Silent No More – The Accomplishments of the #MeToo Movement in 2017
by Jessica Walker
During the last few months of 2017, serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault by powerful men have dominated the news and social media. The “#MeToo” movement on Facebook illustrated that all of us know people with similar stories (and that many of us have stories of our own). Time Magazine has even named the “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year. The cover of Time included the arm of a person sitting out of view of the camera, to acknowledge that along with the brave women and men who have spoken out, there are still more who have experienced the same bad behavior, who have not or cannot speak up now.
With the announcement that Judge Kozinski has retired, after allegations from multiple women prompted a formal inquiry, this recent phenomenon has reached the legal industry as well. What is new and different is not the reports of sexual harassment, however – it is that these allegations are being taken seriously, with consequences for the men at the center of the bad behavior. In most of the instances, the allegations reach back years, if not decades – and several of the women speaking up now had previously tried to speak up before.
The question of why women do not speak up more often when men in their industry sexually harass or assault them has come up frequently in discussions of this movement. At its core, sexual harassment is more about power than it is about sex, and the high profile instances of this illustrate the vast power differential between the harasser and his targets. The allegations against Harvey Weinstein follow the same theme, of young women at the beginning stages of their acting careers meeting with Weinstein, expecting to discuss scripts and other business matters, only to be subjected to lewd acts instead. The allegations against Judge Kozinski came primarily from former law clerks – each of whom would have been only a few years out of law school at most, still building their own credibility within the legal industry. Most of these clerks were likely relying on Judge Kozinski for a favorable reference. The power imbalance thus makes it harder to speak up, either out of concern that the more powerful, established harasser would be believed over a relative newcomer to the industry, or fear that, even if believed, one would be seen as a troublemaker or be blacklisted from the industry. These concerns are reasonable, as the number of articles questioning the motives of this year’s Silence Breakers shows.
What seems to be different now is, in part, that the women speaking up now about events that occurred many years ago have had time to develop more power – when women who have become household names, like Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan, spoke out this year about Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood listened. And other women have stood beside the Silence Breakers, lending their support and calling for an end to sexual harassment. For example, Gal Gadot took a stand, refusing to sign on to a second Wonder Woman movie while Brett Radner remained a producer, due to the multiple allegations of sexual harassment made against Radner. Gadot’s position was strengthened by the first movie’s success at the box office this past summer.
In Congress, Senators Kamela Harris, Kristen Gillibrand, and others have spoken out, calling for the resignation of politicians named as harassers, including the President. Lawmakers from both parties have also introduced legislation seeking to overhaul the way sexual harassment is handled on Capitol Hill. As the Time article emphasizes, the Silence Breakers come from all walks of life, ranging from dishwashers and strawberry pickers to A-list actors. The #MeToo movement has accomplished much in the way of shining a spotlight on the ubiquity of sexual harassment, and has started a wave of holding the perpetrators responsible. By reaching across industries and banding together, across generations and levels of power, and by continuing to listen to and believe women, the Silence Breakers and their allies can make it clear that sexual harassment is no longer something that will be tolerated and ignored, in any industry, regardless of the status of the harasser.
Jessica Walker is co-chair of WLALA's Litigation Section and is a litigation associate in the Los Angeles office of Nixon Peabody LLP.