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The Women’s March and #Metoo Reflections

I joined the Women’s March again this year in Oakland with 50,000 other women, children and men. I appreciated the call to action with a focus on midterm elections and... I think we need a much deeper conversation about leadership and democracy, who votes, who doesn’t and why (maybe next month). Being part of the march this year also caused me to reflect on an issue I have wanting to write about, #me too. It would probably be more accurate to say I have and haven’t wanted to write about it because it’s complex and emotionally triggering, as you can see from the machinations of my internal dialogue below.

 

Reasons not to write about #metoo

Reasons to write about #metoo

#metoo has been hijacked by Hollywood

Millions of women experience sexual harassment and violence

Tarana Burke started #metoo specifically to support women of color who survived sexual violence

Intersectionality and solidarity for the disproportional number of women of color experiencing sexual violence

It’s personal and triggering

Our daughters and the next generation

What’s it got to do with leadership?

It has everything to do with leadership

 

It’s hard for me to believe that most women my age do not have some #metoo stories that range from rude (and humiliating) comments to job repercussions and assault. Occasionally among friends stories are swapped, but I can honestly say that the #metoo conversation has caused me to pause and reckon with the full magnitude of the experience, personally and culturally. Days before I was supposed to graduate from college I learned that one of my professors had failed me. I had done all of the work (and quite well), but declined an invitation to his home for private tutoring (the invite was more overt than that). I went to my mentor who was chair of the department and his response... “oh, it has to be a misunderstanding, Ben and I are good friends. I am sure you can work it out.” It took me 10 years to work it out and get my record corrected and diploma issued. Of course, it was not an isolated incident, I also found myself warding off unpleasant overtures on jobs, in doctors offices, and public places.

 

I have been in more than one #metoo conversation when to my dismay I hear other women say things like, “I would never let any man get away with those kind of things” or “You have to think about what kind of situation you are putting yourself in.” I have to admit, I found myself uncharacteristically quiet and honestly, I felt a flush of shame wondering how my 18 year old self had been at fault or inept in my response. I am finding my voice and joining the #metoo dialogue because these conversations and the feelings that they trigger remind that we will not alter the culture of white male supremacy without talking about power, oppression and internalized oppression. So, let’s talk about the kinds of situations women are putting themselves into….going to school? to work? I will be the first to acknowledge that as a white middle class girl, not getting my degree or leaving an internship job (yes, a classic) when it got too uncomfortable did not keep me from putting food on the table.

 

For a lot of women, that is not the case. When I was a labor organizer, hotel and restaurant workers had horrific stories of sexual harassment and assault. Low income women workers have less job protections and less economic freedom to leave unsafe jobs. Women of color, transgender and queer women, and immigrant women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and have good reason to fear the criminal justice system or mistrust that it will protect us. It’s not about just ‘speaking up’, it is about an abuse of power and silencing culture. I do worry that the Hollywood appropriation of #metoo will draw attention away from the work Tarana Burke has been doing for a decade to support women of color experiencing sexual violence. I hope that in the momentum created we can stand together to lift up the voices of those who are most vulnerable.

 

And, when I think now about what I put up with, I understand the external and internalized oppression that silenced me. People I tried to talk to at the time, both men and women, shrugged things off as “just the ways things are,” “reading into things,” “overblown and over reacting,” etc. As a young women, I internalized these messages and felt isolated in my experiences. I have talked with my daughters about how we as women should expect to be treated, enough to know that things are not all that different and, of course, the video tapes of our now president confirm this. Maybe if there is something different it is the conversation that Tarana started ten years ago to break our isolation and call out sexual harassment and assaults on women in all of its ugliness and magnitude.

 

What has this got to do with leadership? Lots of things. As I read about #metoo I was struck by Tarana Burke’s leadership in understanding that we heal together, and by overcoming isolation. Truth and healing are foundational to leadership. Authentic relationships are the substance of leadership. We can’t lead when women are objectified, and when the safety and dignity of women are not the concern of us all. At a meeting recently, Richard Woo, of the Russell Family Foundation told me he had been thinking a lot about #metoo and wanted to talk about what is was like for women in the workplace. I was moved by his question and concern. What a great starting place for understanding all that women are up against as they exercise leadership on the job, in schools, in neighborhoods. I hope these conversations occur in all of the spaces where we lead.