#MeToo outside Trump's Hotel
It was snowing heavily, in New York’s first real snowstorm of the winter, and the women leading the demonstration at Columbus Circle had to cover their microphones with plastic bags to keep them from getting wet, muffling their chants. There were roughly 150 protesters standing with hunched shoulders while fat snowflakes dampened their caps. Their signs had pictures of growling pussycats and the ♀ symbol with a clenched fist in the centre. A woman with facial piercings had draped a large sheet over her shoulders: on the back, it was embroidered with the words ‘CUNT QUILT’, along with a diagram of a uterus made from pink and red underwear.
With the organisers subdued by the snowstorm, we in the crowd began talking among ourselves. A white woman in glasses, maybe 50, held a sign bearing the hashtag #MeToo, above a sepia-tinted picture of herself as a child, wearing school uniform. ‘I was nine,’ she said when she caught me looking. A short black woman in a puffy blue coat pushed between us with her phone raised to take a picture. ‘Predator in chief’, she muttered. Above us, just across Central Park West, was the brass façade of Trump International Hotel.
The rally, organised by Connie Vasquez and Annmarie Haubert, was supported by the National Organisation for Women, or NOW, the largest and most powerful vestige of second-wave feminism in America, founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan. The protest was a response to a peculiar moment of popular reckoning. Since October, thousands of women have used #MeToo to share their angry and/or mournful accounts of their experiences of sexual harassment or assault. The activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement in 2006, but the idea that political statements can be made by describing personal experiences was a staple of the second wave, when it was known as consciousness-raising.
Adapted from a black radical practice called ‘telling it like it is’, consciousness-raising consisted of groups of women gathering to talk about their experiences – professional, social, sexual – and the ways they felt sexism had influenced them. The meetings took place in classrooms and on living-room floors, and adopted the still-radical position that women should be believed about their own experiences, and that those experiences were of moral and political consequence. There were flaws: groups tended to reproduce the racial and class stratifications of their social circles, and prominent feminists, including Friedan herself, downplayed the intellectual contributions of black and queer women. But it was in these groups that many women first realised how common it was to be battered, to be raped, to be manipulated and shamed by the men in their lives, as well as to yearn for a different way of living. The guiding principle of the conversations was ‘the personal is political’ – that what happens to one person is symptomatic of what happens across society.
The groups ran out of steam in the late 1970s among the infighting typical of New Left movements. But the practice has continued informally in bars, restaurants, text threads, and anywhere that women gather together with sympathy and trust. One lasting result of the second wave is that conversations about the experience of living under patriarchy have become common. What’s new with #MeToo is that the intimacy of a consciousness-raising group has been extended to women who don’t know each other, and discussions of sexism have spilled out into the public sphere before audiences of men and women alike. An expression of woundedness and rage has been transformed into a demand for a better world.
This better world isn’t yet here. At the rally in Columbus Circle, protesters chanted for President Trump to resign: So far, 19 women have gone on the record to accuse him of sexual misconduct. In the shadow of his brazen tower, penned off by a police fence, his resignation seemed just as unlikely as it had before October. This is one weakness of #MeToo: it only works on people who are capable of shame. In Alabama, the Senate candidate Roy Moore chose to stay in the race even after nine women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers. Moore, a Christian extremist who has called for the imprisonment of gay people and the eradication of women and Muslims from public life, still has not conceded that he lost the race.
One of the signs held up in the snow bore a pasted-on picture of Donald Trump’s puckered, screaming face. The block letters beside it read: ‘DON’T NORMALISE ASSAULT’. But #MeToo has shown that sexual assault is an entirely normal experience, an experience so common that the men who do it find it mundane. This, too, may be an effect of the #MeToo moment of consciousness-raising: the realisation that just because something is ordinary does not mean that it is not also wrong.