A Long View of Me Too

High-profile cases of sexual harassment have dominated the media, social and otherwise. Scott McLemee comments on a new book of essays that might push the discussion forward.

March 2, 2018
Cover of Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo, edited by Jessie Kindig

Nobody invoking the formula “the personal is political” when it caught on in the 1970s could have anticipated the strange turns that principle has taken lately. It has become much too literal. The exercise of executive power in the United States is now routinely subsumed into one man’s grudges, feuds, insecurities and tantrums. And like the proverbial frog being gradually boiled alive, you start to get used to it. But that is hardly what “the personal is political” originally meant, however weirdly apropos that saying may now seem.

A pedantic conscience obliges me to acknowledge that it’s also sometimes rendered “the personal is the political,” and that it emerged in feminist consciousness-raising circles in the late 1960s, though a search of scholarly and journalistic databases confirms the phrase going into wider usage by about 1972. Originally the point it made was counterintuitive. It cut across the distinction between private and public life, which just so happened to line up pretty closely with the one between domesticity and civic affairs -- typically understood as respective female and male spheres of responsibility. Keeping them totally separate meant keeping them permanently unequal.

Some people liked it that way, of course. Whole political careers have been built around nostalgia for certain kinds of public silence. But expectations of equality have a way of becoming a habit, which is one of the lessons to be taken from a new collection of essays called Where Freedom Starts: Sex Power Violence #MeToo (Verso), edited by Jessie Kindig, a visiting scholar in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and available to download for free from the publisher’s website.

The hashtag in the subtitle marks the book as part of a definite moment. On the other hand, it exhibits more awareness of social history than Twitter-mediated movements normally inspire. A number of contributors emphasize how blinkered it is to think of Me Too as a response to allegations of sexual harassment against the movie producer Harvey Weinstein -- or even as a response to Donald Trump’s boast of being able to grope with impunity.

Danielle L. McGuire’s chapter “The Maid and Mr. Charlie: Rosa Parks and the Struggle for Black Women’s Bodily Integrity” -- adapted from a longer version that appeared in a collection of papers published by Rutgers University Press last year -- opens up the familiar narrative of Parks as civil rights icon to include her work in the 1940s to demand justice for African-American women attacked or raped by white men. The working-class black women who made up nearly 70 percent of bus passengers in Montgomery, Ala., were routinely subjected to groping and sexualized insults from drivers -- a fact airbrushed out of most accounts of the bus boycott Parks launched. And a manuscript found after her death strongly suggests that Parks herself had at very least been threatened with rape as a teenager. “The boycott was never just about segregated seating,” writes McGuire; “it was about the right to move through the world without being touched inappropriately, sexually or racially harassed, or physically assaulted.”

Another theme running through the collection is that the ability even to claim that right -- much less to give it the force of law -- is hard-won and precarious. An interview with the historian Stephanie Coontz points out that sexual harassment only began to get press coverage in 1975, “when this woman at Cornell filed a claim for unemployment because she resigned from her job due to unwanted touching”; the following year, “a survey by Redbook found that 80 percent of respondents reported an encounter in sexual harassment on the job,” but it was largely ignored. The reprint of Linda Gordon’s speech on “The Politics of Sexual Harassment” from 1981 notes the success of feminists in adding the term and concept to public discourse while also framing questions about how it should be defined and enforced. “Of course we need to use legal and administrative procedures against sexual harassment wherever they are available to us,” she says, “but we must resist turning the power completely over to the state or other institutions.”

Quite a few pieces raise variants of this point. Striking a balance has not gotten easier since then. And that is where Me Too comes in -- not the hashtag that went viral last fall, but Tarana Burke’s use of the phrase, beginning more than a decade ago, while counseling young victims of sexual violence. There are therapeutic benefits to learning “not just that you’re not alone, but that you’re normal,” as Burke puts it in the interview reprinted in Where Freedom Starts. But she also voices concern with the limitations and risks involved in disclosing painful experiences via social media.

Not every deconstruction of the public/private divide is emancipatory, after all. And in even the best cases, it tends to make things more complicated. “The answer to rape culture is not, and can never be, liability culture,” writes Jane Ward in “Bad Girls: On Being the Accused.” And so it would be a bad outcome if Me Too were to lead to nothing better than “compliance with institutional policies that attempt to manage people's unpredictable behavior, create sex-free institutional environments, and protect the institutions from profit-disruption or lawsuits.” Agreed, in principle -- but again, establishing the proper balance is a difficult business, at best.

The alternatives ought not to be reduced to the choice between living under the Anti-Sex League of Orwell's 1984 and the bad old days. Where Freedom Starts opens up the discussion in important ways, and Kindig has done a fine job of pulling together writings by activists, academics and women with stories to tell.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top