“What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?” poet Muriel Rukeyser asked as Second Wave feminism was finding its feet. Her answer? “The world would split apart.”
Rekeyeser understood how powerful women’s life stories were. She knew that wrapped in those stories lay a reality that represented the underpinnings of male-dominated institutional cultures, whether from the marketplace, the academy, or the Church. She also knew that if women could give voice to that reality they would help to expose those patriarchal cultures and perhaps even change them.
The history of women’s courageous truthtelling is long and instructive. From their diaries, journals, letters, autobiographies, poetry, books and a collection of writings dating as far back as Egyptian tomb inscriptions circa 2300 B.C., women have been writing in ways that Plato later called “passionately direct.”
Sixteenth century St. Teresa wrote a brutally honest book called “Life” and 17th century Alice Thornton described her everyday life with notable emotion. The 20th century saw an explosion of uninhibited, political writing from women like Ida B. Wells, Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others who asserted themselves effectively through expressions of their personal power.
Fast forward now to 21st century social media and other platforms, and to 2017, and think about what happened to Bill O’Reilly. And make no mistake about it. It wasn’t just the withdrawal of sponsorship by major companies from The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox network that brought Mr. O’Reilly down. It was women telling their stories, women supporting them, women advocating for them, and feminist legal experts like Lisa Bloom.
Without truth-telling women exposing the institutional culture of sexual harassment at Fox, the sponsors never would have ended their sponsorship. Sure, the power of the purse was a driving force, and it’s fine to acknowledge that. But let’s also acknowledge that women consumers exerted pressure on Fox’s sponsors, and most importantly that the impact of women telling their stories was hugely important and deeply powerful in effecting O’Reilly’s disgraced departure.
The media either overlooked or downplayed this point. For example, the iconic conservative lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, told CNN with absolute certainty that women coming forward didn’t account for the network’s decision. It was O’Reilly breathing hard into a taped phone call that did it. Another male guest agreed with him as he repeated the claim that it was the advertisers who finally got to the network.
Attorney Lisa Bloom, to her credit, was quick to point out that it was “the effort by a group of women who day after day after day were calling in complaints, who were going on TV despite their fear, who were putting the public pressure on, who were going to the advertisers,” she fumed. “Maybe that’s what happened! I want these women to get credit.”
Wendy Walsh, the woman who brought her case to Bloom and agreed to go public with it – not for any financial compensation but so that “other women and [her] daughters wouldn’t have to go through similar experiences,” added that while advertisers pulled their support from O’Reilly’ show, they did it “because they care about their women employees and they care about their women consumers. It was girl power.”
What happened at Fox clearly doesn’t suddenly end the anti-woman culture at the network that paid $13 million to five women to settle their cases of sexual harassment and gave O’Reilly a golden handshake of $25 million. This should tell you all you need to know about how rampant the problem is at Fox News: 21st Century Fox has made payouts related to sexual harassment allegations at Fox News totaling over $85 million, the majority of which was paid to men ousted from the network because of harassment allegations.
Clearly, sexual harassment cultures still prevail and ending them will not be easy, as we know from our recent election and current political landscape. But because of the legacy of women truthtellers, and the courage of the growing number of women coming forward to speak truth to power, at least now when we ask, “What would happen if women told the truth about their lives?” the answer can include the fact that at least some sexual predators will get busted.
I think we owe the women who have begun, hopefully, to change the landscape in which we live, at least a little recognition for that, and a very big thank you.