Think #MeToo Didn’t Make a Real Difference? Think Again

Image by Michelle Ding.

What difference did #MeToo actually make?

In 2017 and 2018, the viral hashtag became a global sensation that motivated millions to speak out about sexual assault and harassment. But more recently, critics have questioned whether the flurry of activity ended up leaving much of a legacy.

This questioning is hardly surprising. If there is one thing that is most consistent when it comes to mass protest movements, it is that these mobilizations will be dismissed by mainstream political observers as being fleeting and inconsequential. Time and again, they are labeled as fads, scolded for being too “confrontational and divisive,” and written off as flash-in-the-pan eruptions with little lasting significance.

The latest round of such dismissal came this fall with an article in the New York Times entitled “The Failure of Progressive Movements.” In it, columnist David Leonhardt notes that several movements have achieved prominence in recent years: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. However, “none of the three movements have come close to achieving their ambitions,” he argues.

Leonhardt grants that “All of them have had an impact,” with Occupy popularizing “the idea of the 1 percent and the 99 percent” and #MeToo leading “to the firing (and sometimes jailing) of sexual predators, as well as the hiring of more women in prominent jobs.” But, following author and Substack writer Fredrik deBoer, Leonhardt considers the gains of the movements to be primarily “immaterial and symbolic,” and he closes with the admonition that “Calling out injustice isn’t the same as fighting it.”

Certainly, the limitations of these movements can be debated. Organizers themselves tend to be keenly aware of the missteps and shortcomings they have encountered, as well as the tremendous amount of work that remains to be done in their pursuit of justice. At the same time, outside dismissals of protest movements rarely result from serious attempts to investigate the afterlives of popular mobilizations and trace their effects. Rather, they appeal to cynicism and ignorance: It takes no real evidence to shrug off movements as having little consequence. In contrast, it often requires dedicated labor to track how mass action can reshape the political landscape around an issue, and in doing so have wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected impacts. Yet such work is critical to genuine analysis of how social change happens.

All of the movements of the past decade cited by Leonhardt deserve closer attention before being written off. We have previously written about how, contrary to popular belief, Occupy and Black Lives Matter each had diverse and tangible policy impacts. Occupy, among other effects, pushed forward a variety of city- and state-level millionaires taxes, responsible banking ordinances, and protections for homeowners, while also playing a crucial role in preserving labor rights in Ohio and launching a campaign that was critical in later prompting President Biden to grant billions of dollars in student debt cancellation.

Meanwhile, the Movement for Black Lives had far-reaching impact on an array of criminal justice reform initiatives, helping to propel progressive prosecutors into office in major cities and to secure public support for advances such as Measure J in Los Angeles County, which is redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars per year in public funding toward a “Care First, Jails Last agenda” to combat mass incarceration. Detractors rarely bother to weigh such outcomes when discussing the purported irrelevance of these movements. But they are just a few of the meaningful consequences that can be documented.

With #MeToo, the impacts have been even more varied and expansive, making it an important case study into how mass mobilization can seed change in many different arenas of society.

There is no doubt that the movement changed the cultural conversation and dramatically increased the amount of attention paid to issues of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination. It also led to the downfall of a long list of politicians, business executives, media personalities and other influential men accused of sexual abuse or harassment — Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Andrew Cuomo, Matt Lauer, and Les Moonves among them. Even critics will grant these outcomes, although that is generally where they stop.

In reality, this only scratches the surface of what #MeToo has accomplished.

The laws that passed

Detractors often point out that the #MeToo movement has yielded no landmark national legislation, comparable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although this is true, the critique is wrong-headed for several reasons.

First of all, a lack of progress in pushing laws through Congress is not unique to #MeToo. Rather, it reflects the deep polarization on Capitol Hill that has, in recent years, created Congressional gridlock and stymied virtually all major legislative drives. In 2022, lawmakers did pass and Biden signed into law the Speak Out Act, which constrains the use of non-disclosure agreements and non-disparagement clauses in cases involving sexual harassment or sexual assault, freeing more victims to seek justice. But for the most part, the movement has circumvented unfavorable conditions at the federal level by instead passing a myriad of state laws.