At the beginning of the Obama administration, two-thirds of the President’s senior staff and advisers were men. Rahm Emanuel was his Chief of Staff with Jim Messina as his deputy. Robert Gibbs was the press secretary. Ellen Moran was the Communications Director but was soon succeeded by Daniel Pfeiffer. Women often struggled to be included in meetings, and when they were able to get in, “their voices were sometimes ignored.”
The women of the Obama White House needed to change things up. They came up with a plan that would guarantee that their voices would be heard and that no one else would be able to take credit for an idea that they had brought forward. When a woman spoke up in a meeting, the other women in the room would take up the mantle and champion her idea, repeating and rephrasing it to give it more energy and attention. In this way, the men in the room could not gloss over the contributions of the women in the room.
“We just started doing it and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who spoke to The Washington Post. Eventually, the President noticed, and as key positions in the White House needed to be filled, it was more and more women who took on these roles. By the end of the Obama Administration, half of the senior staff were women.
But women don’t have to go it alone. Women don’t have to be the only ones that amplify other women’s voices; men can, too. That’s why for this installment, I’ll act as a moderator, asking the following women questions and interjecting only to create a flow for the article, and to amplify the ideas and experiences that these amazing women allowed me to share. They are:
Chaley Rose - Actor, Storyteller
Kristin Spiotto - Wife, Mom, Facilitator
Christine Sanchez - Director of Domestic Programs, Giving Children Hope
Dr. Daisy E. Camacho-Thompson, PhD
Jo: How would you define your life’s work?
Chaley. My life’s work is storytelling. I’m lucky enough to get to tell other people’s stories and my own.
Kristin. My life’s work is to help outsiders become insiders and to create the space for people to love and be loved.
Christine. Servant Leadership. I’m fulfilled only when others thrive. My life’s work is building collaborative programs for vulnerable communities.
Daisy. Overall, I seek to address injustice in our world, while inspiring and growing the people I'm privileged to exist with in my daily life. In my research, I work to eliminate education disparities (African-American, Latino, and low-income children graduate at disproportionately lower rates than their peers) by examining parents' academic involvement and organized after-school activities in the lives of adolescents.
Jo: If you feel comfortable sharing, do you have a #MeToo story?
Chaley. Oh, I have many #MeToo stories. But I’ll share the one that made the biggest negative impact on my life. I was 23, and I had just made a temporary move to Atlanta in hopes of recording a demo with production company called HitCo. I was very green and very naive. Their attorney, Bethel Harris made it his mission to break me down. He made fun of my appearance, my weight, and my singing. He laughed as I played them a work-tape saying “you can’t sing!” Everyone laughed. No one defended me.
All the men made my sexual history their business. I was a virgin and extremely uncomfortable talking about it. Especially in the studio. But it came up every day. I finally packed my bags and left on the night they invited me to “hang out” at a nearby apartment. Just me and four men. Antonio Reid (son of LA Reid) and Bethel started in on me almost immediately as the other two men laughed. One even seemed uncomfortable. But he didn’t intervene. They asked if I was a virgin (yes). They asked if I’d had oral sex (no). I was stunned and humiliated. Finally, when Antonio said “you need to learn to suck some dick,” I felt an overwhelming need to get out of that apartment. So I did. I packed my bags, and my parents made arrangements for me to stay with family in a suburb of Atlanta until I saved enough money to move back to NYC. I quit singing after that. And I didn’t love myself or my body. It’s a wonder I’ve made it back to being this person
Kristin. My first thought when I learned about the movement was, “Of course me too. I’m a woman.” I’m fortunate never to have experienced sexual assault, but at 20 years old I got a breast reduction as a way of dealing with unwanted stares and comments by men. No one was talking about #MeToo back then. I didn’t know there were other choices. These scars remind me every day that as a teenager I constantly thought it was my fault.
When I was 23 years old, my first real boss told me we had to take separate cars to a lunch meeting because I was young and beautiful and he would be crazy to not leave everything for me. So, I drove alone.
My #MeToo isn’t one singular event but is a lifetime of constant scanning and assessment. When I’m approached by a stranger, not knowing if he’s going to tell me I dropped something or give me a crude comment. Every parking garage late at night, every 4 am Lyft ride, I am on alert, looking around, preparing to defend myself.
Of course #MeToo. All of us, me too.
Jo: For a few weeks, it felt like the news was covering back to back reports of allegations, accusations, and discoveries of years of hidden abuse. How did you feel when the stories started to surface?
Kristin. I’ll start by telling you what I didn’t feel: surprised. None of this was new information. Is it outrageous? Yes. But not new. I believe that most women spend their careers hoping they won’t be faced with a reality where advancement and degradation go hand in hand.
If anything, I felt a sense of satisfaction that there was a reckoning coming. Thinking of every powerful man who had taken advantage of women seeking growth and stability and their power… I thought of those men and hoped they were quaking. Hoped they were quietly worrying in the middle of the night, wondering if that reckoning was coming for them.
Daisy. When I see the acknowledgment of overt expressions of aggression against an oppressed group in the media, I'm glad because it is a reflection of, and an impact on our collective opinion as a society. Still, actions that cause as much if not more harm, sometimes go unaddressed and this is what I'm more interested in. So, for example, it's an empowering and wonderful thing that women who have been carrying the pain of rape and harassment have been heard by our society. But what does this mean for policy, for example? Without change at the policy level, laws that protect aggressors are still in place, and women can still be stigmatized or penalized for coming forward. Furthermore, what are we doing to think about this issue differently? How are we raising our girls and boys to deal with their emotions, to understand respect and care, and to foster a sense of empowerment and advocacy for those around them?
Jo: I agree Kristin - is it possible for something to be surprising yet completely unsurprising at the same time? While not every woman I know has a #MeToo story, when I spoke with my female friends about this article all of them had a story of at minimum feeling uncomfortable because of unwanted behavior from a man. What does #TimesUp mean to you?
Chaley. #TimesUp means that I can go to work on set or in the studio and be able to speak up if someone crosses the line. And I get to decide where the line is. It means people are listening to the victims and taking them seriously. You have no idea how freeing that is.
Kristin. “Friendship… is born at the moment when one man says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” - C.S. Lewis
Friendship is the point where #MeToo turns into #TimesUp.
#TimesUp means there is finally a place for this story to be told. When there isn’t a platform, when people haven’t committed to believing you, these are the things you tell yourself: It was my fault. I was complicit. My reputation will be destroyed while I try to convince the powers that be that this actually happened to me and it was wrong. But, as powerful women and men are coming together and saying that the time is up on this bullshit, there is a new way to tell the story. Sometimes when telling a story, starting is the hardest part. Well ladies and gentlemen, we now have a first sentence. The oppressor’s time is up. Now, what do you have to say? I’m listening.
Jo: What changed? Why do you think this movement is happening now? Why not five years ago?
Chaley. So much of the change toward the good that’s happening now is because we’re fighting everything we hate about our president on the ground. He’s misogynistic, sexist, and racist and we won’t let him be a role-model to men in this country.
Kristin. Men using their power to take advantage of people who have something they want is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on as long as humankind has been around. But for some reason, this time, when someone told their story, instead of being disbelieved (i.e., Anita Hill), #MeToo happened. Rather than a spotlight on the victim, a million lights came on with others sharing their stories. Why now?
I don’t dare to speak comprehensively, but for me, the United States political events of the last 15 months have something to do with it. We elected a man to the office of President of the United States who said, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Apparently, that wasn’t enough to keep him from being electable. But it was enough for people to start looking around and say, “hang on, enough is enough.”
Sexual oppression like the kind Trump bragged about tends to make me feel small. Crude comments zap me of strength and rob me of my voice. The icy chill of disgust I felt when I heard him say those words were familiar. But there’s a strange thing that happens when a person who feels afraid decides enough is enough. Courage sparks. And the thing with courage is, it’s contagious.
I don’t know why the New York Times story about Harvey Weinstein was written this year and not in 2013. But I think there comes the point for a woman who has just had it. Now, take some women with power and influence who have had it, and you have a movement.
We are sick of the bad guy winning. And we know we’re not alone. I suppose we have social media to thank for that. No more single voices getting crushed. Instead, there’s a chorus singing, and we are collectively realizing that if we don’t take the risk of believing these stories, every woman and man out there has something to lose.
Christine. Can this be the only positive outcome that history writes about the Trump presidency?
Ironically, I think he had a lot to do with it. Society witnessed one of the worst perpetrators rise to the top, and we just couldn’t allow this sort of abuse and ignorance to continue.
Daisy. You mean, why not ten years ago when Tarana Burke first conceived of "Me Too?" In the 70's there was a time when the term "sexual harassment" didn't exist. It's hard to fight something you can't see. I suppose #45's explicit demagoguery gave us a face to a common enemy: the abuse of power. I wouldn't credit him as being the straw that broke the camel's back, but he did show some people that we weren't as far as we thought we were.
Jo: Where do you think we go from here? Is this problem solvable? If so, what will it take? If not, why?
Daisy. What does "solve" mean? If it's a significant minimization of sexual abuse, then yes. I think it takes policy and empirically-based interventions that shift how we think about these issues. I think addressing issues as traumatic as sexual abuse is important, but even minor gender inequalities are a threat to everyday experiences of women and men. These seemingly minor allowances of gender inequalities can have long-term effects on children's development and foster systemic disparities. If "solve" means eliminating disparities that are more difficult to articulate, that may be more of a challenge.
Kristin. I think we have to learn from the only leaders ever to emerge from an impossible, irreconcilable situation - Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu -
Rather than continuing the pattern of dehumanization and punishment, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission invited both the oppressor and the oppressed into the ancient practice of confession and forgiveness. It broke the cycle and helped both sides find a way forward.
It feels good to see people like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer disappear from society and slink into shamed hiding. Really good. But we have a problem. If we rob our oppressors of our humanity, the patterns of hiding and cover-up will continue. There can’t be any healing if we don’t let the light in. And both oppressor and victim need healing.
So, it’s going to take something radical, like grace, to heal these wounds and solve this problem. Not trite grace, but the deep, fierce, brave kind. Both sides need a way forward to redeemed humanity, or there is no way forward.
How do we execute our version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? I don’t know. But that’s where I want to pour my efforts… helping both sides face the truth of what happened, and walking the path forward, whole and redeemed.
AN AMPLIFICATION OF WOMEN
“Whether women are better than men, I cannot say - But I can say they are certainly no worse.” - Golda Meir
Every year on International Women’s Day, we commemorate the accomplishments of our mothers, sisters, and daughters and friends who have put up their dukes throughout history. We pause to honor and celebrate the work of countless women who have improved the lives of countless more women across the globe. It is a day when women aren’t saying they are better than men - they are saying they are no worse.
International Women’s Day takes place on a strange planet where women have to fight to prove they are no worse than men, struggle to be heard in the White House and strive for respect in their homes and amongst friends. Our small dot in the galaxy is a place where women who aspire to be musicians have to move back home because of unwanted sexual advances. This speck in the cosmos is a place where women have to create #metoo movements to combat rape and sexual harassment. I mean, shouldn’t it be common sense by now? Don’t rape!
The world we live in is a work in progress. It's a fractured sphere with cruel and unfair truths that orbit around it; truths that we can accept or reject. We can accept our world as it is, or we can step out of line and challenge the status quo like the many rebellious women we celebrate today.
History has told women you are not enough. Women have proven time and time again; they are more than enough. History has told women to shut up and cook. Women have spoken up and moved beyond the kitchen. History has told women you are less than men. Women have proven they are equals who cannot be ignored.
International women’s day is more than just a day. Today is more than, “hey, look how far we’ve come.” Today is about what’s happening right now. Women are still standing up to bullies that just want to grab them by the p***y. Women are still working thankless jobs for less pay. Women are still demanding to be heard. To the women who contributed to this blog, I admire you. To the women who have sacrificed comforts and safety for the sake of women today, we salute you. To the women who will shape a better tomorrow, we need you.