United States: Working-class women say ‘#MeToo’

Members of the National Alliance of Women Farmworkers take part in the 'Take Back the Workplace' march in Hollywood on November 12.

In the weeks since evidence of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long pattern of sexual abuse surfaced, millions of women, trans and gender nonconforming people, even men around the world have exposed the scale of sexual violence in our society, using the #MeToo hashtag to tell their stories.

A slew of men in positions of power — from British defence secretary Michael Fallon to actor Kevin Spacey — have been accused of sexual misconduct and many finally face real consequences.

#MeToo set off a profound moment of collective bravery, which would have been impossible without the broad sense of solidarity and support for those coming forward.

I still vividly remember feeling the power of such support during a SlutWalk protest in 2012, as we rallied at Praca Roosevelt in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

At one moment, a protester came up to one of the women leading the rally with the megaphone and whispered in her ear. The woman with the megaphone announced that there was a man in the back — she pointed — in a grey shirt, blue cap and sunglasses, who was touching women without their consent.

Hundreds of us chanted at him to get out, our voices getting louder, faster, angrier. He fled. It was the first time I cried about my rape.

Yet, despite the mass outpouring of #MeToo stories, we know that there are millions of other people who cannot or choose not to speak out in this particular way. In the overwhelming majority of cases in which survivors come forward, they are dismissed, their names are dragged through the mud, institutions try to cover up the wrongdoing or retaliate against them.

Forced to stay quiet

Blamed and forced to keep quiet, they are shown that their experiences are taken for granted and are part of what it means to be a woman in society, rather than gruelling experiences of oppression that completely reshape people’s lives.

For decades, women have come forward about their experiences of being abused, harassed, assaulted and raped by renowned men. The difference now is they are being believed. The confidence this is giving survivors goes beyond the inner circles of the rich and famous.

In the lead-up to a “Take Back the Workplace” march that stormed the streets of Hollywood on November 12, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Alliance of Women Farmworkers), an organisation made up of female farmworkers and women who come from farmworker families, released a moving letter of solidarity with the women in Hollywood who have come forward in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.

“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,” the letter reads.

“As you cope with scrutiny and criticism because you have bravely chosen to speak out against the harrowing acts that were committed against you, please know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.”

As many as 80% of female agricultural workers are abused or raped in the fields, according to a 2010 study in the journal Violence Against Women. Since so many of these workers are undocumented immigrants — 50-75% of them — speaking out can mean risking deportation and being torn from their families.

Working-class women

Sexual violence and harassment extend to all levels of society, but working-class women often experience its impact disproportionately.

One of the ultimate expressions of dehumanisation and objectification, sexual violence is part and parcel for a society based on women’s exploitation. It both stems from and reinforces women’s inequality and the ways women experience that inequality.

Women are largely burdened with unpaid domestic labour and childrearing. They make less money than their male counterparts for the same work. Sixty percent of families headed by a single mother live in poverty. The United States is the only country in the world, other than Papua New Guinea and Lesotho, which does not guarantee paid maternity leave for new mothers.

The decline in social spending — from the destruction of welfare programs to cuts in food stamps and childcare services — has made the situation of women and their families even more precarious. The devaluation of women goes all the way to, and comes all the way from, the top, where an admitted rapist sits in the White House.

It comes as no surprise, then, that working-class women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence in the workplace.

A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that three in 10 women have put up with unwanted advances from male co-workers and  a quarter of women have endured them from men who had influence over their jobs. Among women who have been subjected to sexual violence in the workplace, 95% say that male perpetrators usually go unpunished.

Sexual violence in the workplace helps maintain women’s unequal status and creates greater obstacles for women to advocate for themselves. Legitimising sexual violence in the workplace helps legitimise it outside of the workplace, contributing to and shaping sexist ideas in society at large.

Women are relied on as a permanent, low-wage sector. Many work in overwhelmingly “female” occupations based on sexist ideas about what women are supposedly naturally predisposed to do, such as nursing and teaching.

Women make up more than 75% of the workforce in the 10 lowest-wage occupations in the US, with nearly half of them being women of colour, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

In low-wage jobs, women, particularly Black women, face astronomical levels of harassment and abuse.

A 2014 study found that 80% of women restaurant workers experienced sexual harassment from customers, two-thirds from managers and half from co-workers. Eighty percent of hotel workers also experience sexual violence on the job.

Women workers in the janitorial industry — disproportionately women of colour, 70% of whom are undocumented — also face staggering levels of harassment, assault and rape.

The #MeToo campaign struck such a profound chord and became a powerful expression of the growing rage because of the pervasive reality of sexual violence in people’s everyday lives. Our lived experiences fly in the face of everything we’ve been told about how we live in a “post-feminist” era.

We understand the significance of the #MeToo moment, just as we understood the significance of millions taking to the streets for the women’s marches the day after President Trump’s inauguration in what became the largest day of protest in US history.

Systemic inequalities

These events are what allow us to recognise that the oppression that weighs down on us is not of our own doing, but it goes beyond us.

Our shared understanding is what allows us to begin to challenge gender-based violence on a social level, against the institutions and systemic inequalities that dictate and distort the conditions in which we live.

That SlutWalk protest in 2012 not only helped me come to terms with my emotions surrounding my rape, but it was also the first time I realised that we, the majority, united, organised, have the power and potential to win.

[Slightly abridged from Indymedia. Camila Quarta is a socialist activist and a long-time organiser in the anti-sexual violence movement.]

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