Think #MeToo didn’t make a real difference? Think again

It takes effort to track the impacts of mass mobilizations like #MeToo, Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but understanding social change is impossible without such work.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

What difference did #MeToo actually make?

In 2017 and 2018, the viral hashtag became a global sensation that motivated millions to speak out about sexual assault and harassment. But more recently, critics have questioned whether the flurry of activity ended up leaving much of a legacy.

This questioning is hardly surprising. If there is one thing that is most consistent when it comes to mass protest movements, it is that these mobilizations will be dismissed by mainstream political observers as being fleeting and inconsequential. Time and again, they are labeled as fads, scolded for being too “confrontational and divisive,” and written off as flash-in-the-pan eruptions with little lasting significance.

The latest round of such dismissal came this fall with an article in the New York Times entitled “The Failure of Progressive Movements.” In it, columnist David Leonhardt notes that several movements have achieved prominence in recent years: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. However, “none of the three movements have come close to achieving their ambitions,” he argues.

Leonhardt grants that “All of them have had an impact,” with Occupy popularizing “the idea of the 1 percent and the 99 percent” and #MeToo leading “to the firing (and sometimes jailing) of sexual predators, as well as the hiring of more women in prominent jobs.” But, following author and Substack writer Fredrik deBoer, Leonhardt considers the gains of the movements to be primarily “immaterial and symbolic,” and he closes with the admonition that “Calling out injustice isn’t the same as fighting it.”

Certainly, the limitations of these movements can be debated. Organizers themselves tend to be keenly aware of the missteps and shortcomings they have encountered, as well as the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in their pursuit of justice. At the same time, outside dismissals of protest movements rarely result from serious attempts to investigate the afterlives of popular mobilizations and trace their effects. Rather, they appeal to cynicism and ignorance: It takes no real evidence to shrug off movements as having little consequence. In contrast, it often requires dedicated labor to track how mass action can reshape the political landscape around an issue, and in doing so have wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected impacts. Yet such work is critical to genuine analysis of how social change happens.

All of the movements of the past decade cited by Leonhardt deserve closer attention before being written off. We have previously written about how, contrary to popular belief, Occupy and Black Lives Matter each had diverse and tangible policy impacts. Occupy, among other effects, pushed forward a variety of city- and state-level millionaires taxes, responsible banking ordinances, and protections for homeowners, while also playing a crucial role in preserving labor rights in Ohio and launching a campaign that was critical in later prompting President Biden to grant billions of dollars in student debt cancellation.

Meanwhile, the Movement for Black Lives had far-reaching impact on an array of criminal justice reform initiatives, helping to propel progressive prosecutors into office in major cities and to secure public support for advances such as Measure J in Los Angeles County, which is redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars per year in public funding toward a “Care First, Jails Last agenda” to combat mass incarceration. Detractors rarely bother to weigh such outcomes when discussing the purported irrelevance of these movements. But they are just a few of the meaningful consequences that can be documented.

With #MeToo, the impacts have been even more varied and expansive, making it an important case study into how mass mobilization can seed change in many different arenas of society.

There is no doubt that the movement changed the cultural conversation and dramatically increased the amount of attention paid to issues of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination. It also led to the downfall of a long list of politicians, business executives, media personalities and other influential men accused of sexual abuse or harassment — Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Andrew Cuomo, Matt Lauer, and Les Moonves among them. Even critics will grant these outcomes, although that is generally where they stop.

In reality, this only scratches the surface of what #MeToo has accomplished.

The laws that passed

Detractors often point out that the #MeToo movement has yielded no landmark national legislation, comparable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although this is true, the critique is wrong-headed for several reasons.

First of all, a lack of progress in pushing laws through Congress is not unique to #MeToo. Rather, it reflects the deep polarization on Capitol Hill that has, in recent years, created Congressional gridlock and stymied virtually all major legislative drives. In 2022, lawmakers did pass and Biden signed into law the Speak Out Act, which constrains the use of non-disclosure agreements and non-disparagement clauses in cases involving sexual harassment or sexual assault, freeing more victims to seek justice. But for the most part, the movement has circumvented unfavorable conditions at the federal level by instead passing a myriad of state laws.

As the National Women’s Law Center explains, “Every year since #MeToo went viral in October 2017, state lawmakers have worked with new energy to reform workplace anti-harassment laws, which the outpouring of stories and experiences had revealed as outdated and ineffective… Now six years since #MeToo went viral, 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed a total of more than 80 workplace anti-harassment bills, many with bipartisan support” — in addition to other measures that pertain to sexual assault and gender-based abuse outside of the workplace.

Among these measures are: laws that expand the number and type of employees to whom existing workplace protections apply; laws prohibiting public officials from using public money to fund settlements with victims; laws protecting people who speak up from defamation lawsuits; and further measures to stop non-disclosure agreements and forced arbitration from limiting victims’ ability to speak out.

A half-dozen states from Oregon to Texas have extended the statute of limitations for discrimination and abuse claims. Others have expanded the definition of what qualifies as workplace harassment. And more than a dozen now require businesses or public agencies to create anti-harassment policies and train their employees in these policies.

Connecticut, Nevada, New York and Virginia have passed laws increasing both the compensatory and punitive damages available to victims, while Georgia was among those that strengthened protections for victims against retaliation by bosses. Louisiana, Maryland and the District of Columbia passed transparency laws requiring businesses or public agencies to disclose data about the scope of sexual harassment complaints. And other states have established new agencies or working groups to improve enforcement, or have approved legislation specifically designed to expand protections for workers at bars, restaurants, hotels, casinos and adult entertainment facilities.

As just one high-profile example of the new measures, in 2022 New York State enacted the Adult Survivors Act, which created a one-year “lookback window” for sexual assault survivors to seek civil damages. Intense public attention was devoted to the fact that five women used the law to sue Bill Cosby for assault, battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and also that the writer E. Jean Carroll was able to use the law to successfully sue Donald Trump for defamation and battery, resulting in a jury finding the former president liable for sexual abuse and ordering him to pay $5 million in damages.

But at least as significant, although less well-covered, was the fact that nearly a thousand imprisoned and formerly imprisoned women in New York State filed claims under the act alleging that guards raped or sexually abused them in prisons and jails.

Of course, advocates do not consider the many dozens of laws that have passed thus far to be sufficient, and they are right to keep pushing for more — to demand changes that both go further and reach into more jurisdictions. Yet certainly some review of the movement’s legislative track record should be taken into consideration before accepting at face value Leonhardt’s assertion that “Above all, [movements] made decisions geared more toward changing elite segments of American society — like academia, Hollywood and the national media — than toward passing new laws and changing most people’s lives.” Even as critics such as Leonhardt hold up the patient, state-by-state work of anti-abortion activists as a model of how to successfully and incrementally pursue change, they make no effort to appreciate post-#MeToo efforts to do exactly that.

Although prosecutions of celebrity abusers and high-level executives receive a disproportionate amount of media attention, it is noteworthy that many recently passed laws have special salience for groups of working-class women: whether they are service workers who now have access to panic buttons, prisoners who have made claims against their jailors, or the unpaid interns, contingent workers and apprentices who have gained legal protections from which they were previously excluded.

Making the law real

A second reason that criticism faulting the movement for not securing national legislation is misguided is that a main impact of #MeToo has been to give teeth to existing laws. Prior to the movement, rape and sexual harassment were already illegal. The problem was that too many women found that pursuing justice in the courts meant frustration and re-victimization.

As the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon put it in The New York Times in 2018, “The #MeToo movement is accomplishing what sexual harassment law to date has not.” After the movement’s emergence, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission increased quickly, and the agency filed more than 50 percent more sexual harassment lawsuits in 2018 than it did the year before. Since then, research has demonstrated that #MeToo produced an increase in the reporting of sex crimes across 31 OECD countries. Academic papers have also shown that #MeToo created a long-term decrease in the tendency of Americans to dismiss or downplay sexual assault claims, and that, based on data from college-age survivors, the movement resulted in increased recognition, acceptance and acknowledgment of past unwanted sexual experiences as assault.

The process through which such changes in attitude are absorbed into the legal system can be frustratingly slow. Nevertheless, changes are becoming evident. Villanova law professor Michelle Madden Dempsey argues that #MeToo has helped to create a “feedback loop across the many parts of the legal system,” in which there is an interrelated rise in “victims being willing to come forward, prosecutors being willing to hear them and take their cases forward, judges being willing to allow the evidence, and jurors being willing to credit the evidence.”

“It’s a change in how society views the cases,” said former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Shan Wu in 2020. “And the judges are human like everyone else in their thinking and also in their training. They’re being trained to be more sensitive to sexual assault victims.”

As for those responsible for bringing criminal cases, in an 2020 interview with NPR, then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance attested to the movement’s impact as he scrambled to explain why he had failed to prosecute Harvey Weinstein prior to #MeToo, even though evidence had been available: “2017 was a watershed moment for, I think, all of us in America and certainly all of us in law enforcement,” he stated. Echoing the many politicians who rapidly shifted their stances on gay marriage around 2013, once the tide of public opinion had turned, Vance concluded: “We have definitely evolved.”

Already we have seen some major appellate court rulings uphold arguments made by the movement. And not for nothing, it is now common to hear prominent defenders of men in abuse cases objecting that the “pendulum has swung too far” in favor of believing women — a contention that serves as a notable contrast to the idea that the movement has not done much at all.

Shaking the pillars of society

Mass mobilizations that spread virally across society function differently than targeted, localized campaigns that make narrow demands of isolated power brokers — for example, a drive by a community group trying to win affordable housing in a specific development project. As we have written elsewhere, “Movements at their most transformative produce tectonic shifts that make the ground tremble. Although the impact is undeniable, predicting exactly which buildings or bridges will buckle as a result can be difficult. Because of this, the activists who generate the tremors often do not receive the credit they deserve” for the changes ultimately produced.

Serbian revolutionary Ivan Marovic explains, “In classical politics, you’re interested in the direct route to victory. But in building a movement, you’re interested in the more fundamental change that happens through the activation of citizens. It’s indirect. And a lot of the things that are going to come from this, you’re not going to see in advance.” Or as scholar Aristide Zolberg observes, “Stepped-up participation is like a flood tide which loosens up much of the soil but leaves alluvial deposits in its wake.”

A great many things may bloom in this newly fertile ground. Accordingly, it is a mistake to see social change as something that emanates only from federal legislation. In the socialist tradition, theorist Antonio Gramsci insists that the power of a hegemonic order is sustained not just by the formal structures of state, but by institutions throughout civil society. Likewise, the tradition of civil resistance argues that a regime is necessarily held up by the “pillars” of society: schools, churches, civic organizations, the media, businesses and the arts among them. It is when these pillars of support start to sway that the architecture of the status quo collapses.

In the case of #MeToo, the movement’s impact is clearly evident throughout many of these pillars. Religious institutions, for one, are grappling with a cascade of scandals related to abuse and misbehavior of faith leaders. Perhaps most prominently, the Southern Baptist Convention in 2022 released what the New York Times described as a “bombshell report,” which detailed claims against hundreds of ministers and other church officials over a two-decade period. “The reckoning, across the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, was a broader, deeper #MeToo event than [recent celebrity courtroom battles], and a sign of the movement’s durability,” the Times reported.

Movement effects are apparent in educational institutions — not only on university campuses, although those certainly are significant sites of contention, but also in countless primary and secondary schools. As just one testimony to the effect, Sarah Soileau, a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. contends that #MeToo has provided an opportunity to discuss issues such as consent and sexual harassment in the classroom. “It’s important to teach our students when they’re younger so they don’t grow up in a culture where they think it’s OK,” she told NPR, adding, “I’m just trying to give these girls and boys the voice to say, ‘This is not OK, and I’m not going to tolerate it.’”

Women in the armed forces are coming forward about sexual harassment and assault, challenging the prior preferences of commanders to sweep complaints under the rug. “The voices of those survivors have never been louder or more clear,” California Rep. Jackie Speier told the Associated Press in 2020. “This is the military’s ‘#MeToo moment.”

In the world of business, the movement has resulted in stronger harassment policies, new trainings and stricter enforcement. “There’s a financial interest,” Chai Feldblum, a former E.E.O.C. commissioner, told the Times. “It’s a real liability for businesses.” And while media attention has tended to focus on wealthy or famous individuals who have been fired or disciplined, the lists of hundreds of powerful men who have been taken down in #MeToo-related scandals are perhaps most important as indications of a shattering of impunity — a challenge to a state of affairs in which even well-known abusers were protected and their actions could persist as open secrets in their industries.

Organized by Fight for $15, McDonald’s workers went on a one-day strike in 10 cities to protest sexual harassment on Sept. 18, 2018. (Twitter/@JayuCanada)

Workers’ organizations including UNITE HERE and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have incorporated #MeToo issues into their public messaging and campaign demands. Likewise, Women In Hospitality United formed in 2017 to tackle abuses specifically within the restaurant industry. Task forces within the organization formed to take on issues as diverse as harassment, mental health, financial literacy, the pay gap between men and women in the industry and the need for mentorship for women.

The range of such activity illustrates that the movement has had sometimes unexpected consequences that go well beyond a narrow focus on sexual abuse. Vox has reported that #MeToo has propelled forward efforts to end the “tipped minimum wage” — a below-minimum rate allowed for servers and others who receive gratuities — as it compelled workers to put up with abusive behavior from customers out of fear that interrupting it would result in losing tips they needed to survive. As Vox correspondent Anna North wrote in 2019, “Seven states have done [away with the rate] already, and the movement has gained steam with the rise of #MeToo.”

Ride-share companies such as Lyft and Uber have launched programs that allow women customers to request rides from female and non-binary drivers. Multiple efforts have attempted to provide free walks home at night for women in certain areas. And the movement has spurred renewed interest from investors in funds and companies that focus on gender equality and women’s leadership.

In addition to nurturing new initiatives, the alluvial deposits of movement activity also sustain organizations that have labored diligently on these issues for years — groups whose once-ignored reports and recommendations now receive the attention they always deserved, whose ability to raise money is dramatically enhanced, and whose counsel is sought out by lawmakers and activists alike.

Indeed, long-term advocates are often the best positioned to comment on the changes wrought by mass mobilization. “I have been a civil rights lawyer and a women’s rights lawyer for the last 20 years,” said Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund established in the wake of #MeToo. “And if you had told me at any point in those 20 years that there would be money available to help people come forward, to help people with their cases, I would have told you, ‘That’s just never going to happen.’”

“That underneath-the-radar, behind-the-scenes organizing is extremely important,” Jo Freeman, an influential writer and longtime feminist activist told NPR. Social movements, she says, rely on both short-term surges and long-term spadework. “What you see are the surge parts,” Freeman explained. But key to understanding how movements progress is appreciating the long-term interplay of different types of efforts. “You gotta plow the ground and plant the seeds before you can reap the harvest,” she said.

An army of outraged voters

Another impact of #MeToo, and one that is surprising to see overlooked by critics, is its role in helping to mobilize women as a voting bloc. Social movements tend to have a cyclical character, with periods of highly visible mass mobilization periodically erupting then subsiding, followed by periods of quieter work. Although #MeToo was first launched in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, most people talking about the mobilization are referring to the period of peak activity between 2017 and 2018, when the hashtag became a truly viral phenomenon. Of course, actions that might be branded as #MeToo during that period took place in a wider context of ongoing feminist organizing, and the peak moment was part of a series of interrelated events that had marked electoral consequences.

Immediately after Donald Trump’s election, women outraged by the new president’s sexism and his recorded bragging about sexual assault organized one of the biggest one-day mobilizations in U.S. history with the Women’s March in January 2017, and this demographic became a key part of the continued anti-Trump “resistance.” The rapid spread of #MeToo not long after was very much a related development. And yet another wave of feminist organizing was ignited in 2022 following the Republican-dominated Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The whole of this activism has had a significant effect on U.S. voting patterns, starting in the 2018 round of national elections and extending over several cycles, as Women’s March- and #MeToo-aligned groups explicitly launched drives to mobilize voters. In an article profiling how “Women powered Democrats in the 2018 Midterms,” the Washington Post described a “women-led army” that was “repulsed by Trump and determined to do something about it.” As the story explained, “Women who had never been particularly active politically worked phone banks, wrote postcards and sent text messages to voters.” The result was historically high turnout, especially among women.

Brookings would later report that “The 2018 midterm election was a particularly strong year for Democrats,” with the margin of women preferring Democrats over Republicans “far exceeding that for the 2014 midterms.” As the Washington Post noted of the Women’s March and #MeToo organizers, “Many of the congressional candidates they were supporting flipped Republican-held seats, all part of a political tide strong enough to flush the GOP from control of the House, dealing Trump a major defeat.”

Pronounced polarization continued in 2020, when the gender gap between male and female voters in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania became a yawning divide, and when sustained turnout among women — with numbers far exceeding 2016 — helped ensure that Donald Trump was not reelected. And while the latest round of mobilization has generally been seen as distinct from #MeToo, women continued to exert power at the polls in 2022, when a predicted “red wave” of Republican victories failed to materialize, in no small part due to voters furious about the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision the previous summer.

Because women constitute more than half of the nation’s population, even small shifts in voting gender-based patterns can have momentous implications. Given that, the fact that millions joined in collective efforts to protest Trump and Brett Kavanaugh as abusers, share their own stories of surviving harassment and assault, and participate in electoral drives expressing revulsion to such figures is a consequential development.

The response goes global

Finally, like the Occupy movement before it, #MeToo sparked outbreaks of activity in many other countries — in this case ranging from Ireland to Japan to Mexico to China. In Australia, #LetHerSpeak campaigners succeeded in modifying gag laws across the country which previously barred sexual assault survivors from identifying themselves in media. And in Africa, Kiki Mordi, the lead reporter of a BBC investigation that exposed sexual harassment in Nigerian and Ghanaian universities and was herself forced to drop out of school in Nigeria after refusing advances from a lecturer, saw her reporting spark widespread outrage. #Sex4Grades became a viral hashtag across the continent and led to the firing of multiple abusers. “The scale of the response,” Mordi remarks, “it was like magic.”

In every case, activist efforts faced resistance and backlash. And in many of the previously named countries, legal progress has been far slower than one would hope. Yet those who have been working on the ground for decades around the issues raised by #MeToo testify to the concrete changes they have witnessed: “I had a rape case yesterday against a leading Bollywood producer,” well-known lawyer Karuna Nundy explained in 2018. “My client is a very young woman; we told the court that she was raped over a period of six months on pain of bodily harm… The way we were heard by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the two judges is very different from the way we would have been heard, say, 15 years ago.” She added, “There’s an interplay between public consciousness, and the law and due process.”

Perhaps the greatest testament to the types of shifts that have occurred comes from France. Initially, when #MeToo activism erupted in the country in 2019, it was dismissed as an unwelcome American import. Yet by 2021, the tide had reversed, with a raft of influential men in media, sports, politics and culture facing legal action for sexual abuse, and with French lawmakers promptly acting to establish 15 as the age of sexual consent after rejecting the same proposal just a few years prior. “Things are moving so fast that sometimes my head spins,” said Caroline De Haas, a feminist activist who in 2018 founded the group #NousToutes, in an interview the New York Times.

A #NousToutes demonstration in Paris on Nov. 25. (Twitter/Tiphaine Blot)

As the paper notedrevelations around the prevalence of sexual abuse “have undermined the myths of Frenchmen as great seducers and of a refined romantic culture,” leading to a reappraisal of French masculinity that is now being felt in countless relationships and encounters. Commenting on prominent legal reversals, Le Monde remarked that society’s “understanding of consent has unquestionably changed.”

The consequence of such shifts is attested to by Pierre Ménès — a prominent sports journalist known for forcibly kissing women on television and, in 2016, lifting the skirt of a female journalist in front of a studio audience. “The world’s changed, it’s #MeToo,” Ménès now complains. “You can’t do anything anymore.”

Such grievances about lost privilege are quite significant. It is common that the right — or in this case the patriarchy — is far more vocal in recognizing the impact of social movements than progressive activists themselves. Organizers are perpetually aware of how the changes they secure usually fall far short of their most transformative hopes, necessitating continued struggle. For this reason, they are notoriously bad at pausing to claim their victories.

But because mass protests, in particular, are so often dismissed once moments of peak activity die down, it is important to take the time to monitor their later reverberations. These mobilizations are significant not because they are the only driver of social progress, but because they seed the wider ecosystem of social movement activity — offering fresh opportunities to engage the public, bolstering long-term organizing, and creating political opportunities that did not exist before. We should therefore want more of them.

“Our goal has to be ending sexual violence,” Goss Graves, director of the National Women’s Law Center director, told the New York Times. “The real goal feels giant, and not achievable overnight.” For those seeking to end patriarchy altogether, the goal is even bigger. Rather than asking whether mobilizations to these ends accomplished everything they wanted, the question should be: Did they leave feminist movements in a better place than they were before? And is our world better off for it? In the case of #MeToo, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Research assistance provided by Raina Lipsitz and Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.

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