Race and Politics in the Age of #MeToo
By: Nick Santangelo
It must be extremely difficult to say the words. People will judge you. People won’t believe you. People will blame you. Still, an increasing number of brave women are finding the courage to say “me too.” On Tuesday, College of Liberal Arts students had the opportunity to hear about the movement through lenses that are perhaps not publicized as much as they should be. Macalester College Professor Duchess Harris gave a Ritter Hall presentation exploring #MeToo’s black-white divide and its effects on gender in politics.
The First to Say “Me Too”
“2018 again opens up as a year of #MeToo,” Dr. Harris told a packed Walk Auditorium crowd. She also noted that while the hashtag and the media attention surrounding it may be relatively new, the causes it champions are not. “We have been living this movement, different iterations of it, since the beginning of our nation.”
Even this most recent iteration isn’t as new—or as white—as the casual onlooker might believe, the professor explained. Actress Alyssa Milano popularized the #MeToo movement with her October 15, 2017 tweet encouraging women to tell their stories about the pervasiveness of Hollywood’s sexual abuse and harassment. It went viral, but Milano would later find out that she was not the first to use the phrase “me too.”
That would be African American activist and community organizer Tarana Burke, who first wrote the phrase on Myspace in 2006. Burke typed those two words as an attempt to empower women of color who had been sexually abused. Her inspiration was a painful memory of a 13-year-old sharing her story of abuse. At the time, Burke didn’t know what to say. She would later wish she had simply told the girl “me too.”
Dr. Harris believes the media hasn’t cast a strong enough light on Burke’s role in starting the movement. And although the Washington Post did run a story on Burke in October 2017, it’s hard to argue with the professor’s assertion that the lion’s share of attention has gone to white, wealthy, attractive celebrities. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time mainstream feminism has left black women behind.
In her presentation, Dr. Harris spoke of the John F. Kennedy administration taking the extraordinary (for the time) first step of asking black women to weigh in on “problems of negro women.” Unfortunately, none of their suggestions made it into the final report for which the women’s opinions were ostensibly sought.
When They Don’t Believe You
Jumping forward several decades, Dr. Harris played a clip from the televised 1991 Supreme Court of the United States confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. The clip showed congressional testimony by one of Thomas’ staffers at the time, Anita Hill, who accused the future justice of sexual harassment. Hill’s testimony told a disturbing tale of Thomas’ frequent and unwanted sexual advances toward Hill, whom Dr. Harris explained was initially reticent to tell her story.
Hill had been raised a devout Christian in Oklahoma and was worried what her family and friends would think of her, even though she had been victimized by Thomas. She also feared she would not be believed and that she could potentially lose her job. Sadly, she was not believed by the 52 senators who confirmed Thomas. Future Vice President and then-Senator Joe Biden—who will speak at Temple University on April 11—led the hearings. Biden, who voted against confirming Thomas, has since said he is “so sorry” for not doing more to tone down the attacks on Hill and for being unable to bring more witnesses forward to testify about Thomas’ sexual harassment.
The hearings, which will be dramatized April 16 in HBO’s Confirmation, changed Hill.
“Up until this happened, she did not consider herself a feminist,” explained Dr. Harris. “One of the reasons she was working for Clarence Thomas was they had a lot in common ideologically and politically. They were working in [George H. W.] Bush’s cabinet. It wasn’t until this moment that she rethinks what feminism means for her and other women in the nation.”
Women and Politics
Hill wasn’t the only woman changed by her courageous testimony before Congress. The hearings inspired a wave of women to run for office in 1992. The U.S. Senate is now 21 percent female. That may not sound like much, and it’s certainly not proportionate to the number of women living in the U.S. It is, however, way up from the two percent it was at in 1991. “This very difficult moment ended up being something that inspired a generation,” said Dr. Hill.
The percentage of female politicians in statehouses has risen over the past several decades, too. In fact, it’s quintupled since 1971. Women now hold about 23 percent of statewide offices and 25 percent of state legislative seats. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that women are as likely to win office when they run as their male counterparts are. Generally speaking, electorates do not vote on gender—they vote on party lines. And yet, the 2016 presidential election bucked that trend. At least, it did for white women.
“In every presidential election since 1992, women preferred the Democratic candidate,” said Dr. Harris. Women of color actually continued that trend in 2016, with 95 percent voting for Hillary Clinton. But many white women, the professor explained, stayed home or voted for Donald Trump. Fifty-three percent of white women who voted broke for Trump. Forty-three percent went for Clinton. Women of all other races voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.
A Temple student asked Dr. Harris how the audience could better understand this divide. The reasons for it aren’t known for certain, but the professor has some theories. First up is the Bernie Sanders factor. Young people passionately threw their weight behind Senator Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and many of them were disillusioned by the political process when Clinton got the nomination. Young Democrats were driven further left than they have been in previous elections, so Clinton’s center-left platform didn’t speak to young women. Many voters also criticized her for being too old, despite the fact that she’s a year younger than President Trump.
And then there was the media problem. Dr. Harris reminded the audience of the media’s fascination with Trump. Though many outlets did more to tear him down than to build him up, the media generally couldn’t resist talking about candidate Trump’s every move. “What I think about now is how the media came against her with all of that,” said Dr. Harris. “I think this can even be taken back to 2008 when she was originally trying to get the bid against Obama. He got far more media attention than she did.”
Dr. Harris also admitted that Hillary’s loss wasn’t entirely due to sexism. Many people simply didn’t like her as a person and were put off by various Clinton scandals, real or fabricated. One student asked Dr. Harris if there’s another woman who could win in 2020. The professor instead looked back to a female politician who may have been a better option in 2016.
“I think there might have been another woman who could have done it,” she said. “Some of this wasn’t just patriarchy. Some of this was just Hillary rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I think if Elizabeth Warren came forward and said that she was going to run, I think that she could have possibly beat Trump.”
But Senator Warren did not run for president in 2016. And even now with the increased female activism inspired by the 2016 election, men remain twice as likely to run for office as women. In addition to better media coverage and a society that believes me too stories, Dr. Harris thinks women need to be encouraged to run as much as men are. She’d like to see people planting those seeds in their minds from a young age.
But it’s not just about getting more women to run for office. The professor wants to see a certain type of women run: those who could forward the feminist agenda. While most female politicians fight for issues that are important to women, families and children, not all of them do.
“There’s a difference with being a female office holder and with being someone who is going to uplift the rights for women,” she said. “That’s what I think is so messy about this. What you have among conservative women often is holding office and voting in ways which actually uplift men.”
A student challenged her on whether or not there is room for conservative pro-life women in the movement. Dr. Harris replied that it “depends,” but that “there’s a large spectrum of what people think is feminist.” The professor issued her own challenge back to the audience, asking how they thought conservative female politicians’ votes affected large populations of women. However the students feel about that question, Dr. Harris wants to see them getting involved in feminism through political action.
“I think if you are either an undergrad or a grad student, you will think about this moment—2017, 2018—as a time when the nation changed tremendously,” she said. “And if you watched it and paid attention you’ll be able to say how you impacted that, how it affected you and what were some of the solutions you had to move it in a different direction.”
Photography by Colleen Claggett