The #MeToo campaign grew amid allegations of systemic sexual abuse and discrimination against women by powerful men in Hollywood and in US politics. Women emerged in their millions to detail the daily degradations, fear and assault, that are their all but universal experience. Through sheer force of numbers #MeToo women insist that society validates their experiences, writes Professor Sarah Churchwell.
‘Gaslighting’ – the idea of undermining an opponent by suggesting that they are over-reacting, imagining things, paranoid, hysterical, is not a new term; it’s been used as a verb to mean psychological warfare since at least the 1950s. But it has achieved a new currency in the #MeToo era, as women have emerged in their millions to speak out about the daily degradations, fear, and assault, that are all but universal for the female population, and to insist that their voices are heard.
It rapidly spread from the US around the world. In the UK it has encouraged women to speak out against systematic sexual abuses in Westminster, to speak up (again) about the gender pay gap at organisations like the BBC, but it has also more broadly prompted conversations about creating safe and respectful workplace environments, naming serial abusers and rapists.
It’s about redressing the structural imbalances that still enable men so easily to dominate social and professional environments. It’s about protecting women’s safety, and it’s about identifying the systemic reach of male privilege. It’s about recognising the institutional limits still placed on women’s capacity to advance professionally, the degree to which women are still judged not by their professional ability, but by their gender and sexuality. It is not a coincidence that this issue has come to boiling point the year after Hillary Clinton was subjected to a gaslighting campaign of epic scale, and a confessed sexual assaulter voted into the White House.
None of this is new: Me Too, Everyday Sexism, and Time’s Up, are all campaigns building on the foundations of generations of activism fighting for the recognition of women’s rights in the world, which include the right to have their experiences, especially experiences that deprive them of their rights, taken seriously by their society. It’s also about whether women’s perceptions are validated in our culture, about whether our voices are heard. And it’s about whether women are able to advance, how women can take the lead.
This is why we have decided to hold a discussion, ‘Breaking the Silence: Women, Leadership, and #MeToo’, about these issues as part of our Leading Women campaign at the University of London. The year that marks the centenary of British women achieving suffrage also marks the 150th year since nine women were admitted to the University of London, in 1868.
It may not sound like much, but it was the first time that women had gained access to university education in Britain. Although it only affected nine women to begin with, it opened the doors, a symbolic achievement that led to a systemic shift in educational and professional opportunities for future generations of women.
On International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018, four leading women will be in conversation with me at the Camden Centre to discuss these issues and more with the public. Ayesha Hazarika MBE, political advisor and commentator; Kate Maltby, critic, columnist, and scholar; Catherine Mayer, writer, campaigner, and founder of the Women’s Equality Party; and Alexandra Pringle, editor in chief of Bloomsbury Books, will join forces to discuss the persistent limits on women and political and professional leadership.
These limits raise many questions in addition to gender, of course: class, race, religion, sexuality, and many other social forces also play their part, and we will discuss those too. #MeToo is about having our say, and this discussion will, we hope, provide another moment for us to raise our voices and be heard, and for us all to understand the issues more clearly. We hope to see you there.
Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and chair of public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby and The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. She writes regularly for newspapers including the Guardian, New Statesman, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement and New York Times Book Review, and comments on arts, culture and politics for television and radio, where appearances include Question Time, Newsnight and The Review Show. She has judged many literary prizes such as the 2017 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and she was co-winner of the 2015 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award. Her new book, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2018.