BY SAMUEL CARTER AND EMILY MAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last installment in our Women’s History Month series of posts highlighing our living history. As our history is still in progress, we hope you’ll give us feedback so we can strengthen our work. These posts are also cross-posted on Feministing.com.
Any advocacy nonprofit can tell you that you must continually work to maintain energy and accrue wins to stay in business. But movements must also continually modify strategies and change courses. The Hollaback! that exists today will more than likely look dramatically different than the Hollaback! of two, five, or even ten years from now. And the leadership of the organization will have to adapt quickly to keep up.
Movements start by people sharing their stories. This part is usually the easiest. It brings people who typically felt isolated in their experience and helps to build collective dissent to social problems that are normalized.
The sexual violence movement has done a great job with using story-telling for social change. “Take back the Night” marches—which started in the 1970s as a way for people to publicly share their stories of sexual violence in a supportive environment—have spread like wildfire to campuses across the United States, bringing tremendous energy to the movement. And like Hollaback!, the workplace harassment movement also was inspired by a powerful narrative.
In 1975 in Ithaca, New York, Carmita Woods, a 44 year-old administrative assistant at Cornell, quit her job after becoming physically sick from the long-term stress of fighting off sexual advances. The perpetrator was a famous Nobel prize winner. So famous in fact, that his name is omitted from all accounts of incidents. After being turned down for unemployment, Carmita was outraged and found her way to a community-oriented women’s project on campus. They decided to hold a public speak out in her honor.
Carmita and the organizers, Karen Sauvigne and Susan Meyer, expected maybe a handful of women to show up. You can imagine their surprise when 275 women came to the speak-out. Through their tears and anger, attendees described work place stories of being teased, grabbed, propositioned and fired. Organizers Karen Sauvigne and Susan Meyer went on to found the Working Women’s Institute, which has been credited by many in the movement to end gender-based violence for coining the term sexual harassment.
Like with street harassment, the problem was widespread enough to garner attention from policymakers pretty quickly out of the starting gate. In 1975, Eleanor Holmes Norton, then the chair of the NYC Commission on Human Rights was holding hearings on women and work. Working Women’s Institute staff scheduled to testify about sexual harassment with great trepidation fearing they would be greeted with skepticism and ridicule. However, Chairperson Norton treated the issue with dignity and great seriousness.
But hearings alone didn’t do the trick. According to KC Wagner, the former counseling director of the Working Women’s Institute, research was the tipping point for the workplace harassment movement. “It shifted the conversation from sexual harassment as experience of the ‘hypersensitive female’ to sexual harassment as part of ‘what it meant to be a women in the workplace.’” Research changed the conversation by putting hard data behind individual stories.
This is key—because efforts to consistently minimize the importance sexual harassment have dominated the conversation with shocking power. Off-handed comments like, “oh, he just thought you were pretty,” “calm down,” or “relax, he didn’t touch you,” silence victims by making them think that their emotions are irrational. On the nonprofit side of the equation we hear, “I understand that street harassment isn’t OK, but is it really the biggest problem that we face?”
We aren’t the first ones to hear this. During the women’s suffrage movement, people said, “Well if you don’t like the way your husband votes you shouldn’t have married him!” Not so long ago, segregation was “just they way things are.”
Once the stories are being told and the decentralized leadership base is underway—the next steps are more tactical. Oftentimes, although not always, research and thought leadership start to come into play, and pave the way for policy initiatives. Then after many years of work—there is an Anita Hill or Rosa Parks moment that penetrates the mainstream so deeply as to forever change culture.