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Socialist Feminism: From #MeToo to Revolutionary Change

03-Jun-2019Anya Mae Lemlich

#MeToo exposed the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. Ending this culture requires a feminist struggle that’s prepared to tackle capitalism — and the success of our socialist movement depends on it.

Anya Mae Lemlich is a hotel worker and a socialist feminist activist in DSA.

In December 2017, two months after sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein burst open the floodgates of women’s anger, TIME Magazine named a hotel housekeeper as a “Silence Breaker” in their Person of the Year issue. Amidst the Hollywood actresses who came forward about Weinstein and the coining of the term #MeToo by activist Tarana Burke, Juana Melara described her experiences cleaning hotel rooms of powerful men.

“I was scrubbing the bathtub on my knees. And I suddenly felt like, you know, something you feel when somebody’s watching you. And I turned. And there he was inside that room, in front of the bathroom door, just looking at me. And it scared me,” she told NPR (December 21, 2017). The man exposed himself to her; she managed to lock him out of the room and had to wait 20 minutes for help (The Guardian, August 3, 2018).

A chilling part of Melara’s story is its ubiquitousness—Melara says “seven out of ten [of her co-workers], they have some kind of experience like that”—and its familiarity. Women understand well what Melara means by that “feeling of someone watching you.” We can taste her fear, we know that feeling of paralysis, of clenching. We spend our lives whispering these ubiquitous and familiar stories to each other, or we keep them deeply hidden, not realizing how ubiquitous and familiar they are.

We needed to shout. And once the floodgates opened, conversation was impossible to contain. Conversation quickly spread to gender violence in low-wage industries, like Melara’s, where much of the workforce are women of color and immigrants. California farmworkers were some of the first to stand in solidarity with the women of Hollywood, and conversation around gender violence in the restaurant industry sparked. Soon, we were talking about sexism in all aspects of our lives.

The story of comedian Aziz Ansari in particular forced us to grapple with what constitutes sexual harassment. For many of us, the story was familiar: a man pressuring a woman into a sexual encounter, putting his own desires over respecting another person’s boundaries. After Ansari’s story broke, I found myself sharing one of my own deeply hidden stories, about someone who had violated my boundaries—perhaps unknowingly, but it doesn’t matter—and left me shattered at 15. In the process of sharing I began to understand that each of our stories matter, and what we experience as uncomfortable, violent or traumatic takes many forms. Many of them look nothing like the kind of harassment and assault we have been conditioned to believe are the only ones.
Because of the story’s familiarity, it was blasted for taking #MeToo too far. Op-eds in the New York Times and The Atlantic labeled it as just “bad sex” and “unpleasant moments.” It was blasted because it exposes behavior that many people in our lives have probably engaged in, and that’s why it’s scary. It makes clear that this is a cultural problem; rather than blaming Ansari as an individual, our blame is with a society that does not care to teach people how to interact with each other in situations of intimacy.
Ansari is only one individual within a global culture in which women are not asked, not listened to, not believed, not respected, violently assaulted, and seen as objects. Across the world, from Argentina to Ethiopia to France, #MeToo described a world where women’s bodies are not entirely ours, still seen by many men—however unconsciously—as theirs for the taking. We were finally talking—no, shouting—about all of it.

This sort of consciousness-raising is important because it can pave the way for mass action. While #MeToo started with elite women in Hollywood, soon McDonald’s workers were striking and Google employees were walking out to protest harassment. It also raises our expectations of what is possible. #MeToo succeeded in ousting a handful of rich and famous men from their public positions of power, and ushered in a new era in which taking down an abusive boss or politician is actually possible.

From Anita Hill to Christine Blasey Ford

In 2018, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh electrified the country. People were paying attention. I had never shared that many knowing looks or conversations with strangers about politics. The day that Kavanaugh was confirmed, the women in my life held each other.
Because we lived in a post #MeToo world, some of us thought that 2018 would be different than 1991, when Anita Hill brought charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. The climate was unmistakably different. Hill’s hearings were notoriously mishandled by the all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, and she sat through pointed attacks. In 2018, Brett Kavanaugh seemed to innately understand the sea-change he was witnessing—and he lashed out against it, yelling, spit-flying, eyes furious.

Yet the outcome is not that different: another sexual assaulter now sits on a court that holds unbelievable power over women’s lives in the US. Despite #MeToo and the historic women’s marches, Trump—the perfect embodiment of patriarchal culture—is still in office. And recently, presidential candidate Joe Biden—the man who chaired the committee who grilled Anita Hill, who participated in their demeaning questioning, and refused to call three witnesses—was hit with his own allegations.

Politician Lucy Flores came forward to describe how Joe Biden inappropriately touched her. A second woman, Amy Lappos, told the Hartford Courant how Biden “put his hand around my neck and pulled me in to rub noses with me.” Photos of Biden touching women—who are clearly uncomfortable—have roamed the internet for years. Yet corporate politicians continue to defend Biden, attempting to draw a line between Biden’s “affectionate behavior” and “real” sexual harassment.

Normalizing Biden’s behavior, however, undermines an important lesson of #MeToo: that every unwanted touch, no matter how small, is part of the same sexist culture—one that so many of us participate in. Weinstein’s abuse, Ansari’s pressuring, and Biden’s unwanted kiss exist as cultural practices under one patriarchal umbrella; they are all pillars in a world of male dominance. But male dominance is cultural, and sexual violence is taught, not biological—which means we can end it.

The Roots of Women’s Oppression

To end gender violence, we need to know what creates and sustains it. Our daily experiences are continuously produced, or conditioned by, material conditions. Material conditions refer to how we as human beings in a given society both produce what we need to live and reproduce ourselves as people. What kind of work is done? Who does it?

Under capitalism, at the jobs most of us go to each day, owners of the companies exploit the working class to extract surplus value (or, as they would call it, profit). This is the heart of capitalism. The working class is the key to capitalists’ profit, and thus the key to how this system can be overthrown. The working class is a socio-economic group of workers, families, elders, and the unemployed who rely directly or indirectly on incomes from wage labor — or, as Tithi Bhattacharya puts it, “everyone in the producing class who has in their lifetime participated in the totality of reproduction of society.”

But wage labor requires that there be workers to exploit, and these workers must be somehow “reproduced.” That is, they must be fed, clothed, housed, and generally able to continue working (being exploited, as we would call it), and so must their children, and so on.
Capitalism could not exist without “social reproduction,” especially of its most crucial asset, labor. Yet it obscures, treats as irrelevant, devalues and dismisses this sort of work.

The labor required to reproduce the working class is borne disproportionately by women under capitalism. While men and women certainly took on different roles throughout history, this division of labor changed as capitalism overthrew previous ways of organizing society. In 16th and 17th century Europe, for example, the new economic system forced working-class men into waged work and initially excluded working-class women. Women were pushed into the reproductive work of the newly established nuclear family, just as this work became controlled and seen as inferior, unimportant, and invisible. This is a process that has continued to happen around the world through so-called “globalization.” And since the nuclear family remains an important place of social reproduction, capitalists have a vested interest in propping up compulsory heterosexuality and gender binaries, pillars of the family structure.

Women, and initially children, were also used as an additional reservoir of extra workers, used when needed by the capitalists and pushed back when unemployment was rising. As a marginal workforce, women were—and still are—paid much less than men and treated as second-class workers, even as the reproductive work of the nuclear family still fell to them. And when more women started entering the waged workforce, it was no wonder that so-called “caring” jobs—those to do with the reproduction of the labor force, like teaching, cleaning, or nursing—fell to them.
Capitalism and the ruling class benefit spectacularly from this division of labor. The costs of reproducing the labor force—raising children, feeding families, clothing families, caring for the elderly and the sick, and emotionally tending to ourselves and others—are still offloaded onto women instead of the capitalists themselves. And of course, like our entire class, we’re exploited in our second job, waged work, where we’re not compensated for the value we create. Our bodies are used for the capitalists’ profit, whether we’re cleaning hotel rooms at our “real” job or raising future housekeepers at home.

The reason this sort of oppression works so well is because men do have power over women. Men benefit through material advantages, a feeling of superiority and access to women’s bodies, and control over women at home, to make up for the control that most men lack as workers. Yet the power that working-class men have over women does not hold up to the power that the capitalists have over all of us. Working-class men are also harmed by patriarchal culture, even as they benefit. They are forced into a gender binary that represses their full emotional selves, and forced into accepting lower wages, since paying women less—some far less than others—brings all wages down.

This is strategic: capitalism uses sexism to divide us. It also instrumentalizes gender violence to keep us down as workers, and has done so throughout history. It was no wonder that #MeToo started in the workplace, that abusive men were abusive bosses, and that many stories of workplace harassment and assault featured men in positions of power coercing their female workers, many of whom have intersecting identities—immigrants, women of color, differently abled people—that make them even more vulnerable. As Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization of California farmworkers, wrote to the women of Hollywood in one of the first shows of solidarity: “even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.” As long as people wield these positions of power over others, gender violence is not going anywhere. It is baked into capitalism and class society.

The material benefits from offloading social reproduction to women and the huge impact of a divide and rule policy — this is the root of our oppression as women. And we continue to be exploited in this way through a system of control in which violence and harassment play a central role. Gender violence is one way that capitalism ensures we’re kept in line.

Taking Back Control

Nothing short of revolution—of putting control over our bodies and production back into our own hands—will change this. Carceral responses that aim to lock up individuals, or solutions that focus solely on electing more women to political office, will not end gender violence. We need a feminist movement that understands the full task ahead of us, and knows that the power to overthrow our current system lies with the working class.

When asked what would make things better, housekeeper Juana Melara responded, “It could help us a lot if more hotels have unions because the workloads are less where the workplace has unions.

The workload is a big part of this because you always in such a rush trying to finish your job and do a good job that you don’t pay attention to what goes around.” Unions can help protect workers from assault from customers, co-workers, and bosses as workers claim more and more control over their workplace and working conditions.
Unions, just like other working-class or left organizations, are not automatically free from patriarchal culture. We need to demand that these organizations fight against this internally. Our organizations need to educate all members and understand how women and people of color are differentially impacted by capitalism. We need to create processes of investigating sexual assault and harassment that do not diminish or re-traumatize survivors, but that take a restorative approach. We also need to educate, push back against, and in some cases simply stop men who believe they can get away with using the position of power capitalism offers them.

But these organizations also need to fight outwardly; they need to build a movement around legal, cultural, and economic demands that address gender violence and oppression. Most unions did not take up the #MeToo movement and mobilize workers. This was not just a betrayal, it was a missed opportunity—unions could have waged a nationwide campaign against sexual harassment. The McDonald’s strike and Google walkout could have been multiplied across the world.

They still can be. As socialists, we have a key role to play in ensuring that our leftist and working-class organizations take up the fight against gender violence. Many demands to protect people from sexual violence are demands that will raise conditions for the entire working class, like affordable housing, which can protect people from getting stuck in abusive situations. Medicare for all, free contraception, and mandatory sex education in schools benefit the working class as a whole, not just women.

But many unions and socialists make the mistake of needing to fight united as a class by minimizing our demands to only narrow economic issues that affect all workers, in order not “to divide the working class between men and women.”

In reality, leaving aside so-called “social” issues such as sexual harassment accepts the divisions that the ruling class uses against us. Only by taking up all aspects of working-class people’s lives will we be able to achieve unity in struggle. Besides, drawing a line between “economic” and “social” or “cultural” issues misses that our social and cultural world is shaped by the dominant economic sphere of wage labor—within the totality of capitalism, we cannot separate them from each other.

So we must fight as fiercely to end workplace harassment as we do for affordable housing. We must fight to create independent methods of investigating sexual assault that centers survivors’ needs, on college campuses as well as in workplaces. These investigations should be restorative instead of punitive; we should aim to repair harm and rebuild trust on survivor’s terms. We should ban mandatory arbitration for harassment allegations, and go further by taking the investigative process into our own hands. We could set up independent bodies for our workplaces, schools, and communities, completely run by organized workers.

As we fight for all this, we must re-imagine how we can organize ourselves and our communities. Fighting for free abortion on demand and 24-hour, free, community-run childcare, while immediately necessary, also helps us do this.

We have many tools to do the seemingly impossible. In the 1970s, abortion speak-outs and grassroots activism were powerful enough to force the conservative Supreme Court, under President Nixon, to pass Roe v. Wade. This followed a period of global revolt, including the civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, the general strike in France of 1968, and anti-colonial movements. We can learn from all of these movements as we re-build one today.

We can build a working-class movement that understands that ending patriarchal culture is nothing less than a revolutionary task, but that fights at every step to get there. We can build a movement that holds everyone accountable, but allows us room to grow. We can build a movement that seriously examines how and why capitalism treats us differently, and the trauma and pain it has inflicted on our bodies for centuries. And as we do, we must continue the consciousness-raising project that #MeToo started— continue to shout, every day, about the violence of the society we live in. Only then can we begin the healing process of building a working-class, multi-ethnic, and multi-gender revolutionary force.

Into the Streets

The first Women’s March was the biggest expression of the resistance to Trump and the sexism pervasive in society. According to political scientists from the Universities of Connecticut and Denver, it was the biggest single-day protest in U.S. history. But many of the individual marches were politically dominated by liberal forces tied to the Democratic party that has been unable or unwilling to channel women’s visceral anger into tangible change that would have a direct impact on women’s lives. Since then, the corporate media has waged a fierce campaign to discredit the Women’s Marches.

But these marches opened something up in people that can’t just be contained again. Socialists, organized in DSA, should contribute to organizing the next women’s marches, to point the way forward with clear demands.

DSA, other socialist groups, unions, and other left groups should join together to organize the 2020 marches. Our marches must be inclusive of all people. The corporate media made up a scandal of anti-semitism, splitting the movement at the exact moment that we all needed each other most. The Women’s March can be a safe place for Jewish people facing an onslaught of anti-semitism, and of Muslim people who have faced the brunt of racist and xenophobic attacks for decades, escalating with Trump in office. The majority of all women, trans, and nonbinary people, and a huge proportion of men want to march together: to close the gender and race wage gaps, for free and universal childcare, to end sexual harassment, and for full reproductive justice. The establishment has failed us; it’s time for the revolutionary and progressive left to lead the way.