"One woman speaks up, followed by this period of less than 24 hours when women were feeling free to talk about stories that had been festering for years. It was sort of an exhilarating feeling – like we're finally getting our moment on the stage – and then it turns out to be only a moment."
That's such an effective summary of the current backlash against the #MeToo movement, isn't it? Except, whoops, that quote is 26 years old. It comes from an interview that Susan Faludi gave to the Baltimore Sun to promote her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women – a book that carefully examined how every advance in women's rights was met by a forceful cultural opposition. She was talking about the backlash that arose from Anita Hill's accusations of harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas, but perhaps we should just embroider the words on a pillow – barbed wire would be a nice touch – and haul it out every quarter century, or as the times require.
We could all use the pillow right about now. There's been much attention directed at a letter written by Catherine Deneuve and more than a hundred other prominent French women and published in Le Monde this week, which suggests that this moment of reckoning unfairly punishes men: "As a result of the Weinstein affair, there has been a legitimate realization of the sexual violence women experience, particularly in the workplace, where some men abuse their power. It was necessary. But now this liberation of speech has been turned on its head." Some of these men, the letter said, were penalized for nothing more than "touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about 'intimate' things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual."
This is perhaps why I've never moved to France, if having the boss grope you, suggest a threesome at dinner or send you pervy texts during the monthly budget meeting is part of the job description. But I'm just an old party pooper, I guess, one of the women that novelist and critic Daphne Merkin complained about it in her recent New York Times opinion piece. She and her sophisticated friends have "had it with the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception, turning a bona fide moment of moral accountability into a series of ad hoc and sometimes unproven accusations."
It is, of course, unproven that these harassment allegations are without basis. We cannot know what investigations or behind-the-scenes discussions have led to the dismissal or suspension of high-profile men. We can, however, know that women who have felt historically that they lacked the support to make complaints – the women who are currently suing Soulpepper Theatre Company director Albert Schultz for misconduct, for example – have seized this moment of openness to seek redress.
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk/The Globe and Mail
While some people want to go on a quest for the mythical martyred knee-toucher (if you find him, let me know), some of us are more interested in the actual wounds inflicted on women who have endured serial predation at work, and suffered the consequences. Like the women at two Chicago Ford plants, the subject of a recent New York Times investigation, who were racially abused and sexually harassed over a period of decades (there were no posh dinners with whispered French come-ons over foie gras, but lots of groping, masturbation and bosses who traded promotions for sexual acts.)
This is a seismic moment. People comfortable in their power don't like seismic moments. The backlash, which was inevitable, wants to ignore the boring systemic cracks this moment has exposed – like the recent Reuters investigation into hundreds of sexual-harassment court cases that revealed judges siding with corporations to shield them from unwanted publicity "and keep details of abusive behaviour secret." Even if you do what you're supposed to and fight the legal fight, you can't win. That's an important story, and one the backlash won't tell you. It's not nearly as catchy as Catherine Deneuve wanting to time-travel back to the fifties.
More men are accused by the day, and people are growing weary of it. Not at the injustice, but at being forced to confront the injustice – especially if it challenges personal loyalties or long-held beliefs. Women are allowed their five minutes of reckoning, as if a historical rebalancing should have the same shelf life as a pot of hummus. Get over it, ladies! Let him touch your knee, would you, so we can all just move on.
Moving on and letting go have been the status quo for years, which is of course one of the reasons we've ended up at this sorry pass. This week, Canadian social media – or at least the small and vocal part devoted to Canadian literature – has lit up with accusations of sexual misconduct and exploitation in the creative-writing department at Concordia University. The university now says it is examining allegations that have long been discussed by female students but, until now, were not deemed worthy of investigation. It's hardly surprising that in this power imbalance, students were leery to lodge formal complaints.
The Concordia situation has been called an "open secret," but it sounds like it's hardly been a secret at all. The award-wining novelist Heather O'Neill, who was the subject of unwanted sexual advances and groping by her professor two decades ago, has spoken about the atmosphere at Concordia publicly. "Everybody knows," Ms. O'Neill told the CBC. "Everyone who attends there is aware of this culture."
The moment may be twenty years too late, and it comes at the expense of women whose voices were ignored, but it's here. It's here in the women who work the line at the Ford plant, and the women at universities who have added 2,000 anonymous anecdotes to the spreadsheet called "Sexual Harassment in the Academy." The stories are here, and they're growing by the day, if we're not too bored and jaded to listen to them.