“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
That message, posted on Twitter Oct.15 by Alyssa Milano, an actress who says she wanted to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem, has resonated with millions who have chosen to speak out on social media about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.
In the first 24 hours, the message was reposted nearly half a million times according to a spokesperson from Twitter. Milano acknowledged later that the phrase wasn’t new but has been used by social activist Tarana Burke since 2006 to promote “empowerment through empathy.”
For the past two months millions of women and men have written the words #MeToo on social media sites to describe how sexual harassment and violence has changed them.
Another #MeToo moment
Twenty-six years ago, NPR’s Nina Totenberg broke the news that a nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Clarence Thomas, was facing sexual harassment charges from a former colleague named Anita Hill.
For days, millions of us watched the televised hearings as Hill struggled with visible embarrassment and shame as Hill described the lurid details of sexual harassment by Judge Clarence Thomas.
Hill testified before a Senate Judiciary committee, comprised of 10 white men, also visibly embarrassed, that Thomas, as her boss, had repeatedly tried to date her and had subjected her to extensive, unwanted conversations about sex and pornography.
The questions from the committee, some that shamed her for not speaking up, and others that blamed her for not stopping the abuse, exemplified the exact behavior that has kept women from speaking out about the issue—blame, disrespect, and retribution.
Some media outlets even labeled Hill as “a little nutty and a little slutty.”
At the time, many of us believed that finally … finally, sexual harassment was out in the open, and there would be a reckoning—a sea of change in the salacious behavior by men everywhere, especially in the workplace.
What we didn’t realize is it would take almost 30 years for that reckoning to reach critical mass.
A Moment or a Movement?
Today, the viral phenomenon called the #MeToo movement is another moment.
In this moment, the change in women speaking out about sexual harassment seems and feels different to many of us. Unlike the past, women who are stepping forward are being believed and taken seriously.
But can a hashtag, like #MeToo, or any social media movement really create long lasting social change and reduce the sexual harassment and abuse of women?
“They” say it will take a coordinated effort between the media, entertainment giants, antiviolence organizations, and conscious, concrete action from each and every one of us, both women and men.
Many of us are hoping and praying that this is a pivotal moment that will change the culture.
Local Woman Names Names
The following post is taken verbatim, with permission, from Penny Simonson’s Facebook page. A local retired business woman, Simonson refers to herself as a “lazy gardener and writer.” Her thoughtful and compelling post moved more than 70 friends to comment. Several comments are included at the end of the essay.
By Penny Simonson
So I see what is happening here. Names are being named. The fear has subsided, and we are pointing directly to those now, who offended us then, when we couldn’t speak out. This post has been formulating in my head for weeks.
His name was Mr. Howard and he ran the Northwest Collection Agency in the Paulsen Building. It was my first job out of high school; I was a skip tracer, tracking down people who had avoided paying debts owed. Since I did a lot of covert telephone calling, I had a private office of my own. Mr. Howard would come in while I was on the telephone and rub my shoulders. I couldn’t pull away, there was nowhere to go. I was busy doing my job.
His name was Marcelo Briscoe and I worked for him in an insurance office when my then-husband and I were stationed on Guam. He would call me into his office to dictate a letter or memo. Rather than sitting behind his desk, he would prop himself on the arm of my chair and try to grope me while I took notes, and slobber things in my ear about how pretty he thought I was and how he wanted me. Again, I was there just trying to do my job.
In the 1970s, I worked at the Lamont’s store on the South Hill in Spokane. His name was Tom Anderson and he was the manager of the men’s department. He would call out to me from the back storage room and when I came through the doorway, he would jump out and grab my breasts from behind me. Not in the job description; I could only squirm away and say stop it. Stop it. Over and over again I would ask him to stop it.
In the 1980s I owned a small business on the North side. There was a customer, his name was Bill Riggs, who frequented another business in the same building. He would stop by my desk and instead of engaging me in conversation, he would ask me repeatedly to sleep with him, to spend the afternoon in a motel with him—and he would want to describe what he wanted to do with me.
For years, I have struggled with my inability to thwart this kind of behavior when it happened, not understanding that I didn’t ask for it, that my only qualification was that I was female.
I am cheering and applauding those who are now coming forward. Regardless of any motive for which they are being accused, in their timing or purpose in doing so, they are saying these type of things happened because they did happen.
We are sick of it and we are no longer afraid.
The following comments are a few of the responses to Simonson’s Facebook posting.
Cathi Lamoreux At least you remember their names. I don’t remember all of them, but some do stick out in my mind. The gate is open and it’s not going to be closed anytime soon.
Vi TiegsVery timely post. I would bet that most of us have encountered in some degree exactly what Penny is describing, feeling helpless and not knowing what, or if, we could do anything about it. Thank you, Penny.
Mary Rosner Oh, Penny, thank you for showing how pervasive sexual harassment and assault is.
Debi Bock I’m sorry Penny. This. I believe you. We believe them, all of them. #metoo
Cathy Scalici My heart is heavy with sadness for what you endured, but so proud to call you my strong, giving amazing friend! You found your voice and I hope you can now move on with your head high. I love you to the moon and back!
Kari Pugh HansenYour story is my story. Different names, different circumstances. Someday I will use names. I’m proud of you for speaking up. Someday we won’t ever have to say, “Stop and No!”
Rebecca Dryden Armstrong YOU chose not to hide behind those names and you picked yourself to take care of first! You are fricken brilliant and beautiful and I’m so glad to call you my friend. Thank you for being a vessel of laughter and inspiration for all the men and women out there. Let’s not be the victim here, and let’s build each other up and march!
Nancy Bremer I am sorry that happened to you. I too wished I could remember the names of all of the scumbags that put their hands on me. My molestation started when I was 11 years old. I did get some satisfaction of reading in the paper that the man who raped me was put in jail years later. It’s really sad that it happens to so many women and girls.
Martha Jane Johnson I think every woman has a story that begins “his name was ….” Well said Penny.
Anita Arnold It’s happened to all of us … personally, more times than I can count. I always shuttled these occurrences away in my brain under “it’s just the way it is” category. I’m so very happy that the times … They are a changing …
Brenda Brown Buckingham I so admire your bravery. I wish I was that brave. I can just say “Me too” and move forward. You are the hero for so many of us.
Wonieta DemersThank you Penny for speaking up, united we stand. Thank you to all the wonderfully strong women who have stood up and said something, even when they are victim shamed. Thank you to my bosses who believed me when it happened to me, and put an immediate stop to all offending behavior, it could have gone so differently. My wish for the future is to live in a world that anyone who is taken advantage of is given the power to step forward and feel they are believed and heard.
Jillian Thorson-Friedman I LOVE you for your honesty and I LOVE that we are in a time of enlightenment and empowerment of women (and all marginalized and disenfranchised people). I am proud of you for this. It needs to happen NOW so that our daughters and granddaughters will have the tools to facilitate change.
Know Your Rights
According to the American Association of University Women, (AAUW) an organization that has promoted equality for women since 1881, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Very generally, sexual harassment describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Title VII is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments. Even with Title VII’s protections, many people across the country still face sexual harassment in their workplaces according to the organization’s website.
Experts say if you are experiencing harassment at work you are likely overwhelmed and afraid. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone and that you do have options when coming forward.
The following resources will help you better identify sexual harassment, advocate for yourself and others, and determine your next steps. As you begin this journey it is important to remember to document everything. Nothing is too small or trivial when it comes to calling out harassment in the workplace:
• Your experience with the harasser—time, location, details, and witnesses.
• Your experience reporting the harassment—time, location, details, and witnesses.
• Your productivity—safeguarding and documenting your productivity at work can be essential during and after reporting.
Judith Spitzer is an independent journalist and photographer based in Spokane.