#MeToo: The personal is still political

Part of the Women's March in Brisbane on January 21.

Homemade signs and pink pussy hats abounded on January 21 as thousands of women rallied in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne as part of the international Women’s Marches.

As hundreds of thousands marched across Europe and the US, 1500 people — many of them young women — gathered in Sydney’s Hyde Park to form a human chain in a symbol of global solidarity. In Melbourne, protesters marched from Alexandra Gardens and formed a human chain along the banks of the Yarra.

The protests marked one year since the historic international marches that mobilised more than 5 million women and their supporters against US President Donald Trump and the degrading and misogynistic comments he made in the Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape.

Trump’s election detonated a bomb of feminist rage, which opened the way for a watershed year of women telling the truth about our experiences.

After sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein was “outed” — Weinstein’s abuse of women was a poorly kept secret in the film industry — in early October, women took to Twitter to declare that they too had suffered sexual harassment, assault or rape. To Weinstein’s accusers and to all women, they tweeted #MeToo. Within 24 hours, half a million women had broken their silence to join the chorus of #MeToo.

Overwhelming public pressure toppled Weinstein, which opened the floodgates for women to come forward about their experiences of violence, not just at the hands of rich and powerful men, but the less powerful men — our intimate partners, fathers, brothers, workmates and friends — who are most likely to be our attackers.

Following #MeToo, dozens of powerful men have been exposed for their crimes against women in an unprecedented tsunami of truth-telling, incurring a conservative backlash.

The notorious Woody Allen was quick to warn that #MeToo could create a “witch-hunt atmosphere”. As if we didn’t already know that powerful men are afraid of being brought to reckoning. It is all the better that creeps like Allen know their days are numbered.

The #MeToo phenomenon is reminiscent of the consciousness-raising discussions that led to the second wave of the women’s movement in the late 1960s, as women gathered to discuss and analyse their life experiences through a feminist lens. It differentiated the second wave of feminism of the 1960s and ’70s from the first wave of the 1920s, which concentrated on winning the vote for women.

Second wave feminists argued that because of women’s isolation in the home, the systemic oppression of women was misunderstood as individual experiences, emotions and problems. By bringing their experiences into the light, women began to develop a new, feminist consciousness.

An article on consciousness-raising in a collection produced by the British second wave magazine Spare Rib said: “We spoke of our families, childhood, friends, colleagues, lovers, our painful experiences, fears, secrets and happy times, our future dreams and plans ... all of which sparked off talk on many other subjects. We were continually surprised, encouraged, and excited by the similarity of our experiences, and as this sharing went on many of us found the confidence to do things that really mattered to us, however trivial … Through consciousness raising there is the realization that you are no longer alone.”

As women recognised the intimate and painful details of their own lives in the stories of other women, they birthed not only a slogan, but a cornerstone of feminist philosophy: the personal is political. This analysis drew the connections between women’s personal experiences and the broader political system.

#MeToo is, in part, the rediscovery of this important idea. Women are saying now, as they did in the ’60s: “Our experiences of exploitation, discrimination and violence are not exceptional, they are systemic. You are not alone. It has happened to me too.”

#MeToo did not simply arrive at the opportune moment, it was screamed into being by all of the women who found their voice through the monumental 2017 Women’s Marches.

Its significance for women is both personal and political: the personal strides women make when they heal their trauma and begin to take up space in the world again, and the political impact of women declaring their experiences with sexual violence and demanding real consequences.

As the consciousness raising groups of the ’60s led to the second wave of the women’s movement, this spontaneous moment of collective consciousness raising could also lead to a new feminist movement.

Women’s anger must be harnessed now and pulled out of the Twittersphere and into gatherings and meetings, street stalls and protests which could form the basis for a third wave of the women’s movement.

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