It was just a hashtag, but it became a tidal wave.
This fall, women all over the world took to social media to recount what Americans called #MeToo stories, detailing incidents of sexual harassment and assault at work, at school and elsewhere. Newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter were quickly glutted with long-suppressed accounts of gender-based discrimination, inappropriate workplace behavior and sexual violence; for a time it seemed the internet itself might grind to a halt beneath their weight.
It's not unusual for a social media phenomenon to capture the nation's attention. But this one stuck out for its duration and reach, which seemed even to extend to infrequent internet users and great-aunts on Facebook — and for the way it ricocheted back into the real world.
The #MeToo campaign took hold online after The New York Times and The New Yorker broke stories of alleged sexual abuse by megaproducer Harvey Weinstein. These reports were some of the first in a series of high-profile accusations, sometimes fueled by #MeToo tales, against prominent men in Hollywood, corporate America, the media, politics and other fields. The emerging and queasy narrative about the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence put a spotlight on persistent power imbalances between men and women — especially at work — even a half century after the modern women's liberation movement began in the 1960s.
For this story, Gambit spoke with six New Orleans women about what it's been like living through the so-called #MeToo moment. Below, they offer an oral history of the phenomenon, share what it has meant to them (and their daughters) and talk about how it was both "empowering" and "heartbreaking." They also grapple with the complexities of an ongoing cultural upheaval — including their hopes (and sometimes doubts) that it will create lasting change.
"It's like a game of Jenga, where a bunch of bricks are being removed from that tower, and eventually it's going to fall," wedding photographer Lady Walker, 31, says. "We need more people to keep talking."
In just a short time, the #MeToo campaign began shaking up the internet — and the world.
Cherie Melancon Franz, 40, CEO and autism advocate: "I feel like it progressed so quickly."
Kaitlin Marone, 31, comedian and community organizer: "My entire social media feed, on every platform, was like #MeToo, #MeToo. ... Every time I met up with women, that's what we talked about."
Franz: "Ninety-five percent of my girlfriends on Facebook posted #MeToo. ... but a lot of their stories were actual assault stories, and I was just blown away."
Marone: "It was everywhere. Everybody was checking in, and trying to make sure that everybody [else] felt OK."
Conversations about what was going on provoked emotional responses. In many circles and peer groups, feelings ran high.
Emily Stein, 26, retail salesperson: "When it first came out, my first reaction was definitely like, 'Oh wow, this is a great thing that we're finally making this known.' And then it snowballed."
Marone: "It's been exhausting, just really exhausting."
Megan Burns, 40, poet: "I remember the conversations were usually around the amount of anxiety and trauma it was causing people to feel. I don't remember having intellectual discussions about what was happening like, 'Oh, this is going to change the relationships between men and women.'"
Walker: "It's really empowering and emboldening to have these things being discussed on a national scale. ... It's also heartbreaking at the same time."
Stein: "I just watched so many people, emotionally, have to go through that trauma over and over and over again. That was hard."
Franz: "Why didn't anybody say anything to each other? Why didn't we tell each other? We could have stopped so much from happening then. It was very upsetting."
Walker: "There's so much that women carry around every day that prevents them from having a full life."
Not everyone instantly identified with the #MeToo movement. Some questioned where they fit into the conversation.
Burns: "I thought, 'I don't have a #MeToo moment.' ... There was part of me that was like, resistant to just jumping on board and trying to find one."
Morgan Jackson, 29, university conduct officer: "The whole phenomenon of the #MeToo hashtag, and all these powerful and — at one time — great men collapsing ... I've had kind of a mixed outlook on it. I am a woman but I'm also a black woman, and I kind of identify with my race and then my sex."
Burns: "When you become a mother, and you're raising a daughter ... you do have to reframe certain things. Maybe I didn't feel victimized in [a] situation ... [but] if I thought about someone doing those things to my daughter, that reframed it for me."
Women watched as social media mirrored and contributed to allegations against powerful men — sometimes from equally prominent women.
Walker: "When I saw the Harvey Weinstein stuff, the Bill Cosby stuff, the Louis C.K. stuff, I was like, duh. ... Thank God someone's finally f—king saying something."
Franz: "I kind of knew the Matt Lauer stuff, and I was really hoping it wasn't true. ... I adored him, I really liked him as a journalist."
Marone: "When [Weinstein] stepped down, I thought: If people are seeing this really high-level person, and all of these actresses who we're used to seeing at their most polished are coming forward and talking about this ... it was clear to me then that it would keep happening."
Jackson: "After Weinstein, and after Russell Simmons ... every other day it was a new person. I remember thinking to myself, 'OK, I wish they would just stop reporting this. Literally, this is all there will be reports on every day.' This is the life of the average woman, this is our reality, and the fact that the world is shocked by it is ridiculous to me."
Ongoing allegations against directors, actors and artists led some to wonder what we should do with their work.
Burns: "What do we do when we find out our favorite movie producers or our favorite literary novelists or poets are abusers? Do we throw out the work as well? I don't buy (that) ... there's a separation between the person that creates the art and the art itself. That there's some kind of crevasse that keeps it safe, totally. Do you want to take that risk with your children? I don't."
The movement made some think seriously about what this could mean for women in the workplace (including themselves).
Marone: "What made me realize that it could actually be meaningful for women who weren't famous or who weren't in the entertainment industry ... was here was the [Besh Restaurant Group] getting blown up."
Franz: "When I worked in the service industry, being touched, being spoken to, it's like, rampant. ... Now that I look back on that it just blows my mind that I didn't say anything. But [today] it's not going to be tolerated."
Stein: "The job that I work, the customers are predominantly old, white men. ... So I'm also seeing this backlash of men coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, I can't give you a hug, because you're going to put me in jail over that.'"
Marone: "One way that I wish this would go, and I hope it will ... is for labor unions that already exist to prioritize the experiences of women, and to prioritize advocacy on their behalf."
The headlines have led to revealing conversations with daughters, especially older girls.
Franz: "It's really funny, because [my daughter is] absolutely appalled. Every morning we wake up and there's somebody else. ... Watching all this, with the Roy Moore thing, she's like, 'I'm 14.' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And she's like, 'How? And why? And gross.'"
Burns: "[My teenage daughter is] very aware, way more than I was, of the power differential between men and women. ... The things that are talked about ... they weren't part of my world."
Franz: "I feel like when I was growing up, we would blow things off, make excuses. And I just don't see girls [my daughter's age] doing that at all."
Women also are discussing how best to engage men in an ongoing conversation about sexual harassment and assault.
Walker: "We know these [accused] men. We may not personally know Louis C.K. ... but we know these — possibly good-hearted — men. They are fathers, they are brothers, they are ministers."
Jackson: "I talk to [men] and I realize they don't understand the whole concept of what exactly [sexism] is. ... If it's not 100 percent blatant, and it's not a man literally saying, 'She's a woman, she's not capable of doing it,' they don't understand it."
Marone: "There is a need to talk to men about controlling each other and getting each other to be better. That's the part of this that I find most daunting."
Walker: "If I'm not calling [men] out on what they're doing, then I am culpable for what they're doing."
Jackson: "I do know that unless [men are] on board, it's not going to change, because they hold the mantle. Just like it's up to my white friends to stick up for me when something racist happens. They have the power in the situation."
Marone: "If our answer is just 'men need to be better,' we're not going to get anywhere."
Everyone faces hard questions about how to treat accusers and the accused.
Franz: "You get into discussions with moms of boys and they're like, 'We're terrified.' Because if they go to a party and they drink, and two people make a mistake ... what's to stop them from being accused?"
Jackson: "The one thing that I keep thinking about with every case is just the fact that it seems like women are only credible when there's 10 of us, or 15 of us, and not when it's one or two. And I have big problems with that."
Franz: "Our first reaction should not be to attack somebody that [comes forward]. But on the other hand, I think our first reaction should not necessarily be to believe them either ... just because I think we're on the cusp of [somebody making an accusation] for the wrong reasons. That legitimately scares me."
And as time passes, women wonder what effect #MeToo will have on the years to come.
Burns: "The first wave is an uncovering of secrets, an uncovering of silences, a speaking up. But I think it's really practical and healthy to also have a second wave, where people move past that place of suffering and pain and not hold on to it."
Jackson: "I would love to say that this is going to be ... some social revolution, [where] we're finally going to get our 50 cents on the dollar that we're owed and become this powerful group ... but I think that's years and years away. I don't see that happening in my lifetime, I really don't."
Walker: "What I hope to happen and what I expect to happen are two different things."
Stein: "I think it's already producing a lasting change. Not only are people realizing A: it's happening, [but] B: there's consequences for this, where there really wasn't any before."
Burns: "One thing that I see people struggle with is the idea of the limitations of their lifetime. And that within the 70 years I'll be alive, what's going to change? What's going to change for my generation, and what's going to change for my daughter's generation?"
Walker: "I hope women keep telling their stories. I hope they keep standing up to men on a daily basis. ... Do I expect it to make a massive change? No, but it could possibly get the ball rolling forward."
Jackson: "It's not about ending the fight for us. I would love to benefit from it. But people in the civil rights movement didn't necessarily benefit from their sacrifice, but I did. ... Even though I don't believe that sexism will end in my lifetime, I still need to fight for it."
Stein: "I've kind of braced myself. ... It's going to get harder before it gets better."
Burns: "Once something's uncovered, it can't ever be covered again."