MeToo’s Hidden Activists? Working-Class Women
Last Tuesday, McDonald’s workers in 10 US cities walked off the job to protest against pervasive sexual harassment. A week earlier, female janitors in California marched 100 miles from San Francisco to the state capitol in Sacramento to support anti-harassment legislation. The janitors’ union, SEIU, in partnership with the East LA Women’s Center, has been quietly training women in self-defense and promoting peer-to-peer anti-harassment workshops and an assault crisis hotline. And Monday’s mass walkout of protesters around the nation in support of Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has accused the supreme court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to sexually assault her when they were high school students, was another stunning step.
These efforts represent an element of the MeToo movement seen and heard too little – the protest and outcry of ordinary women, rather than that of celebrity MeToo advocates, which is often evinced at awards ceremonies or on Twitter.
Yet a year after MeToo’s popularization by several famous actresses – and 12 years after the phrase was coined by activist Tarana Burke – we are inundated by the stories of celebrity villains and celebrity survivors, from Les Moonves’ horrifying acts as CBS’s head predator to the public fight between MeToo starlets Rose McGowan and Asia Argento to the self-pitying not-really-apologias of alleged harassers, like the former radio hosts John Hockenberry and Jian Ghomeshi, whose accounts were published this month in Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, respectively.
But there comes a point when boldfaced names must exit stage right. MeToo must be a movement for all – for ordinary women as well as the most renowned among us. And to do that, we should clearly classify MeToo both as what is and what it should be: a labor movement.
If we don’t turn MeToo over to female fast-food workers, janitors, farm workers, cashiers and waitresses, as well as professors and librarians, we will continue to read and hear about celebrity villains – they are the other side of the coin from celebrity victims, after all.
The sad drinking game – name the next man who will crawl out of well-funded so-called exile to demand public sympathy – could go on and on. Exhibit A is Ghomeshi, who writes tenderly about being an “erstwhile ‘celebrity’ who is now an outcast”, after he was accused by 24 women of brutal acts including punching and choking them, hijacking the tale of his own alleged bad acts. (Ghomeshi was charged with sexual assault but acquitted.)
In contrast, the bravery that poor and working-class women like the McDonald’s workers or even middle-class women show in embracing this battle is rarely either dramatic or self-pitying. Yet their risks – getting fired, deported, or even physically harmed – far outstrip those of either celebrity survivors or perpetrators.
We should move our collective gaze to them.
“We need to hear from people – not the actresses, not the people you are asking for autographs from, but those cleaning on the night shift, who have been grappling with this issue for decades,” says the SEIU United Service Workers West secretary-treasurer Alejandra Valles. She represents “invisible women”, as she puts it. “If MeToo’s prominent women don’t listen to others, this will be a huge lost opportunity.”
As Bernice Yeung, author of In A Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, told me, it’s the “specificity” of what happens in individual jobs and professions that is important. You must look at the problem “industry by industry, workplace by workplace”, detailing the specific ways female workers are abused in these venues.
“If you just think ‘sexual harassment happens’, you are thinking generically, and you might move on from the issue,” says Yeung. “It’s critical to know that in each work context – the casting couch, in hotel rooms, in hospitals, to female pastors at churches – it plays out so differently.”
Even blue-collar harassers or assaulters’ trajectories can be quite different from those of the most powerful assaulters. Working-class men aren’t typically offered the opportunity to pen bathetic odes to their former glory in national publications – citing Lolita and Brahms, as Hockenberry did, to explain an apparent penchant for stalking. But the former type’s relative anonymity also works in their favor. As Valles explains, these men often get proverbial slaps on their wrists, then are “recycled” into new jobs where they easily resume the same behavior.
There are contemporary movements that are successful yet not dominated by the stories of celebrities; look no further than Black Lives Matter. In comparison, Leo DiCaprio types and their oil-guzzling jets have weighed down another current movement, the environmental one. (To misquote Us Weekly: celebrities are not like you and me.)
A less fame-focused and more labor-oriented MeToo movement means incorporating not only poor and working-class women but also women in middle-class occupations, like the female tech experts I interviewed five years ago in San Francisco, or many of the women now joining in the mass walkouts across the country in protest of Kavanaugh. At a technology conference infamous for sexual harassment, I witnessed a panel in which one of the male participants made frequent remarks – while on stage – about the large “rack” of the one female panelist. And I was assured this was utterly typical.
The Time’s Up campaign seems to be trying to be inclusive of janitors and tech workers: the organization is “aware that so many working women are not getting the same kind of attention as celebrities”, Yeung says. And the National Domestic Workers Alliance has pushed to expand federal sexual harassment protections for all workers, “closing every loophole”.
In addition, celebrities can, of course, be helpful to working women. Celebrity advocates bring a media- and donor-friendly glow to fundraising for women’s advocacy projects – and there is plenty of it to do. Women must begin to recognize how social stratification enables sexism, and unite across classes to fight it, as they are doing this week.
“If we don’t figure out how to move past these headlines and celebrity voices, how do we find solutions?” Valles asks. People can be “incredibly dismissive” of the women who flip their burgers at McDonald’s or clean the bathrooms of boutique hotels and glassy offices or even those shelving their kids’ books. Yet listening to these women and their experiences and protest – as the latest activism is showing – is “the only way that the MeToo moment will become a real movement”, she argues.
“We don’t need your sympathy,” she adds. “We need you to learn from us.”
Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and author of five books.
Co-published with The Guardian.