In December, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took what was perhaps the boldest move in the generally cautious politician’s decade-long career: She published a Facebook post calling for Al Franken, who had been accused of groping and forcibly kissing multiple women, to step down. Within hours, dozens of senators joined her and by the next day, Franken announced that he would resign.
Many saw Gillibrand’s move as one of rank careerism. But taking the lead to call for the resignation of a beloved white male Democratic politician, whose transgressions were on a smaller scale than those of Harvey Weinstein’s or Donald Trump’s, was undoubtedly a monumentally risky move. In her post, Gillibrand described the reasons Franken should step down as a necessary corrective to the nation’s culture of permissiveness, saying that “it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable” by stepping down.
In that moment, Gillibrand cemented her status as the most outspoken and “radical feminist in Congress” on #MeToo issues. It’s a distinction she’s earned, not just since the Weinstein story broke, but over the last five years, as she’s consistently pushed for protections against sexual assault in the military and against campus rape. Just in the past week, Gillibrand has been tweeting daily to count the number of days over which the Senate has failed to pass a bill instating sexual harassment protections in Congress.
Yet on Tuesday, seven months since the national #MeToo reckoning began, Gillibrand made the following comment about feminism at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas conference, an annual event in DC that often features Democratic Party stars:
This was a plainly ludicrous statement. But at the event, Gillibrand also argued that the “empowerment of women” could fix sexual assault in the military, saying that “when women become commanders, they can then set the climate for the entire unit.”
And in her prepared speech she said: “Women in positions of power changes everything. That’s one of the reasons why I want every woman to own her ambition, whether it’s an ambition to run for office or to get the corner office.”
The problem with these assertions is that they elevate the idea of putting individual women in positions of power over actual structural change. While much of the rigorous and interrogative commentary around #MeToo has focused on the latter, now, nearly eight months since the movement started, this type of executive-oriented feminism has begun to creep back into what many have been fighting to make a genuine reckoning with power. (These comments are also especially troubling, given Gillibrand’s record when it comes to financial regulation.)
Getting more female leaders in corner offices or commanders in the military is a salve, but not a solution for workplace sexual assault and harassment. There are numerous cases of in which women are in positions of power, yet harassment abounds. Arianna Huffington, to give one high-profile instance, ignored sexual misconduct at the Huffington Post where she held the eponymous top position. The root problem isn’t that women aren’t in positions of power, but that such powerful unchecked positions can exist at all.
In part, what makes this kind of myopia so disappointing is that Gillibrand has, in her record of a senator, made this very point herself. When fighting for reform in the military, she squared off against Senator Claire McCaskill to push for the power to prosecute sexual assault to lay outside of the military chain of command, rather than within it. Gillibrand understood that powerful institutions should not be left to self-police.
To be clear, Gillibrand’s off-the-cuff remark doesn’t negate all of the very real work she has done for women, like pushing for paid family leave. But if the most outspoken defender of women in Congress—one who has entrenched herself in #MeToo issues for the last seven months—is still able to say the words “Lehman Sisters” with a straight face, it speaks to the ways in which even the most proactive leaders are still struggling to break free of these pseudo-feminist constructions.
It’s not hard to see why this type of rhetoric is pervasive after decades of empowerment feminism as the norm. The ideology that many have termed as “trickle-down feminism” has long promised that breaking glass ceilings and putting more women in boardrooms would bring about gender equality for all. While persistent gender wage gaps that widen by race have proven otherwise, the danger is that this type of surface feminism might creep into a movement that has the potential to be so much more. (The #MeToo movement itself was originally started by Tarana Burke a decade ago to focus on marginalized women of color.)
Over the past few months, this very tone has slunk back into the conversation surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace. In the Harvard Business Review, one woman wrote an article in March asking if the #MeToo backlash was “hurting women’s opportunities in finance” because several men in the industry privately told her that they were too scared to hire young women.
Sheryl Sandberg launched a campaign in February to combat the “backlash” to women agitating around sexual harassment called #MentorHer, which “challenges” male managers to start mentoring women. Business leaders like Disney’s Bob Iger and Netflix’s Reed Hastings—who are respectively in charge of companies that previously owned Weinstein’s Miramax and that had to cancel shows by Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey—can now sleep at night, as they’ve both signed on.
And just this Wednesday, New York City launched a new initiative to help women succeed, focusing on those who want to start businesses or hold managerial positions. Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen included promoting women as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as one of “three needles” to achieve gender equality and said, “We could spend less time thinking about sexual harassment and sex discrimination if women just ran the world.” (One such woman, Neera Tanden, the leader of the think tank where Gillibrand made her recent comments, recently came under fire for her own handling of sexual harassment within the company.) Meanwhile, young black and Latina women have yet to recover from the recession, and poor women, women of color, and LGBT women continue to be especially vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment.
This focus on individual narratives over systemic change is troubling, too, because it’s the same logic that fuels the emerging #MeToo redemption narrative. When people mourn the idea that we have gone too far, it’s often in response to specific men: Al Franken, Garrison Keillor, Aziz Ansari. Over and over again, detractors who fear some sort of overreach fail to see how firing a few powerful people is hardly a stand-in for sustained structural change. Yet we’re already seeing the system rehabilitate supposedly toppled men. While it’s certainly better to have women in charge, it’s essential that we not see those choices as a false dichotomy. Thinking of harassment and abuse as a problem to be solved by simply replacing men with women falls into the same trap of mistaking an individual for an entire system that should probably burn.
If we want real change, it will mean shaking oppressive structures to the core. As Jo Livingstone has written at The New Republic, “the #MeToo campaign is not a positive assertion of feminist solidarity, but rather a shared experience of what has been done to us by others.” It’s the structural policy work of leaders like Gillibrand, not the replacement of a single male senator, that will help define where the movement actually takes us.
And while the system in which women like Gillibrand reside won’t be easy to overturn, the first step will be to shake these restrictive concepts that continue to haunt us.