When Sarah Super saw the #MeToo posts start climbing into the millions, she was overwhelmed and excited all at once.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s really finally happening,’ ” she said. “Breaking the silence has a ripple effect.”
Super, a Minneapolis yoga instructor, had experienced her own #MeToo moment of sorts two years earlier, when she talked publicly about being raped by her ex-boyfriend.
“When I told my story, I unconsciously gave others permission to tell theirs, who unconsciously inspired others to tell theirs, and so the hashtag #MeToo very much resembled the experience I had on a much more personal level here in the Twin Cities,” she said.
But even as the #MeToo movement has led so many to tell their stories, it’s also shown how sexual violence continues to be excused and normalized in the United States, Super said.
“Helping people heal from these traumatic events in many ways will require a massive shift in our culture,” she said. She’s optimistic that the shift will come, but doesn’t know how long it will take.
The movement didn’t begin a year ago.
New York activist Tarana Burke created it more than a decade earlier as a way to connect with fellow survivors of sexual harassment or assault. It became a hashtag — and an international phenomenon — last October when actress Alyssa Milano reacted to the news of producer Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace by tweeting: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
In the year since, scores of other powerful men who once seemed untouchable have lost their jobs or resigned after women and men broke the silence about abuse, harassment and assault.
Time magazine has been keeping track of the public figures who have been accused of misconduct since Weinstein. The count is at 142 so far, and includes authors and politicians, famous Minnesotans among them. There are also radio and TV hosts, CEOs, actors, producers, artists, sports stars, comedians and, recently, a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
The accusations range from inappropriate behavior or workplace bullying to rape. Many, but not all, of those on the list deny the claims. Some have maintained their jobs and stature; some have not. Few have apologized in a meaningful way.
The #MeToo debate only intensified during the recent Senate hearing on the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which highlighted the stark differences in how Americans view the accused and the accusers. A building backlash sees the movement not as a step toward justice but as a threat to men and boys who could be wrongly presumed guilty.
Whether #MeToo marks the beginning of a sea change in gender relations or is simply another fault line in a country that’s becoming dangerously divided, it has become a part of our cultural conversation.
“More and more stories are coming forward,” said Katie Eichele, who runs the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education at the University of Minnesota. “It’s still difficult, but there is a community now that understands the courage it takes to say those two words. And the immediate reaction is not blame and shame.”
Specific changes — at workplaces, in conference rooms, on the sidewalk, inside police precincts — are harder to track.
This spring, just 32 percent of working Americans said their employer had taken new steps to prevent and address sexual harassment, according to a national American Psychological Association survey. The Star Tribune’s “Denied Justice” series, which found that fewer than one in 10 reported sexual assaults led to a conviction, has led to the formation of a task force that’s charged with recommending reforms.
To mark this year of upheaval, we talked to Minnesotans who advocate for women about what #MeToo means to them, whether it has transformed our state and where they hope it’s headed. Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Super decided to speak publicly in 2015 about being raped by her ex-boyfriend, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison. She founded Break the Silence, an organization that hosts “truth-telling” events where survivors share their stories.
Taking steps toward healing: A cornerstone of experiencing trauma is feeling isolated and out of sync. By recognizing just how many people in our lives have survived sexual violence, there is a sense of connection that is needed for healing. So I think some healing is happening. But at the same time, seeing one survivor’s story questioned or seeing one person blamed or shamed for their experience in many ways invalidates all of us, or blames and shames all of us.
Use the power of public opinion: How we take a stand with survivors is by removing some of the privileges that perpetrators have. No one is entitled to being a CEO or an elected official or a movie star. It’s a privilege to have those positions, not a right. So we can remove those privileges. We can remove perpetrators from their powerful places.
Alex West Steinman
A former advertising communications director, Steinman co-founded Mpls MadWomen, a local nonprofit that supports women in the advertising industry and works for gender equality. This year, she launched the Coven, a co-working space and community hub for women and nonbinary people.
Get past Minnesota Nice: I think there’s a sense of Minnesota Nice that, “That stuff couldn’t possibly go on here. What’s up with these feminists grumbling so much? They’re too sensitive.” Because we live in such a passive-aggressive community, I think there’s something about wanting people to just say, “Get over it. It wasn’t a big deal. So what if he touched your butt. So what if he used his power to abuse you in a way.” There’s this constant questioning, and I think the #MeToo movement is all about validating your lived experience.
A call to action: I was not surprised to see Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court. If history tells us anything, it’s that until the people in power change, we will continue to do harm to women to save a man’s reputation. The movement is more than survivor stories. It’s a call to action to engage in the deeply racist and sexist systems that fuel rape culture. While confirming Kavanaugh will have lifelong effects, so will the brave acts of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill.
Teri Walker McLaughlin
Before becoming executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, McLaughlin spent 20 years working in nonprofits, including the Children’s Safety Centers in St. Paul.
Do the right thing for survivors: In Minnesota, over this last year in the Legislature there were more bills being considered — for various aspects of oppression, gender discrimination and sexual violence — than any of us in this office ever recall being considered. That says people are waking up and listening and taking it seriously, and want to do the right thing for victims and survivors.
Make it safe to speak out: I believe that we are creating a safer environment. We’re creating a safer environment to express what has happened, to tell our stories. I’m very optimistic that people are giving more credibility and trust, and faith and belief to those who are coming forward, where in the past they may have been more inclined to second-guess.
As vice president of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Hernandez works to fund local programs that drive gender equity for Minnesotan women and girls. Before joining the foundation in 2012, Hernandez was a program manager at Hispanics in Philanthropy.
Talk to the people in your family: We hosted an event around the Super Bowl with [the New York-based group] A Call to Men. There was a man, a dad of a girl in her 20s, who stood up and said, “You know, I never thought that this happened to people in my family. But when #MeToo came out, I asked my daughter, ‘Has anything like this happened to you?’ And she said it had.” And he was so struck and very emotional about the fact that here he is, leading a corporation, and he had never thought to ask his wife or daughter about it.
We can find hope: We didn’t get here overnight. We’re not going to get to the solution overnight. But we’re changing and we’re evolving as a society, and that’s where I get hope.
A member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and longtime advocate for sexual assault survivors, Matthews is executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition. Before becoming director of the statewide group in 2002, she was a services coordinator at the Pearl Crisis Center in Milaca, Minn.
Be more inclusive: Why are we still not listening to and honoring the voices and experiences of native women and women of color? Similarly, why do we have harsher consequences and more accountability for perpetrators of color and native perpetrators than we do for white male perpetrators? We will never end sexual violence by only rallying women.
Men must be part of the solution: I think we need to be having more conversations with men. I think we need to engage all men, and that means we also have to address men who have caused harm. They are not just going away, and they are mostly not being held accountable. That means they are still here, they are still on the streets and they are still in our communities, and they are still our brothers and our uncles and our friends and our relatives. I think we have to have those hard conversations.
Eichele has worked for the University of Minnesota for more than a decade — and is director of the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education. She coordinates direct services and advocacy for students who have been assaulted and works to create and implement campus policies on consent and sexual assault.
It was never OK: I’ve heard a lot of folks my age and older saying things like, “Oh, I’m not allowed to talk to women in the workplace anymore.” Or, “This wasn’t how things were when I was younger. We were raised to be able to do these things and say these things.” Those behaviors that are definitions of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, likely by law and policy, were never OK. It never was OK, but no one actually told you that. That comes from entitlement and culture.
Learn from young people: I observed a fascinating dynamic when our campus moved to an affirmative consent policy. Our students had some questions about it, but they were on board. That transition was very easy for them. It was people my age and older, who were like: “Consent? What? You have to communicate? You have to talk?” They were the ones who grappled with it more than our young folks did.
Carlson’s 2016 sexual harassment complaint about her Fox News boss Roger Ailes led to his forced resignation. A former Miss Minnesota and Miss America, she’s now chairwoman of Miss America and the author of “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.”
Change the culture at work: We’re experiencing this cultural revolution, but the final tipping point will be two things: When companies and corporations finally decide to tackle this issue head-on and not just put a Band-Aid on it. The final part is men. The majority of men want safe work environments for women. But men also can get caught up in the bystander and enabler process in the workplace. Because, as I document in my book, when men have come forward to help women, they also promptly get blacklisted, demoted and fired. It takes almost as much courage for men in this situation to defend the women. So that needs to change.
Build a better future: I have great hope for millennials. I have great hope for my children. It’s frankly why I did all this. Because I think if you ask anyone in the United States to raise their hand if they want their kids to be sexually harassed when they go to work someday, there’s not going to be anybody who’s going to raise their hand.