Symposium | Can Women Save America?

#MeToo: New Power and New Laws

By Fatima Goss Graves

Tagged politicssexismWomen

In the fall of 2017, as I was easing into my new role as head of the National Women’s Law Center, women’s lives were suddenly at the center of political, social, and legal debate. Household names in Hollywood had spoken out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of Harvey Weinstein. The #MeToo movement went viral. Women who had remained silent for decades were sharing their pain, finding solidarity in Tarana Burke’s Me Too framework.

Then something happened that few of us could have predicted. Women farmworkers posted an open letter to the women of Hollywood. “Dear Sisters,” it began. “We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well. Countless farmworker women across our country suffer in silence because of the widespread sexual harassment and assault that they face at work…[P]lease know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.”

That letter, penned by longtime activist Mónica Ramirez, was a guiding light for the hundreds of women in entertainment who first came together to take on the longstanding abuse in their sector. Those in entertainment realized that this was a moment where they could link arms with women far beyond their industry to drive unprecedented and lasting change. That moment gave rise to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, an initiative housed at and administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund. It provides connections to legal and public relations assistance for workers who speak out about sexual harassment. Women farmworkers, restaurant workers, fast food workers, and retail workers now have access to support that had not only been out of reach, but deeply needed to challenge individuals and industries that for too long used intimidation and retaliation to force them into silence. In just over two years, the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund has connected over 4,350 workers to legal support in the aftermath of sexual harassment and assault on the job. We’ve grown our legal network to more than 700 attorneys. We’ve committed $11 million dollars to over 250 legal cases and public relations campaigns that are holding harassers, abusers, and enablers accountable.

The success and power of the #MeToo movement stems from one salient fact: It is guided by the women activists who were closest to the pain. They proved that by linking arms across traditional power divides they could create a strategic and inclusive movement that takes on longstanding power structures.

In some ways this is groundbreaking. In other ways, it is all too familiar. From the start of the grand experiment we call American democracy, women have had to negotiate for power, justice, and equal citizenship. “[R]emember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,” Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband John Adams and the Continental Congress. She warned that if “particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Women in this country have been fomenting rebellions ever since. #MeToo was one such rebellion. It upended a status quo built on the notion that women would suffer silently, for silence was a presumed price of women’s inequality. But with #MeToo, women showed that their voices could be more powerful than the systems that insisted on keeping them down.

Indeed, over the past few years, women across the country have shown what is possible when we demand full equality. They are young women like Breauna Morrow, who was a 15-year-old cashier at a McDonald’s in St. Louis when she was repeatedly sexually harassed by a co-worker. When she chose to speak up and tell her supervisors, they refused to take action. Morrow reported that one manager told her, “You will never win that battle.” But she refused to stay silent. With the help of the Fight for $15 campaign, she came together with other McDonald’s workers and found lawyers willing to take on their case. And then they came to us. With financial support from the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, Morrow and nine other McDonald’s workers filed charges against the company. On September 18, 2018, hundreds of McDonald’s workers took part in a one-day strike in solidarity with Morrow and the other McDonald’s plaintiffs to protest the sexual harassment they saw at work every day. The strikers held signs that said #MeToo McDonald’s. Some wore tape over their mouths, symbolizing how their voices had been silenced for too long. Then more women started coming forward, and we funded another round of investigations.

McDonald’s responded by instituting an anti-harassment training program that activists say doesn’t go nearly far enough. But the workers aren’t backing down. Last November, Michigan employees filed a class action lawsuit, charging pervasive and systemic sexual harassment at McDonald’s, and demanding stronger measures to address the problem. And in April, Florida workers joined together in another class action lawsuit.

Today, as our world has been thrown into an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, those brave voices are needed as never before. COVID-19 is decimating our communities and leaving women—especially women of color—in peril. In just three weeks, from March 15 to April 4, nearly 17 million people filed unemployment insurance claims. We are in a crisis unseen since the Great Depression.

Once again, women must rebel.

To do this right, we must center the experiences of those who are closest to the pain of this pandemic. Women have been on the front lines, Black and brown women especially so, in jobs that are deemed essential and cannot be done remotely—health-care workers, janitors, child-care and home-care workers, shelter advocates, grocery store cashiers, and delivery service people. Women make up 75 percent of hospital workers; 88 percent of psychiatric, nursing, and home-health aides; 93 percent of child-care workers, and 66 percent of cashiers and retail salespeople in grocery stores. Women are overrepresented in the hospitality, restaurant, beauty, and other service sectors, which have seen massive job loss. They are the staff at early learning centers, schools, human services offices, and community centers that have shuttered and laid off workers. They are tipped workers whose hours already fluctuated from week to week, making it impossible to save. Women who are undocumented are also overrepresented in these jobs but are still being left out of key relief provisions.

For these women, COVID-19 was not the beginning of their challenges. Women make up two-thirds of those working in jobs that pay especially low-wages and offer poor working conditions—a fact that has long been true. COVID-19 merely revealed the ongoing problems faced by low-wage workers, including poor working conditions, lack of health care and paid leave, and persistent discrimination and harassment. Indeed, the very problems that led #MeToo to go viral are coming into stark relief today as we face this pandemic.

On the other side of this public health emergency, we will rebuild. This country has done that again and again, laboring to put together the pieces and forge a new future. Yet with each iteration there is an opportunity to revisit the balance of power that has baked injustice into the systems that drive this country—in our economy, our education systems, our health systems, our justice systems, the very foundations of our democracy.

Women workers are leading strikes against companies
like Instacart and Amazon, demanding the protective gear government failed to guarantee.

We need only to take a glimpse at race and sex disparities in health, education, and criminal justice systems to see how truly broken they are. Black women are less likely to receive needed health care, especially during pregnancy. Pregnancy-related mortality rates in this country are more than three times higher for Black mothers than white mothers, and Black infants are more than twice as likely to die than white infants. Starting at an early age, Black girls are more likely to be expelled or suspended from school for minor incidents, ending up disproportionately in the school-to-prison pipeline. Black women also experience more violence in their lifetimes than women of other races. More than four in ten Black women are victims of violence from an intimate partner, and more than 20 percent are survivors of rape—a higher rate than women overall.

Each of these statistics feeds into an economic inequality for Black women that remains deeply entrenched. Black women are typically paid 61 cents for every dollar paid to white men, which translates into a loss of $1,099 a month. The situation is even worse for Latina and Native women who lose, respectively, $2,336 and $2,157 a month to the wage gap. Recent policy decisions have compounded the problem. For instance, the 2017 tax law delivered significant benefits to high-income, high-wealth households and big corporations, while leaving out women, people of color, and working families. The exorbitant cost of the tax law led to proposals to cut programs and services that help women and families meet basic living standards—exacerbating racial, gender, and economic inequality even before this crisis took hold. These facts and figures are so startling that they should have long ago led to rebellion. The good news is that it is coming.

There is a groundswell being fueled by the voices and influence of women who are rising up, speaking out, and forcing political leaders to listen. Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, women are driving a rebellion that will outlast the most acute parts of this crisis. I’ve been inspired by the women who have launched mutual aid funds to provide relief for the many workers historically left out of labor and civil rights protections and who were intentionally left out of the economic recovery. Funds started by groups such as One Fair Wage, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Justice for Migrant Women are providing emergency relief for tipped workers, domestic workers, and farmworkers during the coronavirus pandemic. And women workers are leading strikes against food delivery services such as Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods, demanding the protective gear that policymakers failed to guarantee, and better wages as they navigate the front lines of this dangerous pandemic.

Although women still have a long way to go to reach leadership parity, they are at a precipice of power that our foremothers could not have imagined. In 2018, we elected a record number of women to Congress, including many pathbreaking Black and brown women who were the first to hold those roles from their states—the first Native American women, the first Muslim women, the first Black women from New England and the first Latinas from Texas. Issues that impact the health and well-being of women are central to our national discourse. Surveys show that more people than in recent memory support abortion rights, workers’ right to organize, LGBTQ rights, and health care for all. And it is no accident that the most diverse Congress in history has produced legislation during the pandemic that categorized caregivers as essential workers and expanded paid sick days and family leave.

For women today, this is all part of an inexorable drumbeat toward change that has been a long time coming. Those in leadership positions would be wise to recognize the rebellion in their midst. Women will be central to our nation’s efforts to rewrite the fragile rules of a democracy that have always come up short for them and so many others. Politicians need to embrace the issues that matter most to women and let them guide their policy choices.

This is not only the right thing to do, it is politically prudent. As women move toward parity in political office, those who have fomented rebellion for decades are pressing political leaders to adopt their agendas and institute systemic change. That’s what happened in Virginia in January when the state legislature, which had just turned Democratic blue for the first time in more than 20 years, passed the long-delayed Equal Rights Amendment. With that vote, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed for a law passed by Congress in 1972 to finally cross the finish line. Legal battles remain, but the political fight waged by generations of women yearning for a simple statement of equality in the Constitution had finally paid off.

Since #MeToo took hold, statehouses across the country have led the push for legislative change. A total of 15 states have enacted new laws strengthening sexual harassment protections. During the 2019 legislative session, more than 300 state legislators representing 40 states and the District of Columbia declared their commitment to supporting survivors and strengthening protections, including passing laws that prohibit nondisclosure and forced arbitration agreements as a condition of employment.

The U.S. House of Representatives has also heard the message from women constituents. In March 2019, just a few months after Democrats took over the majority, the House easily passed the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was first introduced in 1997 with the aim of closing the gender pay gap. With historic numbers of women in Congress, including women of color, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders recognized that this was the moment to put the issue on the House floor. “Equal pay for equal work is now the center of public discourse,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, who has led the fight for the legislation for more than 20 years.

And there’s even more important work coming. We must take action to address workplace harassment, embodying the principle that no matter where you work or what you do, you deserve safety and dignity on the job. Domestic workers, gig workers, and those who work for very small companies should no longer be excluded from that basic right.

A year before the bill was introduced, domestic workers and farmworkers swarmed Capitol Hill to draw attention to laws that have left them out and systematically devalued the so-called “women’s work” performed largely by Black and brown women. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not cover workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, which means domestic workers, such as nannies; homecare workers employed by small agencies; women farmworkers, and independent contractors have few legal options when confronted with sexual harassment on the job. The leadership and persistence of those employed in these industries—those closest to the pain—led directly to the introduction of the legislation.

But rebellious women do not limit their ambition or agenda to what is deemed politically reasonable in any particular moment. Their task—indeed our task—is to name the collective vision and sound a warning that we are coming. As women activists have shown us for generations, we need to keep pushing for change even if we aren’t certain where it will lead us or when it will finally arrive. These women have already succeeded in dramatically altering the conversation about sexual harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Perpetrators like Harvey Weinstein are in prison, and dozens of powerful men across industries have been forced to step down from their positions after women came forward to speak their truths. Survivors now feel supported and heard in a way that seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, knowing that TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund will back them up and provide the resources they need to continue the fight. Changes in our laws and policies inevitably lag cultural changes of the kind brought about by the #MeToo movement. But women today are seated squarely at the negotiating table and are in a better position to achieve lasting systemic change than at any time in our nation’s history.

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Fatima Goss Graves is the president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.

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