The Struggle Before #MeToo

Today’s women are not the first to take a public stand against sexual assault and harassment

Rosa Parks in 1955 PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Since it began making headlines last year, the #MeToo movement has expanded into a global rallying cry. The campaign has many facets, but its core message is clear: Women who are victims of sexual harassment and assault still face too many obstacles in their quest for justice.

How much harder it was for women in earlier eras is illustrated perfectly by Emperor Constantine’s 326 edict on rape and abduction. While condemning both, the law assumed that all rape victims deserved punishment for their failure to resist more forcefully. The best outcome for the victim was disinheritance from her parents’ estate; the worst, death by burning.

In the Middle Ages, a rape victim was more likely to be blamed than believed, unless she suffered death or dismemberment in the attack. That makes the case of the Englishwoman Isabella Plomet all the more remarkable. In 1292, Plomet went to her doctor Ralph de Worgan to be treated for a leg problem. He made her drink a sleeping drug and then proceeded to rape her while she was unconscious.

It’s likely that Worgan, a respected pillar of local society, had relied for years on the silence of his victims. But Plomet’s eloquence in court undid him: He was found guilty and fined. The case was a landmark in medieval law, broadening the definition of rape to include nonconsent through intoxication.

But prejudice against the victims of sexual assault was slow to change. In Catholic Europe, notions of family honor and female reputation usually meant that victims had to marry their rapists or be classed as ruined. This was the origin of the most famous case of the 17th century. In 1611, Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio brought a suit in a Roman court against her art teacher, Agostino Tassi, for rape.

Although Tassi had a previous criminal record, as a “dishonored” woman it was Gentileschi who had to submit to torture to prove that she was telling the truth. She endured an eight-month trial to see Tassi convicted and temporarily banished from Rome. “Cleared” by her legal victory, Gentileschi refused to let the attack define her or determine the rest of her life. She is now regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Baroque era.

One class of victims who had no voice and no legal recourse were free and enslaved black women in pre-Civil War America. Their stories make grim reading. In 1855, Celia, an 18-year-old slave in Missouri, killed her master when he attempted to rape her. At her trial she insisted—through her lawyers, since she was barred from testifying—that the right to self-defense extended to all women. The court disagreed, and Celia was executed—but not before making a successful prison break and almost escaping.

Change was still far off in 1931, when the 18-year-old Rosa Parks, working as a housekeeper, was pounced on by her white employer. As she later recalled, “He offered me a drink of whiskey, which I promptly and vehemently refused. He moved nearer to me and put his hand on my waist.” She managed to fight him off, and in a larger sense Parks never stopped fighting. She became a criminal investigator for the NAACP, helping black victims of white sexual assault to press charges.

Rosa Parks is often referred to as the “first lady of civil rights,” in recognition of her famous protest on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. She should also be remembered as one of the unsung heroines in the long prehistory of #MeToo.

‘America has laid a road to civil rights but is just as ready to dig it up’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Anthony Delanoix

Photo: Anthony Delanoix

On March 9, 1961, a Siera Leonean diplomat, William Fitzjohn, was being driven along Maryland’s Route 40, when he stopped at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant to eat. The manager refused to serve him, informing the irate envoy that this restaurant, like all the roadside eateries on Route 40, was segregated.

On learning of the incident, the Kennedy administration immediately went into damage limitation mode. Fitzjohn was invited to dinner at the White House. The mayor of Hagerstown, Maryland, and Howard D Johnson, the founder of the restaurant chain, made public apologies.

Three months later, the new ambassador from Chad, Adam Malick Sow, was driving to Washington to present his credentials, when he, too, decided to stop at a restaurant along Route 40.

This time, on being informed by the ambassador’s interpreter that the full weight of US-Chadian relations hinged on a cup of coffee, the manageress of the Bonnie Brae Diner responded that Sow should “get his ass out” of the restaurant.

Such mistreatment of the African corps diplomatique did not go unnoticed by the anti-American press.

Throughout 1961, the Kennedy administration tried hard to persuade the governor of Maryland to end racial discrimination along Route 40 before a diplomatic embarrassment escalated into a Cold War incident.

It took three years and three attempts before Maryland grudgingly passed a partial desegregation law. At which point, the tide of history swept across the country, leaving behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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‘The Battle to Include Women’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES)

Photo: UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES)

Since its staid beginnings in 1971 as an annual management symposium at a Swiss ski resort, the World Economic Forum in Davos has grown into the premier talking shop for the global financial elite.

But Huntington’s Davos Man highlights another issue about the forum: It was (and is) overwhelmingly male. This year, some 19% of the 2,500 delegates were women, according to the forum—a number that has barely changed since a (widely ignored) quota system meant to involve more women was imposed by the event’s corporate sponsors in 2011. (Saadia Zahidi, who heads the forum’s gender-parity initiative, said that the gender ratio in Davos reflects “global leadership as a whole” and that the forum is working to increase women’s participation.)

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‘As US racial harmony chokes and gasps, a bigger enemy looks on’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: The Independent

Photo: The Independent

New York in the late 1980s and 1990s was a polarised city state, where whites and minority groups lived side by side but in no sense together. They were, to use a phrase coined at the time, “the closest of strangers”.

My arrival in New York in 1987 coincided with the notorious Tawana Brawley case. Tawana was a 15-year-old African-American girl from upstate New York who was abducted and raped by a group of white men. Tawana was subsequently found in a semi-conscious state inside a rubbish bag with racial insults, including “KKK”, “N*****” and “Bitch”, scrawled across her body.

One of her alleged assailants was a local policeman, who committed suicide the week after Tawana was found. Another worked as an assistant district attorney.

Even before Tawana’s ordeal, passions were high in New York because of an incident the previous year in Howard Beach, Queens, in which a black teenager had been killed while trying to escape a white mob. Her assault raised tensions to a whole new level. Howard Beach had been about working-class racial tensions, the kind that New Yorkers were all too familiar with. The Brawley crime implicated the white male establishment.

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‘Ferguson is burning as Mississippi did. In 50 years we haven’t learnt’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Katleen Vanacker

Photo: Katleen Vanacker

The slaughter of innocents cries out for justice. That is precisely what happened on Monday, when a terrible race crime finally received closure. Although the murder must never be forgotten, Americans can now feel some satisfaction that the proper recognition has taken place. As President Barack Obama said: “We must continue to fight for the ideals of equality and justice for which they gave their lives.”

No, I have not lost my mind. All this did happen. But, as you may have guessed, I am not referring to the announcement in Ferguson, Missouri, that no charges would be brought against the white policeman who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. I’m talking about an event that took place 50 years ago in Neshoba County, Mississippi, when three civil rights workers — two white and one black, named Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney — were killed by the Ku Klux Klan. At the White House the three men were posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in America.

The reason I’m linking Ferguson with Mississippi Burning (as the event is known) is not the piquancy of having the two events on the same day — although it cannot be ignored — but that there is a clarity that comes with historical perspective.

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‘When Summer Is a Bummer’ – The Wall Street Journal

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Summertime has officially begun. But is it really true, as the George Gershwin song claims, that “the livin’ is easy”?

Benjamin Franklin advised his fellow Americans against seasonal complacency, observing, “Some are weather-wise, some are otherwise.” For many people, summertime means either the threat of floods and hurricanes or the pain of wildfires and droughts. Nothing easy there.

In Britain, however, summertime has always posed a somewhat different problem—more existential than experiential. As with invisible protons, being certain of the existence of the British summer requires a leap of faith. Lord Byron wasn’t convinced, writing, “The English winter—ending in July, to recommence in August.”

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‘Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters’ – The Sunday Times

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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