Making a movement from #MeToo

At Perry World House, activists from around the world gathered to discuss how they’re working to make sure the stories of women and girls are told—and heard.

Panelists at the "Grassroots Organizing in the MeToo Era" at Perry World House
Joanne N. Smith, Veronica Avila, Nadeen Spence, Veronica Gago, and Penn professor Deborah A. Thomas spoke to a packed room at Perry World House. 

Nadeen Spence and Joanne N. Smith are both advocates for the rights of women and girls, but Spence is from Jamaica, Smith a first-generation Haitian from New York. On Monday at Perry World House (PWH), Penn’s global policy research and engagement hub, they told chillingly similar stories of girls who were sexually abused by clergy, only to have the church and their communities turn their backs to the crime.

“There was no attempt to hold the pastor accountable,” said Spence, who is the founder of the I’m Glad I’m a Girl Foundation and the manager of a residence hall at the University of the West Indies, Mona. 

The organization Smith founded and leads, Girls for Gender Equity, was contacted by the family of the assaulted girl, to ask for help putting pressure on the church. 

“She doesn’t care where the allyship comes from. She needs us out there to support her,” Smith said. “This community response of ‘we’re going to wrap our arms around you and work this out together,’ that’s what allyship looks like.”

In the #MeToo age, these kinds of stories echo across generations and national borders. Yet, as with so many other issues, the effort to fight sexual assault and harassment exposes key differences, too. 

That’s why Smith and Spence were on the PWH stage, with two other activists and moderator Deborah A. Thomas, the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology at Penn. 

Grassroots Organizing in the Era of #MeToo” was in held in honor of International Women’s Day, which was March 8, as well as a nod to March as Women’s History Month. Along with PWH, the event was sponsored by the  Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Women; the Penn Women’s Center; the Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse in Relationships; and the Latin American and Latino Studies Program

LaShawn Jefferson, PWH deputy director, opened the panel by framing the enormity of the issue. Women around the world are constantly facing the threat of unwanted sexual advances, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in their everyday lives, she said. 

“One might ask, when are women and girls not at risk?” Jefferson said. 

Nothing short of a revolution in international thinking about women will change that, she said, and challenged the audience to remember that, while it’s individual cases that grab headlines, the problem crosses the boundaries of nationality, race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity. 

Panelist Veronica Avila, the national campaign co-manager for Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which is pushing for better wages and working conditions within the industry, told a story of a young woman in her first job. A cook at the restaurant, as a sort of initiation, told her he would tell her a sexually-themed joke or story every day.

The woman was mostly paid in tips—as the majority of U.S. restaurant workers are—and so had no idea how much money she would take home every day and had little schedule stability, Avila said. But she knew the cook would sidle up and whisper in her ear daily.  

“That’s the only thing she could depend on every day when she went to work,” Avila said. “We want to have this be an industry where sexual harassment isn’t pervasive.”

Veronica Gago, a professor at Argentina’s National University of San Martin, is heavily involved in a movement there that has used women’s strikes to call for the legalization of abortion. The abuse of women is the overarching issue, she said, by men, the state, and the capitalist market.

“It’s about how you connect the struggles,” she said. 

Jefferson ended the discussion with a challenge for the audience: Remember that we all have biases, and that we all should examine them. And don’t forget to show up for the people in your lives. 

“You have more power than you think,” she said. “You have to figure out ways to deploy it.” 

Thomas said she thought the event was important to have at Penn, which is continuing to expand its global reach and attracts a broad swath of international students. It’s critical, she said, to remember that while the stories that make headlines in the United States tend to feature the famous, around the world it can be a different story. 

She used the four United Nations Conferences on Women as an example of a time when international female activists were confronted with some of the ways in which their experiences and goals diverged. That’s happened with the #MeToo movement as well. 

“I think we have a tendency in this country to think experiences can be universalized,” Thomas said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to gender equality.”