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#MeToo and the Global Fight for Women's Rights
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Since 2017, millions have joined the global movement known as #MeToo, catalyzing an unprecedented wave of women’s activism powered by technology that reaches across borders, races, religions, and economic divides. Today, women in more than 100 countries are using the hashtag to fight the violence and discrimination they face—and winning. What started as an online campaign against sexual harassment has triggered the most widespread cultural reckoning on women’s rights in history, with global implications for women’s participation in the economy, politics, and across social and cultural life.
Awakening is the first book to capture the global impact of this breakthrough movement. Bringing together political analysis and inspiring personal stories from women in seven countries—Brazil, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sweden, and Tunisia—Awakening takes readers to the front lines of a networked movement that’s fundamentally shifting how women organize for their own equality.
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, I WAS A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND CULTURAL WORKER IN Selma, Alabama, running an organization for young girls. I was all too familiar with the messages they were hearing every day: you’re not good enough, smart enough, important enough. So I made it my mission to change those messages—to help groups of Black and brown girls find their voices, celebrate their unique potential, and recognize their power as leaders.
It didn’t take long to see the pattern that was taking shape. Every time we gathered together, stories would spill out. I sat in community centers, classrooms, and church basements, listening to thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds matter-of-factly describe their experiences with sexual violence, abuse, and assault. Because I’m a survivor myself, my heart ached for them. I wanted to say something deep and profound—something that captured our shared pain and trauma. I wanted to tell them that this had happened to me, too.
That’s how ‘me too.’ began: as shared language between survivors. It was a signal to these girls that they were in a space where they could focus on their healing without having to be performative or guarded. It was empowerment through empathy.
If you had asked me back then, I would have told you that I believed our survivor-led movement had the potential to move the world. But I never could have imagined that #MeToo would become a hashtag translated into dozens of languages, spark a global reckoning, and become a connective framework for movements across the globe. The spark ignited more than a decade ago has caught fire in ways beyond my wildest dreams.
For me, reading the stories of the women in Awakening is an inspiring experience—and a humbling one. I’m stunned by the defiance of women like Mozn Hassan, a lawyer in Egypt who has been repeatedly targeted and surveilled by an authoritarian regime because of her outspoken feminist advocacy, including her support of #AnaKaman, or #MeToo. By the fortitude of survivors like Khadijah Adamu and Fakhrriyyah Hashim in Nigeria, who have broken with taboo and organized publicly with #ArewaMeToo, at enormous personal risk. I’m awed by the determination of computer science graduate Luo Xixi, who was inspired by #MeToo’s viral moment in the United States to break her silence after thirteen years and name the professor who had harassed her. And the defiance of Swedish actress and writer Cissi Wallin, who decided to speak publicly and remains determined to help protect others, even after she was found guilty of defaming the man she accused. I admire the resilience of Pakistani singer and actress Meesha Shafi, who came forward about a colleague in the entertainment industry, proclaiming, “It is not easy to speak out… but it is harder to stay silent.” In parts of the globe where #MeToo is seen as a form of treason, where legal systems fail women over and over again, where “sex for grades” is accepted as part of life, where standing up for women’s rights is dangerous, where survivors face crushing stigma, and even in places the world views as feminist utopias, the activists in this book are expanding the definition of courage. I am honored to be in common cause with each of them—and with so many others whose names we might never know.
What this global movement has achieved is incredible—and so is its use of technology to empower women to work together across countries and cultures. As someone who came of age in the era when faxing flyers across the city was considered cutting-edge organizing, it’s extraordinary to witness the ways activists around the world are tapping into their collective power through social media. Through private Facebook groups, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp chats, and Zoom, survivors are using every tool at their disposal and inventing new ones. Even with the challenges social media presents for issues around safety and privacy, it makes it possible to amplify voices that have been silenced for far too long. The result is a movement to end sexual violence that—as it must be—is intersectional and inclusive, centering the experiences of survivors of color.
Ask any organizer and they’ll tell you that one of the hardest things to do is to create lasting, meaningful culture change. This book covers years of efforts to do just that. Ikram Ben Said, a Tunisian activist and founder of Aswat Nissa, summed it up perfectly when she said, “This didn’t happen in a vacuum. This is the result of at least twenty, thirty years of the older generation of feminists who were really talking about gender-based violence and sexual harassment in public space, in private space.” Now, we’re seeing the beginnings of real justice in court systems around the globe. Perpetrators are starting to face consequences. Advocates have changed and strengthened laws against sexual assault. And in places like Brazil, Lebanon, Mexico, the United States, and Sri Lanka, women are running for public office in record-breaking numbers. Even the backlash to ‘me too.’ is a sign of just how much cultural standards have changed.
None of this means that our work is finished. Recently, a pandemic, a global economic crisis, and an overdue reckoning with racism have shown just how much we still have to do to address injustice and inequality in the United States and around the world. As we look to the future of #MeToo, a debate is unfolding: Should we focus on the immediate crisis? Or should we set our sights on the root causes? I believe the answer can’t be “either/or”—it has to be “both/and.” We can—we have to—support the people who are impacted by sexual violence on a daily basis and work to dismantle the systems that allow it to happen in the first place. That’s what our Survivor’s Agenda—a policy blueprint informed by survivors of sexual violence—aims to do. Like the activists in this book, we need to use every tool we have.
I started the ‘me too.’ movement because I wanted the girls in the program I ran and survivors everywhere to be empowered to create their own tools both for their own healing and for dismantling the systems that allowed them to be harmed. There are so many of us who carry this burden, who have been holding our trauma in the pit of our stomach for years. I dream of a day when we no longer have to experience our trauma, when we have the joy and healing we deserve. Fifteen years later, I close my eyes and imagine a generation of young people around the world who have been learning about respect, boundaries, and consent for as long as they can remember; it’s second nature to them. They are free from sexual harassment and assault.
This book shows that, around the world, we’ve come farther than ever before. I’m humbled to be in partnership with leaders globally fighting to realize this vision.
ON THE AFTERNOON OF NOVEMBER 9, 2016, I STOOD WEEPING IN THE AISLE OF A commuter train with several other women I had only just met, en route home from New York. Hillary Clinton—someone I admired and had served for two decades, the first American woman ever to win a presidential major party nomination, who had long symbolized the rising power of women in America and around the world—had just lost the US presidential election to an avowed misogynist, one who boasted of groping women without their consent and degraded them for sport.
A train attendant approached.
“Ladies,” he inquired earnestly, “is everything OK?”
I marveled at his imperviousness to the shattering loss that had united the diverse group of women with whom I huddled. Surely he had to know that everything was not OK. Not in a world where the most powerful person on the face of the planet would, once again, be male, as had been true since the dawn of civilization. And not just any male, but an alpha chauvinist who had been credibly accused of sexual harassment and assault by multiple women, threatening to undo decades of progress toward women’s equality at home and abroad.
I was incredulous that the attendant didn’t recognize our pain. Our disappointment. Our dejection that this step toward the equal future we’d envisioned for our ourselves—and for our children—still was not to be.
What I couldn’t yet perceive, as I slumped back into my seat, was that the sadness we felt was shared by women around the world, and would quickly morph into rage, helping to spark a global outcry that would catalyze a movement for women’s rights far more powerful and widespread than at any moment in history.
Back in my office at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington, DC, my gloom diminished over the next months as I marveled at the rise in women’s activism that ensued—activism whose roots predated the events of 2016 but was fueled by them, ultimately traveling across borders, over the internet, onto the streets, and into the halls of power. Together with a team of researchers in the Council’s Women and Foreign Policy program, I began chronicling this international surge in the women’s movement, starting with the Women’s March in January 2017, the largest global women’s protest in history; the explosion of the #MeToo movement later that same year, which spread to more than one hundred countries; and the growth in women’s political participation in the 2018 elections and beyond. We carefully monitored breakthroughs in region after region, country after country, as women buoyed by the strength and courage of their sisters were inspired to come forward in droves and demand change.
The coverage and popularization of this movement in the United States astonished me, despite the fact that I had spent my career advocating for women’s rights. Initially, I had worked on women’s issues domestically—volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in New York, and fighting for women’s legal rights at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and as a young lawyer at the National Women’s Law Center. I labored to close the gender gap in the political arena, helping Hillary Clinton, who was then the First Lady, become the first woman ever elected to the US Senate and statewide office from New York, in 2000; the first woman to prevail in a contested presidential primary, in 2008; and the first woman to win a major US party nomination for president, in 2016, along with more than sixty-five million votes in the general election. I worked on global women’s issues as well, partnering with courageous women’s rights defenders while serving in the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues during the Obama administration, as a member of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and later at the Clinton Foundation in New York, where I sought to elevate the status of women at the United Nations and on the US foreign policy agenda, given the wealth of evidence that doing so advances prosperity, stability, and security at home and abroad.
In all these roles, the raison d’être for my job as a women’s rights advocate was often questioned—despite the reality that women are paid less than men everywhere in the world, remain dramatically underrepresented in capitals and boardrooms, comprise the majority of the world’s poor, and face an epidemic of violence that affects one in three women in their lifetimes. When I shared that I was a women’s rights lawyer in a roomful of newly minted attorneys after my admission to the bar, the leader in charge of our training was incredulous. “Full time?” he asked, as if there wouldn’t be enough work to keep me busy all day. “Haven’t women already achieved equality?”
At the White House, at the State Department, and on Capitol Hill, officials from both sides of the aisle routinely considered concerns about the treatment of 50 percent of the global population to be a distraction from the crucial economic and security issues of the day, ignoring not only how those issues affect women, but also their critical role in addressing them. Even after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom I served, declared global women’s issues a priority to US security—an assessment based on reams of data showing that the inclusion of women promotes stability and reduces conflict—government leaders continued to question their importance. A senior US official, in an interview with the Washington Post, derisively referred to women’s issues as a special interest and “pet rock,” and insisted that such issues had to “take a back seat to other priorities.”1 In politics, blindness to gender inequality was endemic: in each of the political campaigns on which I served, voters of all persuasions regaled me with countless reasons why they couldn’t support the woman I was trying to elect—which they claimed had nothing to do with her gender—including her appearance, her voice, her marriage, and even her tenacity and intelligence, which were held against her as she was again and again pronounced “unlikable” for possessing qualities that are routinely rewarded in male leaders. In the media, the issues on which I worked daily—mistreatment of and discrimination against women in the workplace, in their homes, in public, and in private—were seldom considered worthy of putting above the fold.
Following the 2016 election, the #MeToo movement, and the ensuing rise in women’s activism, the questions I faced about the importance of women’s issues began to fade, replaced by urgent entreaties from all quarters—reporters, colleagues, family members, friends, neighbors, my children’s teachers—about how to address the persistent gender inequalities to which so many had finally awakened. In the United States, allegations of harassment and assault that normally would have escaped scrutiny or been disbelieved—or never been lodged in the first instance—suddenly dominated daily headlines and nightly newscasts. People began having open conversations about gender-based violence, discrimination, and power imbalances over dinner tables and around water coolers. And women from all walks of life joined in the movement by speaking out and rising up, claiming their rights and demanding change—fighting not only sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence, but also racism and xenophobia, economic inequality, environmental ruin, and so much more.
While the recognition of American women’s activism grew, however, the US media continued to overlook the concomitant uprisings led by women around the world. As the domestic #MeToo movement dominated US headlines, I hosted a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations to highlight the scourge of gender-based violence around the world, featuring Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad, a courageous Iraqi women’s rights defender who had survived sexual slavery at the hands of ISIS and later served as a UN ambassador on human trafficking. On the margins, I met up with other activists and scholars, trading stories about the international rise in women’s activism we had been tracking in our own work and decrying its absence from the mainstream media, which was failing to capture the birth of a new wave of the global women’s movement, of which the US movement was only one part. Determined to share what I’d learned and to analyze the cumulative effect of this activism, I embarked on a journey to the front lines of this global movement—one that culminated in a partnership with my Council colleague Meighan Stone on this book.
Having the opportunity to share these stories has been a privilege—and an inspiration. Never could I have imagined, as a fledgling women’s rights lawyer, or in the dark days following my train ride in November 2016, that I would soon have a chance to chronicle a resurgence of the global women’s movement, one that promises to be the most far-reaching in history. I could not have known the strength I would personally draw from the persistence displayed by millions of sisters marching online and off around the world. The courage and determination of the women you will read about in these pages offer a lesson in how pain, hardship, and oppression can spur hope, progress, and change. To honor these women, I am more determined than ever to ensure that this progress extends to women everywhere in the world, of every race, ethnicity, class, creed, and country—and I hope their example will inspire many more to enlist in the global fight for gender equality.
On September 27, 2018, I huddled with a group of women around a makeshift video stream set up in a hallway at a New York Times conference in Brooklyn. We were gathered there for the Times’s inaugural summit on gender, power, and policy. But breaking news had stolen our attention: Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who had accused him of assaulting her, were testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Megan Twohey, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Times journalist who had broken the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse story with Jodi Kantor, sat nearby with her young daughter. Former chief of staff to Michelle Obama Tina Tchen, Katie McGrath, and other leaders of the US-based #TimesUp movement for workplace equity stood side by side with Melinda Gates’s advisers, other activists, and former prime ministers. I found a seat in the only place left, on the floor. With my work taking me everywhere from refugee camps to rural health clinics, I’ve always found the ground as fine a place as any to sit.
The scene was reminiscent of an old photo—people gathered around a storefront black-and-white television, watching, say, a man land on the moon. But this TV event felt commonplace and extraordinary at the same time. Far too many American women have stories to share about sexual assault. Far rarer are stories about a powerful man being publicly held to account.
I sat quietly as Dr. Ford began her testimony, about the day three decades before when she believed, she said, that Kavanaugh “was going to rape me.” I thought of myself as a teenage girl, one who’d been raped and would have no day in court. I thought of how ashamed I felt walking up for altar-call prayers at my evangelical Christian church, asking that God might heal me of what I thought was my fault.
In that hallway, women held each other as Dr. Ford said her most unshakable memory was the mocking of her male attackers. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two. They’re having fun at my expense.” The room fell completely silent then, except for the sound you hear when women allow themselves and one another to cry in community, when we know no men are present. That we’re safe together.
When I returned to Washington, DC, still ruminating on the out-of-control anger in Kavanaugh’s testimony—anger that should have disqualified him on grounds of judicial temperament alone—I took myself down to the Supreme Court to protest. There, a trifecta of female senators—Kamala Harris, Mazie Hirono, and Kirsten Gillibrand—delivered speeches and led cheers from the front of the austere building: Shame! Shame! Not fit! The crowd, a huge gathering of angry women asking for nothing more than a credible investigation into credible claims, engaged in the kind of call and response that feels so familiar to those of us who attend a certain kind of church, urging the speaker to Go on, say that. Amen.
I remembered being a girl in small-town Virginia, hearing adults talk about the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor: a woman has no place on the Supreme Court. Three years later, Geraldine Ferraro would run for vice president, and I’d hear more of the same. No place.
I grew up in a family rife with generations of alcoholism, addiction, and abuse. In 2017, while at the Harvard Kennedy School as a fellow, I attended a fancy dinner one night where an attendee beamed with pride as she told me her daughter was doing a spring service trip to help those poor people who live in trailer parks. I breathed deeply and smiled as I told her my grandparents had lived in a trailer park. I’d wanted that woman at Harvard to know, in the gracious way that cuts someone clean off at the knees, that daughters of people like that were in the room, too, sitting right next to her.
If I’m honest, this work probably started for me when I was around seven years old, when I watched my father throw my mother out of our car. As she cried on the ground and her blood crept across her pressed, white dress, I desperately looked out the window for anyone to show up and help. No one did. So I got out of the back seat, shaking, and started shouting for him to stop, barely aware of how small or powerless I was. Quite a few times, the neighbors called the police to come to my house when I was a child, but I noticed they always left without really intervening. I share this in an attempt to dissolve any pretense of a superior “us” studying a lesser “them”—to underscore that these injustices happen here, in America, not just in some foreign place. They are committed by people we know or love, and may even forgive—like my father, whom during the writing of this book I held as he died, praying God’s grace over him.
Carrying secrets and trauma, I never expected to amount to much. But through some luck of fate and hard work, I’ve earned my keep in a succession of jobs I never dreamed of having, have had seats in places I never thought of belonging. All along, the work I’ve done has always been about changing who has a place in the room. Especially in rooms where real decisions get made—about power, money, freedom, rights—without the presence of those they will ultimately affect.
In 2013, I started working for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, and ultimately served as president of her nonprofit organization, the Malala Fund, which fights for girls’ rights to learn and lead without fear. Thirteen years earlier, in the year 2000, world leaders had gathered at the United Nations and revealed their ambitions for girls around the world, declaring how many years of education they thought girls deserved as a human right: six. In 2015 the world’s leaders were gathering again, at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals summit, to set a new global goal for girls’ education. The consensus going in was that maybe, by the year 2030, we could get to nine years. But at the Malala Fund, we decided to start fighting for a different number: twelve. Twelve years of education for every girl. We met with parliaments and politicians, we released reports, we built the modeling spreadsheets. We ran the numbers, we did the work.
And in the end? We won. One of our greatest moments came when Malala stood up, in the General Assembly on the floor of the UN, to celebrate that we’d helped win the fight for twelve years of education—that we’d lifted global ambitions and signaled the world’s belief in girls living in the world’s poorest countries by saying this was their human right.
Malala spoke to a room full of the most powerful leaders in the world. But the most important people in the room for me that day were the two girls standing with Malala, the ones we’d fought to make sure were there. The young woman on Malala’s right was Salam, whom we’d met while visiting schools in Lebanon. Salam was a Syrian refugee who had to fight for her education every day—not in the removed way we think of when we talk about policy, but in a way that was hard and personal. The girl standing on Malala’s left was Amina, from Kaduna State in Nigeria, where the terror group Boko Haram has abducted thousands of girls. She and girls like her attended the informal educational programs we were financing at the Malala Fund, under threat of violence every day. They later addressed the press together, from the same stage where the UN secretary-general speaks to the media. To us, it was crucial that people with the power to change lives would have to listen to these young women and promise an education to all children, to declare that wars and other forms of violence could not stop them from learning.
After meeting women activists from developing and war-torn countries, in the hallways of too many high-level summits, I knew that the real work happened in their communities, and not at cocktail receptions in safe places. I also knew how often Western women with big checkbooks—who always said how inspiring these women were—sent them back home to threats and threadbare existences without a dime. Don’t let them off so easy as to just inspire them, I would say to Malala on our many long flights as we talked about strategy. Make them change.
Because of my work with Malala, I’ve had the honor of crossing paths or working with women human rights defenders around the world. Sadly, it’s not so large a sisterhood, because the work is hard and heartbreaking. You will lose friends; your family might be imprisoned or threatened in retribution for your work. You will lose your job, and will long for that old sense of simply feeling safe and free when you walk down the street. You may become an exile from your beloved country, or wind up in the hospital recovering from a beating.
Over the years, many women activists have confided in me that they’ve been physically or sexually assaulted. Raped by family members, subjected to female genital mutilation, sexually assaulted in retaliation for their work or simply for asking for their freedom. Female democracy protestors in Hong Kong alleged that they were sexually assaulted while detained by pro-Chinese government forces. Egyptian women survived horrific sexual assaults for daring to stand for their rights in Tahrir Square during the Arab uprisings. Even Rosa Parks—who, contrary to popular belief, was not just a tired woman on a bus—began her work by investigating the brutal sexual assaults of Black women in the segregated American South, driven by her own experience surviving a 1931 rape attempt by a white male neighbor. It’s not surprising to me that these tragic attacks occurred. It is overdue that we tell these stories—and that we stop pushing the violation of women’s bodies to the margins of human rights policy and our accounts of historic social change.
It’s important to me to emphasize that Awakening
- "Awakening goes where no book has gone before, taking readers on a journey around the world in a powerful exploration of the most widespread cultural reckoning around women's rights in history. In chronicling the global impact of the #MeToo movement, Meighan Stone and Rachel Vogelstein capture the speed and scale of women-led organizing in the digital age, as well as the social, economic, and legal progress that's possible when we come together to demand change. Inspiring, insightful, and profoundly moving, this book is a must-read for women and men alike."—Hillary Rodham Clinton
- “Awakening champions the stories of women from Nigeria to Pakistan fighting for equality in schools, workplaces, courts, and government. Through their reporting and research, Meighan Stone and Rachel Vogelstein bring us closer to a new generation of women who are using digital activism to achieve change.”—Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
- “Dynamically told and sharply written, Awakening is the global #MeToo book we’ve been waiting for. This connective, powerful book widens the frame and pans away from the US, transporting readers over borders and across cultures so we can see what women fighting for freedom everywhere have long known: that stories are world-changing and sisterhood is powerful.”—Jill Filipovic, journalist and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk, and The H-Spot
- “Awakening is a must-read for anyone thinking about the social and political consequences of #MeToo. This book provides critical insight into the movement’s global impact and the future of equality for women around the world.”—Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger
- “An eye-opening global tour of women’s activism in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Spotlighting activists in seven countries, the authors make clear the diversity of the movement…Readers will be galvanized by these detailed portraits of bravery, creativity, and persistence in the struggle for women’s rights.”—Publishers Weekly
- “An inspiring overview of burgeoning women’s movements…A fresh perspective on continued challenges to women’s lives.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “This book isn't simply a history or a series of case studies and anecdotes; it compiles these narratives to show readers how change happens, so that we can continue to do the work of disrupting and dismantling systemic injustices….Complete with a broad selection of resources for advocacy, this call-to-action will spark the interest of aspiring activists."—Library Journal
- “Remarkable… What is clear, as Vogelstein and Stone so compellingly demonstrate, is the strength and sisterhood women have taken in each others’ struggles and each others’ victories. By retelling their stories and reinforcing the magnetism now binding these brave survivors across vastly different cultures and geographies, the authors have moved and mobilized their readers, giving us the chance to celebrate and learn from these strong women’s courage, tenacity, and power, and to carry forward the fight.”—Philanthropy Women
- On Sale
- Jul 13, 2021
- Page Count
- 272 pages