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The conviction of Harvey Weinstein on two counts of felony sex crimes on Monday marks a shift in the way U.S. society has responded to women’s stories of harassment and sexual assault.
The two-year saga of Mr. Weinstein’s downfall has ushered in a new era of public accountability. One of the most significant of these changes is what Selina Gallo-Cruz, professor in the women’s studies program at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, calls a “public restaging” of women’s sexual harassment. “What has long been commonplace in the private, backstage experiences of women’s lives is now being negotiated on a public, front stage,” she says.
Still, many scholars caution that even with concrete changes happening in workplaces and legislatures across American society, it remains to be seen how deep and how lasting they may be.
For Claire Wofford, professor of political science at College of Charleston in South Carolina, the societal movement seen already calls for cautious optimism. “We should consider this not a time of celebration, but certainly a time for hope.”
State Rep. Allison Nutting-Wong says she has witnessed a lot of progress in American society since the #MeToo movement sent a jolt through the decadeslong battle against sexual harassment.
A new mother, the New Hampshire Democrat recently succeeded in getting the House to pass a bill addressing online harassment – part of a wave of legislation passed in other states as well. “Only a few years ago, a similar idea had a lot of opposition,” Representative Nutting-Wong says. “This year when no one noticed, it went through – that says a lot about what has changed in the past few years.”
Yet even as she and many others witnessed two guilty verdicts in the trial of Harvey Weinstein on Monday, Representative Nutting-Wong was reminded just last week how subtle and pervasive a culture of workplace harassment can be.
On the very day the New Hampshire House voted to reprimand seven lawmakers for not completing mandatory anti-harassment training, she had an uncomfortable encounter with a group of older male colleagues at the State House.
“I got on the elevator at the first floor, and there are already a handful of guys in there,” she says. “And they’re just like, ‘Oh, come in – we don’t bite.’” But then another in the elevator guffawed, ‘No, we just nibble,’“ Representative Nutting-Wong says, noting that she tweeted about the incident later that day.
She didn’t feel her colleagues were intentionally trying to make her feel uncomfortable, she says, nor did the crude comments reach a level, in her view, that would demand a formal complaint. Still, she got off the elevator before she reached her floor, and the encounter reaffirmed to her, almost ironically, how important the mandatory training is, she says.
Just as with the conviction of Mr. Weinstein, who was found guilty of two felony sex crimes but acquitted of the most serious charges, many women and men across the country see a similar mix of progress in public accountability – as well as the same-olds of the status quo.
Indeed, the two-year saga of Mr. Weinstein’s downfall has played out like a civic morality tale since his case became the first to rally women to the cause of #MeToo. As a major Democratic donor and a producer whose films are still considered among the greatest of their eras, the Hollywood kingmaker came to embody the looming and intimidating presence often perceived as a defining marker of male power and the privileges it commands, experts say.
Mr. Weinstein’s conviction symbolizes a public recompense after the collective courage of women broke through the silence of the commonplace.
“Since the Harvey Weinstein case came on the scene, we have definitely seen changes in how our institutions and organizations respond to, and prepare for, issues of sexual harassment,” says Terri Boyer, founding director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “And while we have long had laws and policies on the books which prohibit harassment, you are finally seeing companies and institutions’ willingness to follow through with them, and even take on their own leadership in some instances.”
A taboo broken
More women across the country, too, have felt empowered to raise formal complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – which has seen overall complaints from other areas in the workplace decline, in fact.
“This is happening not just in Hollywood, but in other media conglomerates, government and politics, education, and corporations,” Ms. Boyer says about the growing number of women continuing to speak out. “As a social scientist, this indicates to me that we are actually seeing the beginnings of cultural change.”
One of the most significant of these changes is what Selina Gallo-Cruz, professor in the women’s studies program at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, calls a “public restaging” of women’s sexual harassment. “What has long been commonplace in the private, backstage experiences of women’s lives is now being negotiated on a public, front stage,” she says.
“I try to impress upon my students what life was like as a young woman when it was common to witness and experience sexual harassment,” Professor Gallo-Cruz says. “But just as it was ‘normal,’ it also existed in a private sphere.”
“What was taboo was not the harassment itself but speaking out about it in public,” she continues. “Now the times are changing this dynamic – we are in the midst of a paradigm shift.”
Indeed, this shift has been reflected in some of the laws state legislatures have passed in response to the number of women willing to make their experiences public, observers say.
“If you look at the case law and the attitudes before #MeToo, everyone thought that secrecy was fine,” says Elizabeth Tippett, professor at the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene. “If there was a complaint about harassment, for instance, and an employer asked you to keep it secret once it was settled, it was considered reasonable, viewed as part of the transaction.”
“There was not much thought about what the public cost of secrecy might be or how that might affect other people who are in the same position,” she says, noting how some states have moved to limit certain kinds of nondisclosure agreements.
“A time for hope”
Still, many scholars caution that even with such concrete changes happening across American society, it remains to be seen how deep and how lasting they may be. After all, from business and industry to culture, media, and politics, the country’s halls of power remain overwhelmingly male.
“The primary problem with sexual assault and harassment hasn’t been the lack of laws prohibiting that type of behavior. It’s been about how those laws have been interpreted, applied, and, all too often, ignored,” says Claire Wofford, professor of political science at College of Charleston in South Carolina. “Laws never operate in a cultural vacuum, and their potency is directly shaped by the underlying values of the society.”
Representative Nutting-Wong in New Hampshire notes how the responses to her tweet last week have ranged. Some criticized her as a “snowflake” unable to handle the rough-and-tumble competitive world of politics, while others have castigated her decision not to lodge a formal complaint against her colleagues. Those disparate reactions underscore a classic Catch-22 that many women often feel in uncomfortable workplace situations.
“To me, the real benefit of the #MeToo movement and the public reckoning over men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer is that the larger culture is starting to recognize just how embedded sexism and sexual violence are in our society, and how the power structure has operated to protect men and damage women – and some men,” says Professor Wofford.
“It is when you get that larger kind of cultural shift in values that laws that prohibit certain types of behavior can actually begin to operate,” she continues. “We should consider this not a time of celebration, but certainly a time for hope.”