The Origins of the #MeToo Movement

The #MeToo Movement did not magically appear out of thin air in 2017. Activist Tarana Burke coined the name in 1997, and Alyssa Milano popularized it via social media two decades later, but this is the fifth round of organized activism against harassment/violence in the United States. Campus anti-rape activists started the latest round in 2013, but as Gillian Greensite notes, “The history of the rape-crisis movement in the United States is also a history of the struggle of African American women against racism and sexism.”

Tarana Burke & Alyssa Milano

Tarana Burke     Alyssa Milano

Public conversations about #MeToo mostly erase activism prior to 2017. The purpose of this post is to acknowledge that we’ve been in this fight for almost 130 years.

Round One: Reconstruction and Rape

The first organized activism against sexual harassment/violence occurred after the Civil War. During slavery, black women were often at the mercy of white men since the rape of slaves was both common and legal, and many masters raped slaves to produce more slaves. An estimated three-fourths of black Americans in the U.S. today are descendants of at least one white ancestor, including First Lady Michelle Obama. After the war, the industrializing North developed a modern criminal justice system, but, in the South, vigilantism was used as informal law enforcement to maintain former slave hierarchies. With slavery outlawed, many white men reestablished racial control over black men through lynching and over black women through rape. Between 1882 and 1946, approximately 5,000 African-Americans (mostly men) were lynched, and countless women were raped. The Reconstruction Era (from 1865 to 1877) was particularly violent when the Ku Klux Klan and other terror organizations raped black women and burned black homes and churches with alarming regularity. In the 1890s, Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Fannie Barrier Williams formed Black Women’s Clubs in response to this unceasing post-war sexual violence. Their work laid the groundwork for future organized activism against different forms of violence.

Ida B. Wells

Ida B Wells.jpg

Around the same time Black women were organizing against sexual harassment/assault, Sarah Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute tribe was waging a one-woman war against the routine rape of native women at the hands of white men. According to historian Rose Stremlau, “It is historically and morally important to acknowledge that non-Indian men raped Indian women as part of the conquest of the American West.” Winnemucca documented widespread sexual violence in her 1883 biography, lobbied influential military and political leaders, gave lectures, spoke to the press, and on occasion, bloodied would-be rapists. Sexual violence continues to plague Indian Nations, where 56% of women on reservations experience sexual violence — over 90% of it perpetrated by non-tribal men who are then not extradited back to the reservation for trial.

Sarah Winnemucca

Sarah Winnemucca.jpg

Round Two: Rosa and Recy

Black women led organizing against sexual violence in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks was a leading anti-rape activist a decade before she refused to sit at the back of a city bus. In 1944, she formed the Committee for Equal Justice to fight sexual violence against women. She and other activists were galvanized by the experience of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old mother who was raped by six armed, white men on her way home from church. According to historian Danielle McGuire, these anti-rape efforts were pivotal in launching the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks & Recy Taylor

Rosa Parks.jpg  Recy Taylor

Round Three: The Women’s Movement

The Women’s Movement of the 1970s marked the first time sexual harassment/violence was part of the national policy agenda. Activists lobbied for better enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed gender discrimination in the workplace. The first rape crisis centers opened in 1972, and the Feminist Alliance Against Rape was formed in 1974. Activists organized consciousness raising groups and speak-outs. Their sustained efforts culminated in passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, the first national law requiring law enforcement to treat gender violence as a crime rather than a private family matter. Then-Senator Joe Biden led the charge to pass VAWA, and the law was reauthorized in 2000, 2005, and again in 2013 over Republican opposition to extended protections for Native American, gay, lesbian, and transgender survivors.

Round Four: Sexist Senators

The fourth round of activism against sexual harassment/violence was inspired by Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate in 1991 about her experience with Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. This was the first time issues of harassment in the workplace were on the national agenda. Despite allegations of persistent sexual harassment from Hill and corroboration from witnesses, Thomas was confirmed. Hill’s sexist treatment during the proceedings prompted the election of four more women to the senate in 1992, dubbed the Year of the Woman. This national debate raised public awareness and inspired intense activism for better enforcement of workplace discrimination laws.

Anita Hill

Anita Hill

Round Five: #MeToo

#MeToo is part of the fifth round in the fight that launched in 2013 when campus activists put sexual harassment/violence on the national agenda by filing hundreds of Title IX complaints, carrying a mattress in symbolic protest, taking to the streets when Stanford rapist Brock Turner served only three months in prison for his brutal actions, lobbied for new laws, and inspired a president to tell survivors “I’ve got your back.”

In 2015, the national dialogue enveloped Hollywood when 35 women who allege sexual violence from famed comedian Bill Cosby appeared on the cover of New York Magazine.

Cosby Survivors on the Cover of New York Magazine

NY Magazine.jpg

The national discussion stayed in the headlines in 2016 when cable news host Gretchen Carlson successfully removed Fox News head Roger Ailes for sexual harassment. Within six months, popular Fox hosts Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling would both be removed from Fox for allegations of sexual misconduct.

On October 5, 2017, the national conversation turned a corner when the New York Times reported on the sexual violence of Harvey Weinstein. Within days, a slew of high-profile celebrities came forward to report their experiences, including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ashley Judd. This was a turning point in the discussion as the celebrity status of these survivors inspired more Americans to believe women when they come forward. To date, 1.7 million people in 85 countries have joined the #MeToo Movement on social media. Giants in different fields have been taken down after revelations of years of predatory behavior, including actor Kevin Spacey, director James Toback, comedian Louis C.K., television host Matt Lauer, actor Tom Sizemore, actor Jeffrey Tambor, host Charlie Rose, and mogul Russell Simmons.

Déjà Vu

In social movements, it is important to recognize the work that has come before so as not to erase the efforts of women, especially women of color. It is vital that we acknowledge who has been in the ring before us. I am in the unique position of having worked with all of the major “camps” in the current national dialogue. I was one of the early architects of the campus anti-rape movement, worked with a group of Cosby survivors to overturn the statue of limitations for rape in California, filed a formal complaint against Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly (who was fired an hour later), and worked with several Weinstein survivors before “going public.” It is painful to watch what is happening in the fifth round— the predictable erasure of survivor activists as “new” survivors come forward.

With Gloria Allred and Campus Activists, 2013

Gloria Allred

With Cosby Survivors Outside the Cosby Trial, 2016

Cosby Survivors.jpg

With Perquita Burgess and Wendy Walsh, Fellow Fox News Whistleblowers, 2016

Fox Whistleblowers.png

The #MeToo movement is by far the most successful to date in raising awareness of sexual violence/assault, but it is not the first time we have had a national dialogue on the issue, nor did it start with Weinstein in 2017. It was built on the strength and fearlessness of Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Sarah Winnemucca, and others for fighting against sexual violence 150 years ago; Rosa Parks and other anti-sexual violence activists in the 1940s; the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s; Anita Hill in the 1990s; and campus anti-rape activists who launched the current national dialogue in 2013.

Acknowledging the work of earlier activists also means acknowledging that we have been here many times before, and, despite these efforts, we have yet to effectively extinguish sexual harassment/violence in our culture.


Dr. Heldman has a forthcoming book, “The New Campus Anti-Rape Movement: Internet Activism for Social Justice (with Alissa Ackerman and Ian Breckenridge-Jackson), with Lexington Books in 2018. Special thanks to Professor Kathleen Tarr for editing this blog post. 

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