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Heard and Believed
A cultural recokoning. The #MeToo movement. Time’s up. The catchphrases of the past several months describe a seemingly sudden tectonic social shift in attitudes about sexual harassment—when women’s accusations are being believed and accused men are facing consequences.
It may seem sudden—so quickly did it erupt after the allegations began last fall about Harvey Weinstein’s abuses—but the shift didn’t come out of nowhere. As legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon ’69 wrote in The Guardian in December, “Transforming a privilege of power into a disgrace so despicable that not even many white upper-class men feel they can afford to be associated with it took decades of risk, punishment and work, including legal work.”
She should know. As a law student in the 1970s, MacKinnon developed the legal argument (later adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) that sexual harassment is discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Similarly, even though prominent women accusers were rightly celebrated by Time magazine as “silence breakers,” women have, in fact, been telling their stories of abuse and harassment all along. What is new is that they’re being heard and believed. When, in The Hollywood Reporter in November, Anna Graham Hunter ’89 wrote about Dustin Hoffman harassing her when she was a 17-year-old production intern, she began this way: “This is a story I’ve told so often I’m sometimes surprised when someone I know hasn’t heard it.” Nonetheless, when Hoffman was questioned about it by late-night TV host John Oliver, the actor first denied knowing Hunter and then questioned her motivation in “not bringing it up for 40 years.” It appears she didn’t wait. He just didn’t hear it.
Changing the culture can take decades, as Smith women like MacKinnon and Gloria Steinem ’56 can attest. Since its earliest issues in the 1970s, Ms. magazine—with founder Steinem at the helm—began writing about the hostile working conditions and inequalities created by pervasive sexual harassment. So, the past six months have been extraordinary. When The New York Times broke the story about Weinstein’s widespread abuses, it was not only Weinstein’s celebrity that drew attention, it was also the prominence of his accusers, including actors Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow. They cracked open the gate for sexual harassment allegations to be made public, but when dozens of other accomplished but lesser-known women, like Hunter or Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85, added their voices, the floodgates broke wide open.
In these stories, Roberts reflects on her experience, at age 21, as perhaps the earliest reported target of Weinstein’s sexual aggression and the toll it took on her, and about her later research into sexual objectification. As she considered going public with her accusation against a beloved movie star, Hunter describes the courage she gained from knowing that Smith women on social media would defend her against the online attacks she knew would come.
The #MeToo movement has been electrifying for many women, who were witnessing, perhaps for the first time, that the power of women’s voices could change the culture. As MacKinnon writes in her essay, “I suspect that a lot of the sexual harassment that has been a constant condition of women’s lives since forever is not happening just now.” Now that’s a shift.
This story appears in the Spring 2018 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.