On February 24, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of a criminal sexual act in the first degree and rape in the third degree. On Wednesday, March 11, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. On Thursday, March 19, California issued a “stay at home” order, the first statewide measure in the United States, and New York followed suit on March 20. On Sunday, March 22, Weinstein tested positive for the coronavirus.
The impact of the Weinstein verdict is not as simple as a “win” for the #MeToo movement. His sentencing, by a jury that included six men, is good news for women who hope to be successful in court and thus may encourage women to come forward and bring charges against their assailants. But the conviction does not change the culture in which women live, especially women of color and working-class women. These women still live in a world where sexual assault is common, and resources to bring charges are scarce.
This victory for the #MeToo movement will not have the same impact on women and feminism now that the coronavirus crisis has all out attention. Shelter-in-place orders, which are clearly necessary during this crisis, have several unintended effects that will impact #MeToo and other social movements.
Taking a Hit
First on a long list of these unintended consequences is the fact that women (and children) are forced to stay at home with their abusers. Domestic abuse is on the increase across the world during the lockdowns. The UN has asked governments to take this into account in the ways they address this pandemic.
How to Fight Domestic Violence During a Global Pandemic
Second, feminism, women’s advances in work and pay, as well as hard-won cultural changes of the past 50 years in the US and abroad, will take a hit. In families with two working parents and children, telework will most often result in women having a triple or at times a quadruple burden: paid work, unpaid housework, childcare (which will now include home-schooling for some) and, at times, elderly care. There will be places where men help or take up an equal share of this burden, but more often than not this will fall on women. In single-mom households, of which many women are low-wage workers who unlikely to telework or who have lost their jobs due to layoffs, survival, not feminism, will be the priority.
Then there is the fact that no one is paying attention to the Weinstein verdict during the coronavirus crisis. This is partly due to so many other pressing concerns and partly to the primacy of the story in the news. This reduces its potential to fuel the movement. To compound the problem, no one can protest or march, or even go to court in some places during a lockdown. Many legal practices have been suspended.
Finally, a recession is imminent. This will mean that fewer people have money to give to organizing efforts and nonprofits will have to lay off staff. Many nonprofits are already feeling the impact.
How will all of this impact the future of the #MeToo movement? While we cannot answer this question, we can look for clues in past crises that led feminist movements to refocus their efforts, and the #MeToo movement can look for guidance and hope in their strategies. Of particular relevance is the women’s suffrage movement. During its lifetime, it survived three major crises — the American Civil War, World War I and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 — as well as economic recessions, including the panics of 1857 and 1873. What can the current #MeToo movement learn from their reaction to these crises?
First of all, it needs to focus attention on the crisis because the crisis requires it and deserves it. During the Civil War, the women’s rights movement directed its energy toward assisting with the war effort. This was a strategic choice as well as a practical one — there was really no other choice. The crisis required all hands on deck and did not allow for other issues to take primacy.
The #MeToo movement needs all its organizational strength to assist with the crisis, thereby maintaining member involvement and positive relations with political allies, the press and kindred movements. During the Civil War, the women’s rights movement worked with or created groups dedicated to abolition. The women’s movement viewed the two issues as related and hoped that after slavery was ended, their allies would assist them in gaining the vote and other women’s rights.
The focus on abolition kept women involved, politically savvy and ready to take up the cause again once the war was over. When the United States joined the First World War, many women from various American suffrage organizations assisted with the war effort and with the Spanish pandemic that followed. There is evidence to suggest that they were rewarded in some states for their work during both crises.
Finally, #MeToo needs to look for ways in which its issue and the crisis are interconnected and frame the movement narrative around that. But it must choose carefully. The women’s suffrage movement sought to connect the plight of women with that of slaves. This tactic met with mixed reactions. Women were legally chattel at the time, but the reality of life for many white women in the movement was not identical to the reality of life for slave women. Thus, this tactic harmed some of their relations with abolitionists and didn’t resonate with the public. But later in the movement, during World War I, women did successfully make the case to President Woodrow Wilson and other political leaders that it was ironic that the US was fighting for democracy abroad when it wasn’t truly a democracy at home. So: Connect, but choose wisely and thoughtfully.
How can these lessons be put into in practice? During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the group Women Deliver has highlighted the interconnectedness of this virus and women’s issues, thereby maintaining their work on women’s issues while simultaneously showing their commitment to ending the pandemic. The frame is thoughtful and relevant. Many women’s groups could adopt a similar approach, as we know this virus will have a disproportionate impact on low-wage workers and people of color, but in particular women in both groups.
The #MeToo movement could organize around ways to help women who are stuck at home with an abuser during lockdown orders. While the #MeToo movement has been focused around sexual harassment at work, domestic violence is a close cousin. And the movement certainly could continue to organize around the sexual harassment that female low-wage workers continue to face as essential workers. This is as pressing as ever.
Crafting ways for those active in the movement to remain relevant at this time will help everyone. It will help the movement survive this time when attention is rightly directed elsewhere, it will help women in abusive relationships, and it will help women who continue to be sexually harassed in the workplace and have no recourse during this crisis. Given the roots of the movement, it is a logical step.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.