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Missing Shulamith and the dialectic of #MeToo

Originally published: Tikkun on February 14, 2018 by Martha Sonnenberg (more by Tikkun)  | (Posted Feb 18, 2018)

I was 24 years old in 1970, when I read Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, a year younger than she was when she wrote the book. The book catapulted me from the limitations of the Left organization of which I was a member into the world of Women’s Liberation. There was no going back once I saw and felt the chauvinism of the Left, how women’s issues were seen as tangential to the more important priorities of “real” radical politics, rather than seeing feminism as “central and directly radical in itself.” Women in my organization typically played a supportive role to the men, the theorists, the writers, the speakers—we made coffee, mimeographed pamphlets, passed out the pamphlets, sometimes we spoke at meetings, and even had a women’s caucus within the organization, but, as Firestone told us, we were still “in need of male approval, in this case anti-establishment male approval, to legitimate (ourselves) politically”.

When Shulamith Firestone died, at the age of 67, in 2013, ravaged by mental illness and forgotten by many, her sister, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone said in her eulogy, “She influenced thousands of women to have new thoughts, to lead new lives. I am who I am, and a lot of women are who they are, because of Shulie.” I was one of those women.

Recently, I took my dog eared copy of The Dialectic of Sex down from my bookshelf as the #MeToo movement evolved, and was once again astounded by the incendiary brilliance of the book, now nearly 50 years old. Shulamith Firestone was the first, and maybe the only, to probe the depths to which a misogynistic patriarchy permeated our society, developing a concept of a “sexual class system” which ran deeper than economic, racial, or social divisions. With prescient analytical perspective, she placed the traditional family structure at the core of women’s oppression. She wrote, “Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biologic family—the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled—the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.” While the establishment press characterized her ideas as preposterous, many of her notions of how patriarchal social organization would be “uprooted” have come to realization—in vitro fertilization, how children are socialized, children’s rights, gay rights and the legalization of gay marriage, the whole LGBTQ movement, ending traditional marriage roles, the freeing of gender identity from biologic destiny. And it is within the context of these historical developments, upending the socio-economic buttress of traditional gender roles and identities that #MeToo has emerged. These factors have given #MeToo a power and force that previous “waves” of women’s liberation lacked, not because previous issues or efforts were any less important, but because they were unable to reach women in all levels of society, transcending class, race, profession, and age. #MeToo, with its revelations of the ubiquity of abuse and violence against women, has reached all these women. Importantly, too, it is a movement that began not with “leaders”, but from grass roots in communities all across the country, and, in fact, all across the world.

The history of #MeToo has been obscured by the media frenzy that concurrently emerged. Tarana Burke, an African American woman, created a non-profit organization called Me Too in 2006, to help women of color who had been sexually abused or assaulted. This was not about naming perpetrators or holding them accountable; it was only to give the affected women a voice. This, the media ignored. But in 2017 two things happened which did get media attention: The New York Times published revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of Hollywood women, and following that, an actress, Alyssa Milano, who became aware of Tarana Burke’s work, wrote in social media, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” What followed was the flooding of social media with stories of abuse and harassment, and a way for women to tell their experience and stand in solidarity with other abuse survivors. In the first 24 hours of Milano’s post, more than 12 million “MeToo” posts appeared. All these aspects of #MeToo, its mass base and its revelation of the pervasive and perverse alignment of misogyny and power, make it dangerous to the established power structure. Not surprisingly, that power structure has responded quickly in its attack on #MeToo.

Power and patriarchy defends itself

Efforts to maintain current power structures and cultures take multiple forms. One of the most insidious forms of preserving the current power relationships lies with the established media. While the “media” is not an autonomous entity, the individuals who contribute to it, the writers, the pundits, the “newsmakers”, promote in various ways the dominant culture of institutionalized sexism, and the undermining of #MeToo. It does so in the following ways:

1) It focuses on individuals, primarily celebrities or people of power—thus, the “Harvey Weinstein” phenomenon, which unleashed multiple “outings” of famous men who abused, assaulted or harassed women. The focus on individuals took public attention away from the mass movement underlying #MeToo. It made the problem one of famous “bad apples”, and ignored the systemic problems that #MeToo was revealing—not about famous people, but about abuse, violence and harassment in all workplaces, in families, in doctors’ offices, in schools, in churches and temples and mosques.

2) It separates the “good guys” from the “bad guys”. If there are “Bad Apples” among men, then the rest of them must be “Good Apples.” There followed a flurry of more articles by men who professed their support of feminism, and who proclaimed they had never abused anyone, or weren’t aware that such abuse existed. One is reminded of the white liberals who professed themselves free of racism, like the father in the film “Get Out”: “I would have voted for Obama a third time!” A few of these “good apples”, however, got caught in the media’s attention: Louis C.K., John Conyers, Al Franken. How, liberal pundits fretted, could #MeToo, take down such good guys? And it was true: none of these men had raped women. But they had engaged in various behaviors that would be considered harassing, from masturbation in front of women, to imposing unwanted kisses, to taking “comic” photographs touching the breast of a sleeping woman. The pundits protested that these men were talented, creative, politically progressive men, and some allowance should be made. But when all was said and done, these protests were nothing more than a liberal version of the “Boys will be boys” meme, a widely held enabler of rape culture, and once again, left the underlying problems intact and unquestioned.

3) It focuses on consequences and punishment of these individuals, implying that once individuals were punished, or otherwise held accountable, the problem would be solved—a few firings, new policies, maybe some reforming legislation, and the problem would go away. These punishments, however, also left the dominant power relationships and the social-psychology of misogyny/patriarchy unchallenged.

The anti-#MeToo “feminists”

In response to all of the above, a new wave of punditry evolved, this time mostly from other women, many calling themselves feminists, who attacked #MeToo for being a ”witch hunt”, “McCarthyism” and yes, totalitarian. The most blatant example of this was the letter from 100 French women to Le Monde, and famously signed by Catherine Deneuve. #MeToo was castigated for enslaving women “to a status of eternal victim,” and further victimizing the men “who’ve been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign…when their only crime was to touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about “intimate” things during a work meal, or send sexually charged messages to women who did not return their interest.” This has led, the letter stated, “to a climate of totalitarian society.” The letter further defended the “freedom to offend” as essential to artistic creation and…”we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom.” Women, the letter states “need not feel traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway,” but rather should consider it a “nonevent.” In a subsequent statement, published in Liberation, Deneuve said she signed the statement because she opposed the “media lynching” of men accused of inappropriate behavior. One writer characterized #MeToo as responsible for the same “vigilantism” that characterized the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthyism.

Masha Gessen, usually known for her writing on LGBT rights, unfortunately joined the attack on #MeToo, in the Dec 7 issue of The New Yorker, worrying about the resignation of Al Franken. “The force of the #MeToo moment leaves no room for due process.”

Daphne Merkin, writing in the New York Times, Jan 6, 2018, was upset by the “reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception.” She notes “the disturbing lack of clarity about terms being thrown around, and a lack of distinction regarding what the spectrum of objectionable behavior really is. Shouldn’t sexual harassment, for example, imply a degree of hostility?” She had, apparently, not come across men like the doctor at my hospital who continued to fondle and caress nurses for years, despite complaints; his defense was that he was just “an affectionate guy.” Merkin further worried, echoing the Le Monde letter, that “we seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women”. And finally, in another iteration of concern for the accused men, wrote, “I don’t believe that scattershot, life-destroying denunciations are the way to up end (patriarchy)…to be accused is to be convicted. Due process is nowhere to be found.”

Deconstructing the anti-#MeToo attacks

There are several common threads in these attacks on #MeToo:

  • They mistake the media representation of the movement for the reality of the movement. As Tarana Burke herself noted, Me Too was never about outing the predators and punishing them; it was intended to provide a voice, and a safe and supportive place, for women to talk about what they had experienced. These women were primarily women of color and women in the workplace. The focus on high level predators and celebrity “survivors” was the work of the media. This disconnect between the media representation from the underlying reality brings to mind the issues raised by Guy Debord, in his 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle, in which he showed how authentic social life was supplanted by its representation: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation” and in which the “spectacle supplants genuine activity.” Debord could have been describing these anti-#MeToo pundits when he wrote, “they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Indeed, the “feminist” pundits, in their acceptance of the obfuscations of media discourse and the spectacle that the media promotes, in this case the focus on high profile predators and celebrity “victims”, succumb to what Debord calls a “degradation of knowledge, with a hindering of critical thought.”
  • They are naively a-historical and intellectually irresponsible at best, and enabling of patriarchy at worst, in taking the Salem Witch Trials, McCarthyism and lynching out of their historical contexts. In so doing, they take these momentously important historical events, and turn them into a defense of the powerful. In fact, lynching, Salem and McCarthy represented attacks by the powerful against the powerless. Their use of the word “lynching” recalls, ironically, Clarence Thomas’ characterization of the 2011 hearings involving the complaint of sexual harassment made by Anita Hill, as “A high tech lynching for uppity blacks.” Lynching represented the most brutal and violent form of racism. In the case of Salem, it was the power of the church and local government against women, and in the case of McCarthy, that of the state against people who had expressed left wing political ideas. Far from being similar to these historical cases, the #MeToo movement is just the opposite, and represents the voice of the powerless, rejecting the passivity of victimhood, speaking against the powerful, challenging the patriarchal norms that have silenced them in the past.
  • They misunderstand and misuse the concept of “due process.” Due process is a legal concept, invoked to ensure that the government follows the rule of the Constitution. Corporations, businesses and the media are not government entities, and due process does not apply. As one legal scholar notes, “The Constitution doesn’t oblige NBC to retain Matt Lauer until a court somewhere finds him guilty of a sex crime.” (C.Emba, The Washington Post, Dec 2017). It is company management that is firing people, for fear of threats to their financial bottom line. To date, we have seen only one case tried in court, that of the Olympic doctor, Larry Nassar. Nassar, who was certainly given due process, received a 40-125 year sentence after over one hundred brave young women testified against his abuse. Beyond that, we have not seen mass firings or incarcerations of men for flirting, and nor have we seen mass numbers of men with “ruined” lives. Of the famous and celebrity men who have had consequences for their actions, some have lost current jobs, most have lost some reputation, but nearly all will continue to live their lives in the manner to which they are accustomed. #MeToo has led to a beginning shift in how power dynamics are perceived, and those most upset by this process are those who are realizing that they no longer have carte blanche in their behavior toward employees, patients, students, co-workers, etc.
  • An additional theme of the “feminist” critics is that #MeToo has been “unnuanced” (Merkin) in its outrage against assault and harassment, that they blurred distinctions between rape/assault and harassment/flirting. The “unnuanced” theme was strong in the French letter—a man rubbing himself against a woman in the subway was a “nonevent”, and “…we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom.” And here again, these critics ignore that the #MeToo has never misunderstood the difference between physical violence and physical or verbal harassment. Rosa Parks, in her protest against the segregated seating of Montgomery buses, did not for one minute blur the distinction between lynching and other forms of segregation. She saw that racism was manifest on a spectrum, and that all forms were connected, and had to be revealed as such. Similarly, Tarana Burke articulated, “Sexual violence happens on a spectrum, and I think that accountability should happen on a spectrum as well”. #MeToo reveals the pervasiveness of misogynistic behavior, in all its varied forms. There has been no irrational excess in the #MeToo movement—what women are describing is real, and whether it is actual rape or sexual harassment or any number of other means, including unwanted “bothering”, the message it sends to women is clear: You are less important, your concerns are irrelevant, and you should be silent. Further, it is noteworthy that the female detractors of #MeToo choose to ignore the profound and lasting psychological effects that any of these acts of sexual aggression have on women. As the Olympian Aly Reisman stated at the Nassar trial, “The effects of your actions are far reaching. Abuse goes way beyond the moment, often haunting survivors for the rest of their lives, making it difficult to trust and impacting their relationships.”

Ultimately, one must ask WHY these anti#MeToo criticisms are being made. And here we have to remember Firestone’s words, “Power, however it has evolved, whatever its origins, will not be given up without a struggle.” The women who have attacked #MeToo, in their overwrought spectrum of arguments, are all upper middle class, privileged, white, cis, and while they may call themselves feminist, they exhibit little empathy for the working class, black, brown, Asian women who struggle against male power. But even more important, and sadly, these anti#MeToo attackers fall into a long line of women who protect a threatened patriarchy from change. Since the first wave of feminism, the Suffrage Movement, in the 1920’s, there have been women who have proven that there are no more effective advocates of the patriarchal status quo than women themselves. These proclaimed feminists are the most intimate betrayers of a movement that lifts up women’s voices.


Regardless of whether #MeToo represents new wave of feminism, or a continuity of “fourth wave” feminism using the power of social media, it still has roots in the earlier battles, for the right to vote, for access to professions and equal rights, and of the battles fought by the radical feminists of the 60’s and 70’s. This new “wave”, however, may prove to be a tsunami, because it touches all women, in all races, classes, ethnicities, in their homes, their work and their communities. The Women’s March of January 21, 2018 proved to be the largest day of demonstration in U.S. history, involving 600 cities, and an estimated 4.2 million people (studies by the University of Connecticut and University of Denver). This mass demonstration was unquestionably fueled by the power of the #MeToo movement. This tsunami of feminism may have the power to break, finally, the hegemony of the culture of patriarchy and misogyny.

The Challenges of #MeToo

The current feminist movement does have challenges to face.

First, it must distinguish itself from media’s false representation and cooptation. It need to develop its own media savy and ability to make clear what it does and does not stand for.

Second, it must work to reconcile its own internal antagonisms involving race and class. The movement must resist the tendency, encouraged by media, to focus on the experiences of white, middle class, women. While all women experience the effects of patriarchy and misogyny in many ways, the movement must be conscious of and sensitive to the different experiences that women of color, and of differing ethnicities, face. Shulamith Firestone recognized early on how intricately sexism and racism were related—nearly 50 years later, the evidence is even more compelling. The problem is heart-breakingly complicated for black women who must deal with the contradictions of simultaneously protesting the violence against black men (Black Lives Matter was started by black women) and dealing with the violence by black men against black women in the home, on the street, and in the workplace. This contradiction was faced even by those women in the forefront of the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Elaine Brown, in her book, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, notes that “It was a given that the entire Black Power movement was handicapped by the limited roles the Brothers allowed the Sisters, and by the outright oppressive behavior of men toward women.” Brown came to realize that “The feminists were right. The value of my life had been obliterated as much by being female as by being black and poor. Racism and sexism in America were equal partners in my oppression.”

Similarly, this must be a movement that involves working class women as well as middle class women. Studies by the Center for American Progress have shown that working-class women are the most likely victims of work place sexual harassment and assault. Waitresses and retail clerks are followed closely by hotel housekeepers, manufacturing workers and those in health care in their likelihood of facing harassment on the job. A 2010 study of farmworker women found that 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment at work. And belonging to a union doesn’t necessarily provide protection: The SEIU and AFL-CIO have both ousted top male staff for workplace sexual abuse. (Labor Notes, March, 2014)

The challenge, then, is to forge a movement of solidarity at the same time acknowledging race and class differences in the ways women experience patriarchy/misogyny. That solidarity will require a level of trust and empathy that remains to be developed. Gillian White, writing in The Atlantic, expressed it well: “The social hierarchy that determines whose voices are heard—and who is believed—is more complex than looking at men vs. women. The millions of women who don’t fit the categories of straight, cisgendered, white and wealthy could tell you as much.” This wave of feminism was begun by women of color, and they most likely will provide the leadership in how to meet these challenges.

Finally, this movement must begin to expand its goals beyond articulating the reality of misogynistic culture, to developing solutions for change and visions of how a non-misogynistic culture might look. Punishing men, no matter how appropriate, will not significantly change the culture or the power relationships that bolster patriarchy. Rather, we must begin to look at the way patriarchy dehumanizes both men and women—how it cuts men off from their feelings, how it prevents them from experiencing empathy. These dehumanizing gender norms begin in childhood, and so we must look more closely at the ways our children are socialized. Further, men must begin the difficult and uncomfortable process of becoming conscious of their own enabling of a culture of misogyny. Ignorance of the problem is no longer an option. As Rebecca Solnit has said, “…ignorance is one form of tolerance, whether it’s pretending we are in a color blind society, or one in which misogyny is some quaint old thing we’ve gotten over.” And as Shulamith Firestone put it, “…the goal of feminist revolution must be…not just the elimination of male privilege, but the sex distinction itself.” It remains for this new movement to begin imagining, collectively and drawing from the wisdom of its elder sisters, what a non-misogynistic and non-patriarchal culture might look like, and what it will take to realize that vision. Some ideas that come to mind:

  • A changed approach to the environment and ecology, as the male “domination of nature” approach has led only to continuing abuse of the environment. We might look forward to a more nurturing and care-giving approach to nature and a healing of the harms inflicted on our planet.
  • Radical changes in the structure of the family, including separation of defined roles from gender, and more sharing of homemaking chores as well as of breadwinning responsibilities. Many men may, in fact, also feel liberated from the sole burden of economic support of the family. We might see more exploration of collective structures in supporting families, and in the raising of children—changes in the socialization of children would occur, such that boys might be freed from the two headed monster of rational hypertrophy and emotional atrophy. Girls could be freed from expected passivity, and allowed to explore their adventurousness and initiative.
  • Democratization of workplace relationships, challenging the power inequalities that underlie so much of the harassment that currently occurs. Shared shifts could enable parents to work as well as spend more time with their families. We might see exploration of more forms of worker involvement in management decisions, including shareholding and workers’ cooperatives.
  • A changed approach to conflict resolution, with an emphasis on reconciliation rather than aggressive approaches, resulting in a more peaceful relationship between individuals, as well as groups and nations.
  • A more reciprocal relationship between leaders and the led in organizations and unions, as leaders develop more ability to listen and the rank and file develops more confidence in its own agency and creativity.
  • A general re-exploration of sexuality, intimacy and love, freed from the limitations of gender and power defined behavior and roles, leading to more authenticity and safe vulnerability in relationships.

As it addresses these challenges, this wave of feminism, of which #MeToo may be the vanguard, will herald a transformative process, a process that would be both revolutionary and healing. I wish Shulamith Firestone were here to witness and comment on this moment. The struggle and potential for women and men to lead new lives is stronger than ever. There is still much work to do, leadership to emerge, organizing and theory to be developed, but the era of silence and shame is coming to an end.

Martha Sonnenberg, MD is a retired physician, former Chief Medical Officer, and a contributor to Tikkun magazine.

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