As Movements Like #MeToo Grow, We Must Not Forget Their Grassroots Origins

The history of social movements teaches us that sidelining the most vulnerable constituencies and failing to listen to the voices of diverse survivors impoverishes everyone that it claims to speak for
Paras Griffin via Getty Images

The recently circulating #IDidntReport that has emerged in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has caught the headlines recently and typifies the kind of individualised response of recent high profile feminist activism.

Not so long ago it appeared that feminism had become an antiquated form of self-definition for young women, but feminist campaigns, including #IDidntReport, which are centred on sexual violence, misogyny, transgender rights and other global campaigns would appear to have buried this notion.

The idea that these movements suddenly erupted can, however, be misleading. Public protests are built upon the work of grassroots activists over long periods of time. The #MeToo movement is a clear example of this. It began as a grassroots campaign led by a Black woman Tarana Burke in 2006, an activist since her teenage years, and with extensive experience of organising. The campaign was aimed at young women of colour who were survivors of sexual violence, and who lived in communities where resources for trauma survivors were practically non-existent.

A decade later #MeToo became a global campaign and viral twitter hashtag, often ignoring this prior work. “It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow,” as Tarana Burke explained. “It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.”

The danger of a celebrity-led Twitter campaign, despite its important naming and shaming of powerful media moguls, is that it occludes the important grassroots work that feminists elsewhere are doing while personalising and individualising the response to sexual assault. Instead it is important to reframe this moment as one of rupture in established patterns of the exercise of power and privilege.

This is a historical moment that a global, youth-based intersectionally-oriented feminism can seize upon to demand structural change. Sexual harassment does not only take place in the corridors of powerful corporate offices – it is rife in sites that employ working class women such as fast food workers, janitors, waitresses, farm workers, and others who are often unable to claim public attention for their cause. But these women also face an inherent jeopardy because sexual assault occurs in the context of deep economic and personal vulnerability – the risk of getting fired or deported, for example.

Movements are not monolithic entities. There are often large differences in claims, tactics, and constituencies. The question is, who speaks for the rest? White, cis, middle class women with access to higher echelons of power and media are often more comfortable with articulating their needs in the language of their milieu.

When we interrogate this social capture of a movement, we can begin to retell the story of how movements are born, what issues rise to the fore, and which ones are sidelined. For example, the struggles of transgender communities to be free of violence in the workplace, schools, public toilets, prisons are as central to #MeToo as the more publicised cases in Hollywood. This is because they highlight the violence that often accompanies the social devaluation of bodies that do not fit heteronormative norms, and in turn cause us to question the power of such norms.

Does this not suggest, then, that this potential moment of rupture in gendered forms of violence, can be extended into a movement for broader social change? Such moments of uncertainty and change often inspire people to write new scripts, to seek alliances, and build an alternative understanding of the accepted common sense. Speaking from within an academic institution, I see a momentum among students that is building in areas that are seemingly unrelated – Decolonising the Curriculum, Breaking the Silence on racism, initiatives on sexual misconduct in universities, divestment and climate change. It is common to find, among this generation, activists who are simultaneously immersed in several campaigns.

The seismic political shifts represented by Brexit, Trump and the resurgence of the far right and nativist movements in many parts of the world combined with levels of social inequality not seen since the late 19th Century pose a significant challenge to multiple areas of life and livelihoods. Looking forward, single issue-movements may simply miss the point. The history of social movements teaches us that sidelining the most vulnerable constituencies and failing to listen to the voices of diverse survivors impoverishes everyone that it claims to speak for.

Dr Manali Desai is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She will be speaking about intersectionality in the Bridging the gender divide discussion at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 24 October

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