When protesters took to the streets to protest the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, many of their signs bore two words: “me too.”
The words were an expression of solidarity with Christine Blasey Ford, who says that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school, and with a movement that has gained nationwide attention in the last year. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) even made reference to it in her speech announcing that she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh despite the allegations: “The #MeToo movement,” she said, “is real.”
Founded by Tarana Burke more than a decade ago, #MeToo came to new prominence in October 2017, after women came forward publicly with allegations of sexual harassment and assault by producer Harvey Weinstein. In the weeks and months that followed, the movement gained steam as more and more Americans shared their own stories of being harassed or assaulted in the workplace by people — most of them men — in positions of power. Over time, #MeToo became a broader conversation, not just about workplace harassment and assault, but about coercive and abusive behavior outside of work as well.
“The #MeToo movement is about survivors reclaiming our power,” Carmen Perez, co-chair of the Women’s March, told Vox. “It is also a movement of accountability on violence against women and sexism.”
A year after the movement entered its most public phase, its long-term effects remain uncertain. Some high-profile people — Weinstein, Mario Batali, Al Franken, and Les Moonves, to name a few — were fired or stepped away from their jobs as a result of the allegations against them.
Others, like Kavanaugh and President Donald Trump, have remained in positions of power. And while some workplaces have made changes to address sexual harassment, it’s not yet clear whether industries will make the larger reforms necessary to truly keep workers safe. Meanwhile, the costs of coming forward, for survivors, have not lessened — according to her lawyer, Christine Blasey Ford is receiving “unending” death threats and cannot return to her home.
For many, Kavanaugh’s confirmation laid bare how little has changed since #MeToo rose to prominence. But Ford’s public testimony resulted in an outpouring of support from survivors and their allies around the country, many of whom have now focused their attention on the midterm elections in November.
For this story, Vox asked activists, journalists, and others across industries to answer a single question: “What is the #MeToo movement?” The answers varied in their emphasis — a movement once focused on sexual violence has, for many, become broader. But taken together, they made one thing clear: While #MeToo’s position in the national consciousness may have shifted several times over the past year, the movement is far from over.
“#MeToo is a movement of survivors and their supporters, powered by courage, determined to end sexual violence and harassment,” Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told Vox. “We prioritize the leadership and healing of survivors, especially the least visible, most vulnerable among us. And we are growing in our power.”
The Me Too campaign was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, and the hashtag #MeToo rose to prominence in October 2017
The phrase “me too” was in use as expression of survivor solidarity long before the allegations against Weinstein became public. In 2006, activist Tarana Burke heard repeated reports of sexual violence in her work with girls through a nonprofit she had co-founded, Just Be Inc. She started the Me Too campaign that year “to spread a message for survivors: You’re heard, you’re understood,” she told Vox in 2017.
On October 5, 2017, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times reported that Weinstein had reached at least eight settlements with women over the preceding decades, regarding claims of sexual harassment, unwanted touching, and other misconduct. Among those who spoke to the Times was actress Ashley Judd, who said Weinstein had invited her to what she thought was a business meeting in 1997, then appeared in a bathrobe and asked her to watch him shower. “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time,” Judd said, “and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.”
The conversation soon grew. On October 10, a story by Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker revealed more allegations, including one by actress and director Asia Argento, who said Weinstein had raped her. (Argento herself would later be accused of sexual assault by actor Jimmy Bennett.) In the coming months, more than 80 women would report sexual harassment or assault by Weinstein.
In a statement to the Times on October 5, Weinstein said, “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.” But he has denied committing any crimes.
On October 15, as the number of allegations grew, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a call to survivors of assault and harassment to post “me too” as a status.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
The response was enormous. Within 10 days, 1.7 million tweets containing the hashtag #MeToo were sent, according to Twitter, and 85 countries had more than 1,000 tweets posted on the hashtag. Countless people — especially, but not exclusively, women — began to speak publicly about experiences they’d never talked about before.
Some of them started talking to reporters. Kantor, Twohey, Farrow, and others played a pivotal role in exposing allegations against a variety of powerful people. After Weinstein came celebrities like actor Kevin Spacey, who was accused by multiple men of sexual harassment or assault, and by some of making advances toward them when they were underage (he was fired from Netflix’s House of Cards and removed from the movie All the Money in the World); media figures like Charlie Rose, who was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women (he was fired by CBS, PBS, and Bloomberg); and others like chef Mario Batali, who was accused of groping or inappropriate touching by several women (he stepped away from his restaurants).
Politicians on both sides of the aisle, from Roy Moore to Al Franken, become the subject of allegations. “This isn’t just a Democratic issue; this is a Republican issue, an American issue, and, most importantly, a human issue,” Jennifer Pierotti Lim, co-founder of the group Republican Women for Progress, told Vox.
Sparked in large part by wealthy, white Hollywood actresses, the public conversation around the movement in 2017 did not necessarily serve all survivors equally. Harassment against women of color, especially those working in low-wage industries like restaurants, hotels, or agriculture, received less media coverage than the experiences of women with boldface names. Republican women sometimes found themselves isolated when they spoke out about harassment or assault within their own party.
“I think #MeToo is both a symptom and a cause of a lot of the awful coming out of the GOP right now,” Meghan Milloy, another co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, told Vox. “It’s a symptom coming from decades of a country empowering old white dudes where the women finally hit their breaking point. And it’s a cause because it’s gotten so many of our elected old white dudes to become incredibly defensive of their kind and do things like pushing through a Supreme Court nominee who was credibly accused of sexual assault.”
Discussions of #MeToo also typically focused on women, often eliding the experiences of men and nonbinary people.
“The story is not so easy as ‘cis men rape, cis women are victims,’ and I think we do ourselves an injustice when we oversimplify the issue in this way,” KC Clements, a writer and speaker who has written about barriers facing transgender survivors, told Vox. “There are millions of stories of sexual assault out there, many of them existing at the margins where few people are willing to listen or believe — many like mine as one of the more than one in two nonbinary AFAB [assigned female at birth] people who have experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes.”
More than 300 actresses, producers, and others attempted to address some of the inequalities around the movement in early January 2018 by starting Time’s Up, a group dedicated to fighting harassment through, among other tools, a legal defense fund geared toward helping survivors in low-wage jobs. “#MeToo is the next step on what has been the long journey towards a world where everyone, especially women, can go to work, school or pursue their life’s work in safety, dignity, and with respect, and have the equal opportunity as others to reach their full potential,” Tina Tchen, a litigator who is part of the leadership team of the Time’s Up legal defense fund, told Vox.
Time’s Up joined groups like the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose members were already speaking out and working against harassment in farming and other industries.
As Rebecca Carroll, a cultural critic and editor of special projects for WNYC, put it to Vox, “The #MeToo movement is a prelude to an #UsAlways movement — women of all racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds have been trying to make our way across these divisive lines for centuries; to figure out what solidarity means, what intersectional means, how to strengthen one another rather than compete or antagonize. The #MeToo movement has given us a connective thread, an important tool — a tool, not the tool — to help us find our way to each other at our strongest and most vulnerable.”
By the end of 2017, a nationwide — perhaps worldwide — reckoning on sexual misconduct was afoot, and even those who had been able to ignore the problem in the past began to recognize its magnitude. But the movement soon sparked a backlash.
The #MeToo backlash: Aziz Ansari, the Shitty Media Men list, and more
On January 13, 2018, Katie Way of the website Babe.net reported on allegations by a woman she called Grace (not her real name), who said that comedian Aziz Ansari had pressured her for sex while they were on a date. “It took a really long time for me to validate this as sexual assault,” she told Way.
But others said her account did not belong in the same public conversation as women’s reports of assault and harassment by Weinstein and others. HLN host Ashleigh Banfield called Grace’s experience nothing more than a “bad date.”
“The #MeToo movement has righted a lot of wrongs, and it has made your career path much smoother,” Banfield said, directing her remarks at Grace. “Yet you looked that gift horse in the mouth and chiseled away at that powerful movement with your public accusation.”
Her comments were part of a larger backlash to the #MeToo movement, much of which focused on the concern that different types of sexual misconduct would be lumped together and punished in the same way. Some of this criticism also centered on the Shitty Media Men list, a crowdsourced, anonymous document created to help women warn one another about men in media and publishing who had been accused of harassment, assault, or other misconduct. The list, which was initially intended to be private, spread widely and soon sparked criticism.
“One man is accused of ‘secretly removing condom during sex,’ with no claim of workplace misconduct at all,” wrote Andrew Sullivan at New York magazine. “Another is damned for ‘flirting,’ another for taking ‘credit for ideas of women of color,’ another for ‘multiple employee affairs, inappropriate conversation, in general a huge disgusting sleaze ball.’ And this chorus of minor offenses is on the same list as brutal rapes, physical assaults, brazen threats, unspeakable cruelty, violence, and misogyny.”
In January, journalist Moira Donegan identified herself as the list’s creator in an essay for the Cut, and addressed some criticisms of the document. “No one confused a crude remark for a rape, and efforts were made to contextualize the incidents with notes,” she said. “But the premise was accepted that all of these behaviors were things that might make someone uncomfortable and that individuals should be able to choose for themselves what behavior they could tolerate and what they would rather avoid.”
To some degree, criticisms of #MeToo have persisted. The Kavanaugh confirmation fight reinvigorated many such criticisms, some rooted in myths and misconceptions about sexual harassment and assault. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, for instance, reportedly defended Kavanaugh by saying that the allegations against him were not as bad as those against Weinstein. She echoed the argument made by other #MeToo critics that accusations have to be as serious as those against Weinstein in order to be deserving of public attention.
Despite such criticisms, American women have generally been supportive of #MeToo. In a Vox/Morning Consult poll conducted in March, 69 percent of women said they supported the movement. Many had concerns about #MeToo — 63 percent were worried men would be falsely accused, and 60 percent were worried that women would be denied opportunities because men would be afraid to work with them. But in focus groups Vox conducted along with the polling firm PerryUndem, women’s worries about the movement were typically rooted in a desire for it to succeed in its goal of reducing harassment and assault.
#MeToo today: Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, and Donald Trump
One way to measure the impact of #MeToo is to look at the consequences faced by powerful people who have been the subject of sexual misconduct allegations. About a year after Kantor and Twohey first reported on the allegations against him, Weinstein has not only lost his job at the company he co-founded — he has also been indicted on charges of rape and predatory sexual assault. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently free on bail; on October 11, a prosecutor dropped one of the charges against him.
He is one of relatively few powerful people to face criminal charges as a result of allegations made during the current phase of #MeToo. In some cases, that’s because the allegations don’t constitute criminal offenses. In others, it’s because the statute of limitations has run out. Whatever the case, we have yet to see the first highly visible people both accused and convicted in the era of #MeToo. Bill Cosby and former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar have been sentenced since the movement began, but their charges stemmed from allegations made many years ago.
Meanwhile, high-profile people accused of sexual misconduct as part of #MeToo, from Louis C.K. to Matt Lauer to Charlie Rose to Aziz Ansari, have reportedly been planning or executing comebacks. On October 5, 2018, a year to the day after Kantor and Twohey published their story about Weinstein, Sen. Collins announced that she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite the allegations made by Ford and others. He was confirmed and sworn in the following day and continues to deny the allegations.
President Trump said that many women were “extremely happy” with the confirmation, because “they’re thinking of their sons, they’re thinking of their husbands, their brothers, their uncles, and others.” Trump himself has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, but none of those allegations stopped him from being elected president. Kavanaugh’s confirmation came almost exactly two years after the publication of the Access Hollywood tape on which Trump could be heard bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”
The Kavanaugh vote, following Ford’s wrenching testimony, has led many to consider what American society still demands of survivors: that they speak publicly about some of the most painful moments of their lives, facing blame, shaming, and disbelief, all in the hope of reforms that may never come.
“The #MeToo movement lurches forward over a path of scars,” wrote Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post after Ford testified. “The change is so slow and the sacrifice it demands so great.”
Many were also chagrined by the fact that Collins, a woman and an ostensibly moderate Republican, cast her vote for Kavanaugh. For some, it recalled the fact that 53 percent of white female voters cast their votes for Trump in 2016. “White women benefit from patriarchy by trading on their whiteness to monopolize resources for mutual gain,” Alexis Grenell wrote at the New York Times after the Kavanaugh vote. “In return they’re placed on a pedestal to be ‘cherished and revered,’ as Speaker Paul D. Ryan has said about women, but all the while denied basic rights.”
“We have to stay vigilant,” Carroll told Vox, “because #UsAlways also means all of us. I would say white women in particular need to be mindful of that in their vigilance.”
But despite the outcome of the vote, Ford’s testimony brought with it an outpouring of support that was striking in its scope.
“I had not planned to share my story,” wrote activist Ana María Archila at USA Today. “But Christine Blasey Ford told her story to protect our country and, in solidarity with her and as a way to thank her, I decided to tell mine.”
Meanwhile, #MeToo has always been about more than the toppling of a few high-profile men. Around the country, workers continue to organize and advocate for freedom from harassment. In September, McDonald’s workers in 10 cities went on strike to protest harassment, after they said the company failed to address complaints.
“#MeToo means I no longer have to be silent when I’m harassed at work,” Barbara Johnson, a McDonald’s worker who filed a harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September, told Vox.
And now, many survivors and their supporters are turning their focus to the midterm elections in November. As Jess Davidson, executive director of the group End Rape on Campus, told Vox in September, “survivors will be turning out and voting.”
It’s too soon to tell what effect, if any, the #MeToo movement will have at the ballot box. What is certain is that the movement isn’t finished.
“We have to go hand in hand, with one united voice, into a future without victims, a world of #MeTooNoMas,” said Nely Rodriguez, a staff member with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. “That is the future we are seeking.”