As the Kavanaugh backlash shows, #MeToo hasn’t gone far enough

There are few examples in history where social change has come without resistance, and the current movement to expose and challenge the actions of powerful men is no exception.

When power is challenged and progress is sought, those who seek to lose that power will rise up to slap down the movement, limiting and, at times, rolling back that progress, and finding ways to undermine, attack and discredit those who have sought change. The attacks come in all shapes and forms – targeting an individual’s personal account of harm, a workplace’s initiative, a researcher’s methodology, or a government policy. These attacks are often insidious, with the fear of losing power dressed up as a legitimate concern about “reverse discrimination” or “an attack on fair process”. The loud voices of those who hold the power invariably come forward under the guise of hailing a return to sensible, rational discussion; returning balance to a debate that has tipped “too far” in the favour of the “feminist agenda”.

The common response to these forms of backlash is to see the popular majority waver. They pause and look at each other, questioning whether, in our efforts to advance gender equality, we are “tipping the scales” too much in favour of women. Whether, perhaps, it’s all gone too far.

We have not gone too far. As long as sexual harassment remains closeted because women fear coming forward; as long as victims of sexual assault do not report for fear of the judicial process; as long as young girls are taught to sit down and not stand up, as long as powerful men get to rise to even higher ranks despite the harm they have caused; as long as “me too” can only be said among our friends and on our social media but not in our workplaces or in our halls of power: we have not gone too far. We have not even started.

Following the challenge to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US supreme court and the extraordinary testimony of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, we will inevitably see the majority waver. Backlash to feminism, or opposition to initiatives designed to advance women’s rights and social status, is nothing new. Those who fear change react by focusing new energy into maintaining their privilege. Opposition has taken various forms throughout history and in different national and cultural contexts. The seed is planted by those who risk losing power – those men who have a long and rich history of assuming power with no regard to their past or even current actions.

That seed will threaten to fester; it will be disseminated through opinion pieces and conservative news media, through office watercooler chats and message threads. It is a seed that is planted in fear – the fear of losing power; fear of seeing tens then hundreds and then thousands of other women come forward with the stories that they know are waiting in the wings. Fear of a shift in the dynamic that takes away from men something society has told them for all of their lives that they are entitled to and can expect: power.

 

We should be poised for this backlash, not surprised or even outraged. We should expect it to take many forms – including from women, as has been seen through movements such as Women Against Feminism (as distinct from the ever-brilliant satirical Woman Against Feminism Twitter account, @notofeminism) and the current support for Kavanaugh from high-profile Republican women. That is not to say that a movement should be immune from criticism from the inside – indeed, most social movements have involved important discussions and, at times, tension about intersecting forms of oppression. Those challenges are equally important and cannot be framed as a “distraction” from the cause; rather, the cause must be strong enough to handle critiques from both inside and out. In embracing backlash we need to recognise, too, that this stance comes from a place of relative power; the ability to challenge the status quo is not a luxury that all women or people coming from a place of powerlessness can enjoy.

But we should not – more so, we cannot – waver. We should reject the narrative that the movements we are seeing are making the situation worse; that progress is being reversed. Change is not linear, and the retaliation may look like regression. Don’t be fooled – after all, we are just getting started.

 Diane White is a consultant working in the areas of gender equality and violence against women, and was the former principal Adviser to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission’s independent review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment in Victoria police. Paula McDonald is professor of work and organisation and director of the work/industry futures research program in the Queensland University of Technology business school, focusing on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace

 

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