countless allegations made by victims as nothing more than “identity politics elitism” or the “fabrications of the melodramatic or egotistical few.” To engage in the second choice would be a serious mistake considering the available evidence of mass sexism.
Consider some of the following polling results from the last few months, if you are still doubting the severity of this crisis. One October Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that 48 percent of all employed women in the U.S. say they have been the victims of “an unwelcome sexual advance or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature at work.” A second November poll from PBS/NPR/Marist finds that more than a third of women say they have been “sexually harassed or abused at work,” compared to just 9 percent of men. Furthermore, the poll found that 22 percent of Americans admitted they have “endured sexual harassment or abuse” in the workplace, rather than speak up.
Recognition of America’s sexism problem has been complicated by a lack of institutional accountability, despite growing accusations of sexual abuse and assault. On the one hand, the #MeToo campaign is producing positive, empowering results for women suffering under sexism. According to a November Harris poll, two-thirds of women now say that “the recent outpouring of accusations” make them “feel more comfortable speaking out and challenging” abusers, compared to less than a third of women who say the #MeToo campaign has had no effect on their thinking.
When asked why they would feel more comfortable speaking out, numerous reasons were given. In the PBS/NPR/Maris poll, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of women agreed “I would know I’m not alone because I can see others getting support,” and 56 percent of women agreed that recent events “show me that abusers can be held accountable.” On the other hand, just 47 percent of women said recent allegations against abusive men suggest that, regarding sexual abuse and assault, “I would know I’m not alone because I can see others getting support.” And only 20 percent of women said that, considering recent allegations, “I believe my company would listen and be supportive” if they came forward with their own allegations.
There are signs of progress, and serious challenges, confronting the nation in the battle against sexism. First the positive: the increased willingness of women to speak up against sexual harassment and assault means that the nation is becoming more sensitized to the problem. A large majority of Americans – 75 percent – now agree that “workplace sexual harassment” is a problem, with 64 percent deeming it a “serious” problem. These numbers have increased by 11 and 17 percentage points respectively since originally polled in 2011. In other words, the #MeToo campaign, and broader efforts to fight sexism in the age of Trump, appear to be working. This is a positive development for anyone who cares about combating misogyny, respecting equal rights, and promoting democracy and the rule of law. On the other hand, a significant and loud minority of individuals are opposed to any serious effort to combat sexism. The “alt-right,” and Trump’s support base more broadly, of which only 7 percent believe sexism is a “very big problem,” will be the primary opponents of change. These individuals – white males particularly – have a vested incentive in maintaining their positions of privilege under a patriarchial, sexist system. Others, such as conservative women, will continue to endure this sexist system, as they elevate partisan and ideological concerns with electing misogynist males like Donald Trump and Roy Moore over any interest in combating gender repression.
There is also the problem of leftist sexism to consider. Historically, many on the American left have long demonstrated a disinterest in problems such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism – preferring instead only to recognize the problems of imperialism and classism. The “if it’s not economics or anti-imperialism it’s shit” mantra is a serious roadblock to building mass movements which recognize that repression exists on many dimensions, as related to race and ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, nation of origin, militarism, environmental concerns, and economic/labor based identities – not to mention the intersections between these identities. It’s not a coincidence that most of this insensitivity on “the left” to sexual or racial repression is coming from white males, who themselves benefit from privileges denied to other groups of less fortunate Americans. Getting beyond this narcissistic privilege will be vital if progressives and leftists are to build a truly mass movement for societal transformation.
It will be extraordinarily difficult to build mass momentum for structural change without recognizing oppression across many different dimensions. Fortunately, the Trump administration is the starkest representation of multi-dimensional oppression that we’ve seen in many years. His administration combines blatantly plutocratic, racist, sexist, xenophobic, ecocidal, and homophobic identities, thereby increasing the potential for mass counter-mobilization. Critics on the left will caustically emphasize the reformist nature of #MeToo, and they aren’t wrong to think that the campaign, as currently constituted, is limited. While it is playing a positive role in spotlighting the problem of sexism and institutional impunity, the concern with sexism also needs to be incorporated into a broader program defined by concerns with repression across many different dimensions, in order to avoid charges of “identity politics” reformism.
Top photo: Photo by Backbone Campaign | CC BY 2.0