It takes effort to track the impacts of mass mobilizations like #MeToo, Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but understanding social change is impossible without such work.
What difference did #MeToo actually make?
In 2017 and 2018, the viral hashtag became a global sensation that motivated millions to speak out about sexual assault and harassment. But more recently, critics have questioned whether the flurry of activity ended up leaving much of a legacy.
This questioning is hardly surprising. If there is one thing that is most consistent when it comes to mass protest movements, it is that these mobilizations will be dismissed by mainstream political observers as being fleeting and inconsequential. Time and again, they are labeled as fads, scolded for being too “confrontational and divisive,” and written off as flash-in-the-pan eruptions with little lasting significance.
The latest round of such dismissal came this fall with an article in the New York Times entitled “The Failure of Progressive Movements.” In it, columnist David Leonhardt notes that several movements have achieved prominence in recent years: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. However, “none of the three movements have come close to achieving their ambitions,” he argues.
Leonhardt grants that “All of them have had an impact,” with Occupy popularizing “the idea of the 1 percent and the 99 percent” and #MeToo leading “to the firing (and sometimes jailing) of sexual predators, as well as the hiring of more women in prominent jobs.” But, following author and Substack writer Fredrik deBoer, Leonhardt considers the gains of the movements to be primarily “immaterial and symbolic,” and he closes with the admonition that “Calling out injustice isn’t the same as fighting it.”
Certainly, the limitations of these movements can be debated. Organizers themselves tend to be keenly aware of the missteps and shortcomings they have encountered, as well as the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in their pursuit of justice. At the same time, outside dismissals of protest movements rarely result from serious attempts to investigate the afterlives of popular mobilizations and trace their effects. Rather, they appeal to cynicism and ignorance: It takes no real evidence to shrug off movements as having little consequence. In contrast, it often requires dedicated labor to track how mass action can reshape the political landscape around an issue, and in doing so have wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected impacts. Yet such work is critical to genuine analysis of how social change happens.
All of the movements of the past decade cited by Leonhardt deserve closer attention before being written off. We have previously written about how, contrary to popular belief, Occupy and Black Lives Matter each had diverse and tangible policy impacts. Occupy, among other effects, pushed forward a variety of city- and state-level millionaires taxes, responsible banking ordinances, and protections for homeowners, while also playing a crucial role in preserving labor rights in Ohio and launching a campaign that was critical in later prompting President Biden to grant billions of dollars in student debt cancellation.
A second reason that criticism faulting the movement for not securing national legislation is misguided is that a main impact of #MeToo has been to give teeth to existing laws. Prior to the movement, rape and sexual harassment were already illegal. The problem was that too many women found that pursuing justice in the courts meant frustration and re-victimization.
Workers’ organizations including UNITE HERE and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have incorporated #MeToo issues into their public messaging and campaign demands. Likewise, Women In Hospitality United formed in 2017 to tackle abuses specifically within the restaurant industry. Task forces within the organization formed to take on issues as diverse as harassment, mental health, financial literacy, the pay gap between men and women in the industry and the need for mentorship for women.
The range of such activity illustrates that the movement has had sometimes unexpected consequences that go well beyond a narrow focus on sexual abuse. Vox has reported that #MeToo has propelled forward efforts to end the “tipped minimum wage” — a below-minimum rate allowed for servers and others who receive gratuities — as it compelled workers to put up with abusive behavior from customers out of fear that interrupting it would result in losing tips they needed to survive. As Vox correspondent Anna North wrote in 2019, “Seven states have done [away with the rate] already, and the movement has gained steam with the rise of #MeToo.”
Ride-share companies such as Lyft and Uber have launched programs that allow women customers to request rides from female and non-binary drivers. Multiple efforts have attempted to provide free walks home at night for women in certain areas. And the movement has spurred renewed interest from investors in funds and companies that focus on gender equality and women’s leadership.
In addition to nurturing new initiatives, the alluvial deposits of movement activity also sustain organizations that have labored diligently on these issues for years — groups whose once-ignored reports and recommendations now receive the attention they always deserved, whose ability to raise money is dramatically enhanced, and whose counsel is sought out by lawmakers and activists alike.
Indeed, long-term advocates are often the best positioned to comment on the changes wrought by mass mobilization. “I have been a civil rights lawyer and a women’s rights lawyer for the last 20 years,” said Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund established in the wake of #MeToo. “And if you had told me at any point in those 20 years that there would be money available to help people come forward, to help people with their cases, I would have told you, ‘That’s just never going to happen.’”
“That underneath-the-radar, behind-the-scenes organizing is extremely important,” Jo Freeman, an influential writer and longtime feminist activist told NPR. Social movements, she says, rely on both short-term surges and long-term spadework. “What you see are the surge parts,” Freeman explained. But key to understanding how movements progress is appreciating the long-term interplay of different types of efforts. “You gotta plow the ground and plant the seeds before you can reap the harvest,” she said.
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An army of outraged voters
Another impact of #MeToo, and one that is surprising to see overlooked by critics, is its role in helping to mobilize women as a voting bloc. Social movements tend to have a cyclical character, with periods of highly visible mass mobilization periodically erupting then subsiding, followed by periods of quieter work. Although #MeToo was first launched in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, most people talking about the mobilization are referring to the period of peak activity between 2017 and 2018, when the hashtag became a truly viral phenomenon. Of course, actions that might be branded as #MeToo during that period took place in a wider context of ongoing feminist organizing, and the peak moment was part of a series of interrelated events that had marked electoral consequences.
Immediately after Donald Trump’s election, women outraged by the new president’s sexism and his recorded bragging about sexual assault organized one of the biggest one-day mobilizations in U.S. history with the Women’s March in January 2017, and this demographic became a key part of the continued anti-Trump “resistance.” The rapid spread of #MeToo not long after was very much a related development. And yet another wave of feminist organizing was ignited in 2022 following the Republican-dominated Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
The whole of this activism has had a significant effect on U.S. voting patterns, starting in the 2018 round of national elections and extending over several cycles, as Women’s March- and #MeToo-aligned groups explicitly launched drives to mobilize voters. In an article profiling how “Women powered Democrats in the 2018 Midterms,” the Washington Post described a “women-led army” that was “repulsed by Trump and determined to do something about it.” As the story explained, “Women who had never been particularly active politically worked phone banks, wrote postcards and sent text messages to voters.” The result was historically high turnout, especially among women.
Brookings would later report that “The 2018 midterm election was a particularly strong year for Democrats,” with the margin of women preferring Democrats over Republicans “far exceeding that for the 2014 midterms.” As the Washington Post noted of the Women’s March and #MeToo organizers, “Many of the congressional candidates they were supporting flipped Republican-held seats, all part of a political tide strong enough to flush the GOP from control of the House, dealing Trump a major defeat.”
Pronounced polarization continued in 2020, when the gender gap between male and female voters in key swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania became a yawning divide, and when sustained turnout among women — with numbers far exceeding 2016 — helped ensure that Donald Trump was not reelected. And while the latest round of mobilization, focused on abortion rights, has generally been seen as distinct from #MeToo, women continued to exert power at the polls in 2022, when a predicted “red wave” of Republican victories failed to materialize, in no small part due to voters furious about the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision the previous summer.
Because women constitute more than half of the nation’s population, even small shifts in gender-based voting patterns can have momentous implications. Given that, the fact that millions joined in collective efforts to protest Trump and Brett Kavanaugh as abusers, share their own stories of surviving harassment and assault, and participate in electoral drives expressing revulsion to such figures is a consequential development.
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The response goes global
Finally, like the Occupy movement before it, #MeToo sparked outbreaks of activity in many other countries — in this case ranging from Ireland to Japan to Mexico to China. In Australia, #LetHerSpeak campaigners succeeded in modifying gag laws across the country which previously barred sexual assault survivors from identifying themselves in media. And in Africa, Kiki Mordi, the lead reporter of a BBC investigation that exposed sexual harassment in Nigerian and Ghanaian universities and was herself forced to drop out of school in Nigeria after refusing advances from a lecturer, saw her reporting spark widespread outrage. #Sex4Grades became a viral hashtag across the continent and led to the firing of multiple abusers. “The scale of the response,” Mordi remarks, “it was like magic.”
In every case, activist efforts faced resistance and backlash. And in many of the previously named countries, legal progress has been far slower than one would hope. Yet those who have been working on the ground for decades around the issues raised by #MeToo testify to the concrete changes they have witnessed: “I had a rape case yesterday against a leading Bollywood producer,” well-known lawyer Karuna Nundy explained in 2018. “My client is a very young woman; we told the court that she was raped over a period of six months on pain of bodily harm… The way we were heard by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the two judges is very different from the way we would have been heard, say, 15 years ago.” She added, “There’s an interplay between public consciousness, and the law and due process.”
Perhaps the greatest testament to the types of shifts that have occurred comes from France. Initially, when #MeToo activism erupted in the country in 2019, it was dismissed as an unwelcome American import. Yet by 2021, the tide had reversed, with a raft of influential men in media, sports, politics and culture facing legal action for sexual abuse, and with French lawmakers promptly acting to establish 15 as the age of sexual consent after rejecting the same proposal just a few years prior. “Things are moving so fast that sometimes my head spins,” said Caroline De Haas, a feminist activist who in 2018 founded the group #NousToutes, in an interview the New York Times.
As the paper noted, revelations around the prevalence of sexual abuse “have undermined the myths of Frenchmen as great seducers and of a refined romantic culture,” leading to a reappraisal of French masculinity that is now being felt in countless relationships and encounters. Commenting on prominent legal reversals, Le Monde remarked that society’s “understanding of consent has unquestionably changed.”
The consequence of such shifts is attested to by Pierre Ménès — a prominent sports journalist known for forcibly kissing women on television and, in 2016, lifting the skirt of a female journalist in front of a studio audience. “The world’s changed, it’s #MeToo,” Ménès now complains. “You can’t do anything anymore.”
Such grievances about lost privilege are quite significant. It is common that the right — or in this case the patriarchy — is far more vocal in recognizing the impact of social movements than progressive activists themselves. Organizers are perpetually aware of how the changes they secure usually fall far short of their most transformative hopes, necessitating continued struggle. For this reason, they are notoriously bad at pausing to claim their victories.
But because mass protests, in particular, are so often dismissed once moments of peak activity die down, it is important to take the time to monitor their later reverberations. These mobilizations are significant not because they are the only driver of social progress, but because they seed the wider ecosystem of social movement activity — offering fresh opportunities to engage the public, bolstering long-term organizing, and creating political opportunities that did not exist before. We should therefore want more of them.
“Our goal has to be ending sexual violence,” Goss Graves, director of the National Women’s Law Center director, told the New York Times. “The real goal feels giant, and not achievable overnight.” For those seeking to end patriarchy altogether, the goal is even bigger. Rather than asking whether mobilizations to these ends accomplished everything they wanted, the question should be: Did they leave feminist movements in a better place than they were before? And is our world better off for it? In the case of #MeToo, the answer is undoubtedly yes.
Research assistance provided by Raina Lipsitz and Celeste Pepitone-Nahas. Photo credit: surdumihail via Wikimedia Commons.