As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I’m having some cognitive dissonance figuring out how to address you. As a friend giving American women energy and hope? As an enemy out to undermine our safety and humanity? Depending on the day, you’re both. I guess that makes you a frenemy, bringing with you all the inconvenient contradictions we remember from the high school adversaries who pushed us to get stronger and bolder in order to prevail.
Along with that vengeful bully, 2017, you’ve ushered in an exceptionally effective period of feminist anger and organizing that has already led to structural changes we had always been told would be impossible. Yet that uprising is happening during and directly in response to intense political backlash against gender (and racial, economic, and social) justice. We wake up exhausted by the fresh hells every new day seems to bring, but we draw strength from the action and solidarity we find in myriad forms of resistance.
So, in honor of Women’s History Month, let’s look at why we are truly in the best of times, and the worst of times.
BEST: No one embodies the articulate rage and persuasive brilliance of the #NeverAgain youth anti-gun movement better than Emma González. In just a month and a half, the 18-year-old bisexual Cuban American Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student has emerged as a fearless leader. Not only did González’s politically forceful yet emotionally vulnerable “We call BS!” speech days after Nikolas Cruz murdered seventeen people in Parkland, Florida, help galvanize the nation, but she and her fellow activists are intersectional feminism and racial justice in action: Their organizing is racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse, a large percentage of its leaders are girls, and they keep checking their privilege and sharing their power. Following the shooting, Parkland organizers built respectful and intentional collaborations with kids of color from Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, plus survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. White boys from Parkland have used their platform to call out media erasure of the activism and perspectives of Black students who’ve been attempting to combat gun violence across the country; at the same time, Black and Latinx teens across the country have spoken out, walked out, and taken a knee in protest, to draw attention to how racism, poverty, and a lack of resources combine to make gun violence an everyday problem in their communities — and how the media either ignores their struggles, or blames them for this systemic problem. They’ve already achieved passage of gun control legislation in Florida, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington, and via the federal spending bill; they’ve created enough pressure that a dozen corporations have cut ties with the NRA.
As hundreds of thousands of protesters attended last weekend’s March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., the organization of the rally displayed more strategic efficacy, savvy messaging, and political sophistication than many of the women’s rights, anti-war, and LGBTQ marches I’ve seen there over the last two decades. And González earned her place in history with a daring and instantly iconic piece of political artistry, interrupting her impassioned speech to stand in resolute silence, staring the country’s inaction in the face, until six minutes and twenty seconds had elapsed. Then, wiping away tears, she furiously explained that that was exactly how long Cruz took to complete his massacre. She left the crowd with this stark plea: “Fight for your lives before it is someone else’s job.”
My favorite #MarchForOurLives protest sign featured a photo of González looking poised for battle, under the caption, “Into every generation, a slayer is born.” Watching her go head-to-head with Dana Loesch on CNN, it’s easy to believe in Emma the NRA Slayer. With all they’ve accomplished and all they’re fighting to achieve, González and her fellow leaders — like 17-year-old L.A. activist Edna Chavez, 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, 18-year-old Samantha Fuentes, 19-year-old Chicago activist Trevon Bosley, and 17-year-old David Hogg — may not have Buffy’s superpowers, but the hope they’re inspiring is magical.
WORST: These kids should never have been forced to take on the gun lobby as an act of self-defense. Bullets should not have stolen their childhoods, or killed their friends, family members, and loved ones in school, on sidewalks, or in movie theaters, dance clubs, and places of worship. They shouldn’t have to grow up in fear of shootings by classmates, cops, or white supremacists. And, when they manage to channel their trauma, fear, and outrage into compelling leadership for social change, these survivors damn well shouldn’t find themselves the targets of malicious misinformation and vicious attacks.
NRA spokespeople Loesch and Colion Noir have directly and indirectly insulted the Parkland survivors, while the organization’s supporters have attempted to smear the kids and all the student protesters who walked out or marched as “crisis actors” or puppets of liberal billionaires. “Gun rights” trolls doctored a Teen Vogue photo shoot featuring Emma González ripping up a gun target poster to make it appear as if she was destroying the U.S. Constitution, circulating the image thousands of times; similarly, Breitbart, InfoWars, and others pretended that Hogg gave a Nazi salute at the historic rally, and dubbed in audio and inserted video of the Hitler Youth over a clip of González’s speech. Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for Maine State House, tweeted that González was a “skinhead lesbian” and Hogg a “bald-faced liar” and a “moron.” (Hogg denounced the tweet and called for challengers to run against Gibson; days later, Democrat and Republican challengers filed paperwork to run, and Gibson dropped out of the race.)
BEST: The #MeToo movement — a project founded by activist Tarana Burke in 2007 to support sexual abuse survivors (especially women of color) — grew into a post–Harvey Weinstein viral hashtag campaign whose reckoning is changing America in palpable ways. Meticulous reporting about the movie mogul’s decades-long pattern of rape, sexual harassment, and intimidation of more than fifty women led to more journalism uncovering similar abuse by powerful men in nearly every workplace, from Hollywood to Congress, from newsrooms to produce fields, restaurants, tech companies, academia, bodegas, and more. Farm workers and domestic workers collaborated with the rich and famous actresses who occupied the media’s initial attention, helping to expand the news frame from “Whoa, our favorite celebs were terrorized behind the scenes?” to “The epidemic of sexual abuse has an even more devastating impact on working-class, poor, and immigrant women because of economic insecurity and systemic racism.” And, for once, the news cycle didn’t drop the story; five months later, reporters, op-ed writers, anchors, and pundits continue to out abusers, who are no longer able to operate with impunity. Time named the #MeToo “Silence Breakers” 2017 Person of the Year.
And #MeToo’s feminist rage was not just righteous, it was productive. For the first time, we started to see actual consequences for powerful men and the many industries that previously protected them. Weinstein lost his job and is being targeted for potential criminal investigation, while his Weinstein Company filed for bankruptcy this month and revoked nondisclosure agreements that have silenced his past victims. NBC fired Today Show cash cow Matt Lauer, PBS fired Charlie Rose for his pattern of abuse, and NPR fired both chief news editor David Sweeney and vice president for news Michael Oreskes over their sexual misconduct. After Kevin Spacey’s long-term abuse of boys and men came to light, Netflix wrote him out of House of Cards and Christopher Plummer reshot all Spacey’s scenes in the already-completed film All the Money in the World. Mother Jones reported that at least fifteen elected officials announced within the past year that they “would resign, retire, or not seek re-election following accusations of sexual misconduct.” This is just a tiny fraction of the influential predators who have finally faced their comeuppance. (True story: This paragraph was initially 950 words long.) In the ongoing #MeToo reckoning, the public is finally supporting — and the media is finally believing — sexual abuse survivors.
WORST: Unless the abuser in question is one of the public’s faves, that is. Then, all bets are off, as illustrated by the intense backlash to attempts to hold progressive Democratic senator Al Franken of Minnesota (accused of groping and harassing behavior by at least eight women) and comedian and Netflix writer-producer-star Aziz Ansari (described as a coercive and predatory creep by a woman with whom he went on a date) accountable for their actions. Franken remained beloved even after he resigned under pressure from members of his own party, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; she faced contempt. As journalist Jill Filipovic noted in Cosmopolitan, Gillibrand, a potential Trump challenger in 2020, was branded by pundits and Democratic donors alike as America’s “most devious and cunning politician,” a hypocrite, and a disloyal political opportunist leading a “McCarthyist” witch hunt and a “lynch mob” to unseat Franken without a hearing. On the pop culture front, three dozen women who worked with Franken on SNL decades ago signed a letter supporting him. Those who agreed that perpetrating sexual abuse renders even progressive leaders unfit for office were described throughout the media debate as naive and self-defeating for losing Franken’s reliably Left vote; Democratic senator Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, called the critiques of Franken “the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen done to a human being.”
The larger #MeToo backlash was even more insidious in response to a salacious exposé detailing how Ansari (who built his brand as a woke, pro-feminist comedian and literally wrote the book on Modern Romance) repeatedly ignored his date’s attempts to slow down or stop his sexual advances. The anonymous woman’s story itself wasn’t disbelieved — she was simply attacked for publicizing it, supposedly proof that #MeToo had “gone too far” (Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has described the movement as “a war on people who don’t deserve to be hurt”). Over and over, in the Atlantic, on The View, on HLN, and in a torrent of other outlets, the incident was used to proclaim that #MeToo was a prudish “sex panic” ready to take down so-called good men like Ansari, whose actions were commonplace and “not as bad” as rape. Because she didn’t immediately leave or scream “no,” the accuser was deemed “appalling,” irresponsible, vindictive, and a fake victim, and talking about her experience amounted to nothing more than “revenge porn” over a “bad date.”
BEST: Nothing typifies the year’s contradictions more than the 90th Academy Awards, held on March 4. Disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein’s membership was revoked, something Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel celebrated in his opening monologue: “We need to set an example and the truth is if we are successful here, if we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace,” he deadpanned, “women will only have to deal with harassment all the time at every other place they go.”
While Weinstein was banished from the ceremony, several of his victims were given pride of place. Along with Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek, Annabella Sciorra — whose film career was destroyed after Weinstein, according to her recent revelations, raped and terrorized her — referenced #MeToo and #TimesUp from the gilded Oscars stage, before introducing a video on gender and racial diversity in storytelling onscreen and behind the camera, featuring Mira Sorvino, another actress harassed and blacklisted by Weinstein. Best Actress winner Frances McDormand capped off the night with a fiery feminist speech encouraging actors to use “inclusion riders” to mandate proportional representation in films. By the time the Oscars aired, the #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund had raised $21 million and heard from 1,700 women from sixty industries coming forward for help with sexual harassment cases. Watching the live broadcast, you could almost forget that this was the same show that honored fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski as Best Director in 2002, or the same industry that petitioned for his release after he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 on a warrant for that 1977 case.
WORST: You could almost forget…but not quite. The Academy’s supposed dedication to holding sexual abusers accountable crumbled when voters handed an Oscar to Kobe Bryant, who was arrested and charged with rape in 2003 and eventually apologized to his victim in court for nonconsensual sex, paying out an undisclosed civil settlement after criminal charges were dropped. Perhaps this is unsurprising when we consider the three recent sexual harassment complaints against John Bailey, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Yesterday, the Academy announced that an internal investigation “determined that no further action was merited.”) And time was definitely not up for Ryan Seacrest who, despite facing allegations of sexual harassment and assault by his former stylist, was protected by E! and allowed to control the tone and topics of questions on the red carpet.
Who was time up for? E! producer Aileen Gram-Moreno filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employment discrimination complaint stating that she was fired and replaced by a man after she aired a Golden Globes red carpet clip of Eva Longoria criticizing the channel for paying former anchor Catt Sadler approximately half the salary of her male E! News co-host, Jason Kennedy.
BEST: On inauguration day in 2017, women set the record for the largest single day of protests in American history. Now, just as what happened on a smaller scale in 1992 (dubbed “the Year of the Woman” following the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings), they’re channeling that righteous rage by running for office in unprecedented numbers. At least 575 women have declared that they will campaign for the House, Senate, or governor this election cycle, including many first-time candidates. EMILY’s List knocked down a wall in its D.C. office to accommodate new staff to handle 30,000 inquiries from women interested in potentially running for office. And a new website, Black Women in Politics, offers a searchable database of 573 (and counting) Black women candidates, including 98 running for federal, 200 for state, and 249 for local offices (26 are coded “not specified”). Of these, 364 are challengers, and 333 are running in red states.
In one of the most exciting of these races, Stacy Abrams has a strong shot at becoming Georgia’s first Black female governor, raising $2.5 million for her war chest so far. Also looking to flip Georgia blue? Lucia McBath, an anti-gun activist with Moms Demand Action and one of the Mothers of the Movement (her son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in 2012), who is running for the state House of Representatives. And after Republican representative Randy Hultgren, of Illinois, broke his promise to save the Affordable Care Act, Lauren Underwood, a 31-year-old nurse and former senior advisor in President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, decided to run for Hultgren’s seat — against six middle-aged white men. She is the first Black woman ever to run in Illinois’s 14th District, which has never elected a female congressional representative.
Underwood’s bid may seem like a pipe dream, but as transgender former journalist Danica Roem recently proved, nothing’s impossible. Last year, when thirteen-term Republican incumbent Robert G. Marshall tried to pass a transphobic bathroom bill, 33-year-old Roem launched a bid to unseat the state delegate — then defeated Marshall by nearly ten points. In ousting the man who called himself the state’s “chief homophobe” and ran ads attacking her as a “bathroom predator,” Roem became the first openly transgender person to ever be elected to any state legislature in America. When asked about Marshall after the election, she replied, “I don’t attack my constituents. Bob is my constituent now.” That may be the closest a politician has ever come to throwing Mariah Carey–style “I don’t know her” shade.
WORST: The Nazi-coddling Pussy Grabber in Chief still occupies the Oval Office. For now. (Paging Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Maxine Waters, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Tammy Duckworth: 2020 is calling.)
So, 2018, your potent combination of revolutionary hope and regressive backlash has given me whiplash. But as Women’s History Month draws to a close, let’s raise a glass to American women’s increased demands for electoral power, sane public policy, an end to sexual abuse and gender and racial discrimination, and safety for our children (informed by our children). While you open the wine, I’ll put on some music. How about “Stormy Weather”?