The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

#MeToo is undoing the devil’s bargain of the 1990s

Men accepted women’s rise to prominence, but used sexual coercion to maintain control

The #MeToo movement is forcing a reckoning in America. (AP)
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Wednesday, several female senators used feminist tactics to take down one of their own. Through amplification, a technique developed by feminists in the Obama era, they called for Sen. Al Franken’s resignation, tweeting one after another and emphasizing similar points. Americans read these successive tweets after waking up to learn Time magazine had selected “The Silence Breakers” — the women who came forward to name the men who had harassed and assaulted them — as its Person of the Year.

In other words, a fairly typical day in #MeToo America.

Some skeptics criticize survivors’ timing: “Why did they wait so long?” Doubters allege the movement has “gone too far.” Others find men’s behavior the acts of individual monsters — a bunch of independent Harvey Weinsteins. After all, over the past 30 years feminists have successfully changed gender norms and the law to promote the fairer treatment of women. So how could sexual harassment be endemic in America today?

Though the sexual misconduct revelations span age and situation — from 23-year-old Aly Raisman’s charges against USA Gymnastics’s team doctor to older women’s reports about elderly politicians John Conyers Jr. and Roy Moore — #MeToo is, at heart, a conflict between Gen X and Xennial women, and male baby boomers. Since the 1990s, male boomers have celebrated female empowerment while also ingraining messages that young women had no recourse against sexual abuse. In fact, these two ideas depended on one another: empowerment, but not too much.

Young women in the late 20th century absorbed this double-edged lesson of empowerment and vulnerability in everyday life, politics and culture. In class, at parties, in athletics and at work, they learned to be ambitious but expect, and accept, men’s sexual advancements and misconduct. #MeToo is a reckoning for the victims of the 1990s and male baby boomers who have harassed them since their teens. It is women confronting the price tag — acquiescence to male dominance — men attached to access to equality, and finally challenging the core of men’s institutional power: sexual control.

At first blush, the 1990s were an effective women’s rights decade. Changes that second-wave feminists had fought for in the 1970s — access to financial credit, legalized contraception and abortion, executive careers and female professional sports — had become mainstream. The young multiracial women who followed them created a “third wave” of feminism that insisted upon fair treatment regardless of one’s gender or sexuality.

These changes shaped the decade’s popular culture. Increasingly diverse models defined a new androgynous cool, while women topped charts in rap, ska, alternative rock, country and punk music. They achieved greater pay parity at work in new executive roles. In sport, female “Children of Title IX” tallied Olympic team gold medals in women’s soccer and gymnastics; the WNBA and professional women’s soccer began, and the 1999 U.S. soccer team won the Women’s World Cup.

Women outnumbered men in college enrollment and pursued unprecedented numbers of graduate degrees. While gender violence on campuses remained harrowing, Congress recognized this in the Clery Act of 1990, and President George H.W. Bush underscored the seriousness of campus sexual violence in 1991, noting that such crimes “not only inflict material losses but also causes untold personal suffering … and … disrupts the vital functions of colleges and universities, thereby depriving students of an optimal educational experience.”

The diverse, inclusive feminism young women shared with their older sisters and moms seemed to betoken optimism for real equality by the turn of the century.

But while women garnered unprecedented public acclaim, they operated within power structures — entertainment, business, academia, sports — that older men controlled. Accepting sexual violence frequently became the price of access. This was not a secret. Rather, it was openly condoned.

In 1991, William Kennedy Smith — nephew of Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy — was acquitted of rape, while the Senate confirmed Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, in spite of Anita Hill’s powerful testimony of sexual abuse. The all-male Senate Judiciary Committee (there were only two women in the entire Senate) savaged Hill, with members framing her testimony as “fantasies about sexual interest in her” after “rejection by men she was attracted to.” The press dubbed the following year the “Year of the Woman” after record numbers of furious women responded by running for and winning congressional seats.

And yet when women accused President Bill Clinton, elected that very same year, of sexual misconduct, Democrats pilloried them as tawdry political pawns. “When you drag a hundred dollar bill though a trailer park,” quipped Clinton adviser James Carville in 1996, “who knows what you’ll find.”

College women noticed how federal power brokers treated women’s allegations of sexual misconduct, and absorbed it as they would academic coursework. One Columbia University law student lamented in 1992: “The messages I got were: Do not come forward with an accusation of sexual harassment … if you were raped … do not bother coming forward because you will have to relive the rape … on a witness stand where it will seem that you, and not your rapist, is on trial.”

And while celebrating women’s achievements, popular entertainment simultaneously portrayed sex in misogynistic terms — impersonal and rough, frequently framing women as grateful for it. When it did address survivor narratives of rape, it offered few models for surviving assault. The 1991 film protagonists Thelma and Louise freed themselves from patriarchal violence, but only through suicide. The Dixie Chicks’ tongue-in-cheek 1999 hit “Goodbye Earl” framed murder as women’s only recourse to domestic violence, despite a decade of feminist activism.

In sports, women had the law on their side, but it didn’t matter. Title IX, the 1972 anti-discrimination law mandating equal treatment of the sexes in educational institutions receiving federal funding, seemed to college women a rational way to demand protection from rape. But in sport, male athletes at Tennessee, Colorado and University of Washington, among others, retained their power on campus and ascended to the NFL after female students accused them of sexual misconduct.

Gendered double-standards also pervaded female professional sport, even as women won global titles. When Brandi Chastain netted the clinching goal in the U.S.-China championship match at the 1999 World Cup and jubilantly ripped off her shirt, she received as much criticism for her taut muscles and unabashed celebration as she did congratulations.

Despite third-wave feminism’s many female empowerment models, rape and sexual harassment remained an issue from which powerful men emerged not just unscathed, but more dominant.

Male baby boomers accepted women’s incremental public advancement because sexual predation allowed them to retain control, even while receiving plaudits for their enlightenment. For example, Weinstein produced complex starring roles for young female celebrities while systematically abusing them, making sure that he retained the authority role despite what appeared to be increasing female influence in entertainment.

By ostensibly fostering women’s advancement, men who had come of age during second-wave feminism secured their control while appearing to be benevolent, even pathbreaking, supporters of women’s equality.

Men also got sexual gratification along with it. Louis C.K.’s entrapment of female comics, for instance, proved a win-win for him — he could imagine women wanted him and also frighten them into believing their careers were contingent upon their silence, thus shoring up his own power as the masculine dream-maker in comedy.

This worked until the 2016 election, when then-candidate Donald Trump’s 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape revealed for Americans the crude truth of sexual dominance. In his infamous words, “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” Trump’s election exposed how sexual misconduct let men enforce their social primacy.

But it also revealed that women were not alone in confronting this sexual misconduct. #MeToo is an intimate admission, but it’s also a collective solidarity that gives women a way to challenge the power structure at its root by denying older men the purported respect and legitimacy that wisdom, experience or benevolent mentoring had bought at the price of sexual misconduct.

For #MeToo to move beyond individual victims’ testimonies and men’s firings, women have to change the epicenter of men’s power — in politics, universities and the media. It has to transform from an identity and angry, empathetic solidarity into a determination to create a new national paradigm based around equity in power positions.

Until women are athletic directors, studio heads, finance directors and political leaders as a normal course of business, rather than exceptional individuals achieving these positions in rare cases contingent on men’s approval, young women of the 1990s, their daughters and their moms will continue to need a rallying cry that simultaneously reminds them of their individual power and women’s collective vulnerability at the hands of privileged men.

Only then will the wildfire speed at which #MeToo swept the nation fundamentally change it.