When I think of the Suffragettes, I think of the women who endured physical and sexual violence as punishment for their perceived crimes, those who carried out hunger strikes and, in some cases, died in the name of gender equality. This year’s centenary, which marks 100 years since the signing of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which gave some women over the age of 30 the right to vote, has come at a time where conversations about sexual politics and women’s rights are at the forefront of public consciousness.
‘Me Too’ was a phrase originally used by social activist Tarana Burke to help survivors realise they aren’t alone. It was catapulted into the Twittersphere by actress Alyssa Milano. As Milano encouraged women to tweet the phrase to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”, the campaign quickly went viral and has been posted online millions of times. The response also included a slew of high-profile celebrities including Uma Thurman, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence and Gwyneth Paltrow, and a quick Google tells me that stories were sent from accounts in countries as far-flung as China, Iran, Israel, India and Russia.
But then, as expected, came the backlash.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve sat down numerous times to write this article and stared at a blank screen. I had no idea what I wanted to say. My overwhelming response is one of frustration. For too long, women have had to bear the burden of other people’s actions and opinions. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many other accounts of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse have been highlighted from Westminster to the White House.
But a wedge has been driven between women – even between campaigners. The fallout intensified when posters – with the words “she knew” covering the eyes of Meryl Streep in a picture of her and Weinstein – began to circulate. Similarly, when actress Rose McGowan criticised women’s plans to wear black to the Golden Globes in support of victims of sexual assault, a group of French females teamed up to denounce the movement for “patronising” women in a letter published in the media. The open letter accused too many “Anglo-Saxon militants for being driven by a hatred of men” and “did not care enough about female sexuality”.
Streep remains steadfast in her avowal that she was ignorant of Weinstein’s behaviour until the news broke, but even if she did know, why is it now her responsibility? It was widely acknowledged in Hollywood that Weinstein, and many others, were predatory. Serious accusations had been made countless times by plenty of women. It speaks volumes about an industry and a system where people feel unable to speak out against men in power for fear of losing their jobs or ruining their own reputations.
As for the narrative of victim-shaming (Why did she go up to the hotel room? Why didn’t she report it sooner? Why is she only saying this now? Why did she, why did she, why did she…?), we should be thoroughly ashamed that such finger-pointing still exists. Another criticism of the #MeToo campaign is that it puts pressure on survivors of sexual assault and abuse to share experiences. No-one owns the rights to another person’s life or story, and that’s something we ought to remember.
Bringing this closer to home, Manchester Art Gallery announced recently that it was removing John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Hylas and the Nymphs to promote discussion about different meanings and interpretations of paintings as part of a project by artist Sonia Boyce. In essence, it’s a painting that shows pubescent, naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom.
The gallery noted that responses were “encouraging” as it showed the public to be passionate about its historic collection, but the project certainly touched a nerve or two. The outrage was palpable. Comments ranged from condemnation over censorship to heated arguments about the political leanings of the curator; some went so far as to call for the collection to be given to another institution. A few people suggested that art should not exist to encourage debate, but merely be “looked at”. Now I’m about as arty as a baked potato but I reckon there’s nowt wrong with a discussion surrounding creative work. Once again, #MeToo was dissected.
But surely our indignation should be directed at the sheer volume and content of the stories included in the #MeToo campaign?
Back in November I had a disagreement with a family member about what he branded a “mass over-reaction” that would leave men feeling like they could no longer “do anything”. There was a real sense of ‘this is getting out of hand now’. And it wasn’t only men who held this opinion, some female relatives thought the same and dismissed events in their own lives as “just the way things were”.
Of course, males aren’t excluded from the narrative – and they certainly shouldn’t be forgotten or sidelined. In the modern world of dating apps, easily accessible pornography and toxic notions of what it means to be ‘masculine’, we’re facing a mental health crisis among our young men. The number of males who have spoken out about sexual assault and abuse is increasing and it’s imperative that we do not lose their voices and stories from the discussion.
Largely, however, people seem concerned about what this 21st century conversation means for dating and for cultivating romantic relationships in the future. “But men aren’t going to want to approach a woman now,” according to many online comments. “This snowflake generation is ridiculous. I met my wife at work.” Or, “what’s wrong with wolf-whistling and telling a woman she’s beautiful?”
This is likely the most divisive debate. I see an enormous difference between a welcome flirtation by the water cooler and having to watch to the most powerful man in your work environment masturbating into a plant pot during a meeting. I acknowledge there’s a grey area in-between, but reading the signals and being appropriate should be a given.
This week, Housemate was dancing in a pub and a man approached her with his hands out as if to grab her waist. “Woah, woah, woah,” she joked, putting her own hands in the air and backing away. “Let me see those hands. This is a dancefloor. Mitts in the air.” I remember being in a bar and a random man grabbed my chest so hard it left me bruised. I’d never seen this person before. I’ve also had my own experiences where male colleagues have been inappropriate and I’ve felt uncomfortable or belittled in a workplace because of my gender.
So, why is it our responsibility to own this uncomfortableness? Why is the shame ours and not the perpetrator’s problem?
In a recent interview with Huffington Post after the MAKERS Conference in Los Angeles, 83-year-old feminist icon, Gloria Steinman was asked her opinion of the #MeToo campaign. “It’s like a tidal wave,” she said. “Women are being believed for the first time ever.” When asked if she was concerned about a backlash and a shift in public opinion she simply responded: “Fuck them”.
Is the backlash against the #MeToo movement tarnishing its integrity? I don’t know, perhaps, but it is still making waves and the ripples are already provoking some semblance of change.
Perhaps we should think back to the work of the Suffragettes? At a recent signing of her new book, Deeds Not Words, at Manchester’s Pankhurst Centre, the great-granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, Dr Helen Pankhurst, announced: “I hope that it doesn’t take another 100 years. I hope this is a decade of action.”
By Emma Yates-Badley, Deputy Editor of Northern Soul
Main image: Liz Foster cushion