The #MeToo movement needs backlash. It’s the only way it will survive

Progress remains on the horizon.
Progress remains on the horizon.
Image: AP Photo/Felipe Dana
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When the #MeToo and #TIMESUP movements erupted, many raised up their hands in praise. “Finally, the tides have changed, women’s equality is here to stay!”

It didn’t take long for the inevitable backlash. And that’s a good thing, according to one of the most outspoken advocates for #MeToo in the US Congress.

Pramila Jayapal, who represents the seventh district in Washington state, explained her perspective yesterday (March 14) at a discussion hosted by The Raben Group, alongside Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin.

Elected  in 2016, Jayapal is working to pass a bi-partisan bill that would ban mandatory arbitration clauses in sexual-harassment cases. She has had a life-long drive to help women embrace, rather than fear, their own power.

“If somebody is intimidated by it, then let them be intimidated by it,” Jayapal recently told Quartz.

Jayapal and Raskin each were asked to reflect on the #MeToo backlash among both their congressional colleagues and their constituents.

“What a lot of people—men and women, but especially men—don’t like is the idea that to be a feminist, or to be involved in this movement, is to say that you dislike all men,” said Raskin. He does not agree with this sentiment, but said he has seen #MeToo leaders come across as “anti-men.” “That doesn’t help us,” he continued, stating how some alleged harassers, including former congressional candidate Andrea Ramsey, are women. “It’s not that women are all intrinsically virtuous and men are all intrinsically bad. We have to be clear that there’s different kinds of injustice and oppression…I’m someone who believes in feminism, but it’s also good to be self-critical.”

It’s a perspective many feminists would roll their eyes at. Seeking sympathy for those who feel slighted by today’s “anti-male” movement can be a bit of a stretch.

Jayapal responded with tact and insight:

Every movement has to have a push—then a little bit of a backlash, then a push, then another backlash. As an organizer right now what I know is that in order to move something forward, sometimes it has to be taken to the extreme, and then there’s a reset where you don’t get everything that you’re is asking for.  So you feel like it’s a setback if you’re in that space. But if you’re someone who never pushed in the first place, it feels like a step forward. That’s how you get change done, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

And I do think [Raskin] is right in that we need to continue to be self-critical about how we advocate in a way that’s as inclusive as possible, but still allows for the real issues to emerge in a real and truthful way, so that we don’t sugar-coat it too much. We are all grown adults and we should be able to deal with these issues.

Rep. Jayapal
Rep. Jayapal
Image: Pramila Jayapal

Her theory—that repeated backlashes force movements to reevaluate, compromise, and reset—isn’t blind hope, it’s realism. To presume that any movement is perfectly organized or envisioned from the outset only paralyzes the people who seek to benefit from its success. Flexibility and iteration have been at the heart of every successful sociopolitical movement in American history, from civil rights and to women’s suffrage to Black Lives Matter. Both the Women’s March of 2017, initially steeped in the traditions of white feminism, and the fight against sexual assault on college campuses, which met profound pushback by feminists and anti-feminists alike when waged by Barack Obama and Joe Biden via the “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011, stand as examples of how criticism and change can inspire inclusion.

The harsh reality is that until a majority of men in every industry feel they must put their time and resources behind anti-sexual harassment advocacy, neither #MeToo nor #TIMESUP or any other movement will fully dismantle sex-based discrimination. This does not mean that feminists’ standards need be lowered, or their aspired progress be compromised in anyway.

It just comes down to this: As Jayapal made so clear, without criticism there’s little incentive to question whether  strategies and perspectives are as formidable—and potentially effective—as possible.