In 100 Years, What Will Be the Origin Story of #MeToo?

By Mariam Williams


On October 15, 2018, Tarana Burke posted the following message to Twitter:

It was the beginning of a thread about the Me Too Movement’s origin story, how Tarana Burke had come up with “Me Too” more than 20 years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase as a hashtag and invited other women to share their stories about sexual harassment and assault, how the question, “had white hollywood [sic] tried to tried to steal this from a Black woman?!?” emerged, and black female journalists advocated for Burke’s recognition.

Her answer to the question of theft may be surprising: “The short answer, No. But I was definitely in danger of being erased.” I think what was (and is) in more danger of being erased than Tarana Burke and her founding credentials is the Me Too Movement–not the movement that emerged in 2017 after The New Yorker’s investigative journalism unveiled allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but the movement Burke started.

Burke’s thread suggests her purpose in starting Me Too was to support Black and Brown girls and women who were survivors of sexual assault as they disclosed what happened to them and “to uplift the power of community for survivors.” I see this as different from what #MeToo, the hashtag, was in 2017 and is one year later.

When I see the hashtag #MeToo, I see the news headlines about the latest power man in entertainment or journalism exposed as a serial harasser, rapist, or misogynist, and the headline that follows within the next hour about his contract suddenly being terminated or his resignation received, effective immediately. In some ways, it’s an exciting phenomenon to watch. The prevalence of misogyny is being exposed, and the power structures created to allow and encourage men to abuse women with impunity are falling.

On the other hand, Are the perpetrators who also happen to be working class being exposed? Are they losing their jobs? If so, what’s happening to the women and girls in their families who their paychecks used to support? Also, given that the vast majority of the (formerly?) powerful perpetrators have been white men and their accusers have been the white women working for them, are women of color, particularly working class women of color, benefiting from #MeToo? Are the systemic racism and misogyny they live with daily changing? Are their survivor stories known and heard? Do they have the support Burke has also been so concerned they have?

As PACSCL conducted its previous project, In Her Own Right, they found that their 38 member institutions didn’t hold many stories about women were not white, not wealthy, or not for some other reason already held in high esteem by their contemporaries. This means there are holes in the historical record.

When historians look back at the Me Too Movement 100 years from now, what will they find has been preserved? The newspapers will have archived their exposés on Hollywood’s predators and the female actors they victimized. They will have archived their interviews with Tarana Burke. The Library of Congress will have archived every tweet including #MeToo and even the ones including #MeTooMvMt, which Burke included in the last post of her thread. What will they find about the girl who first motivated Burke to say, “Me too”? What will they find of working-class women and the networks they form within their places of employment when no union exists or their union fails them? And when historians ask about the meaning of Me Too, about its short- and long-term victories, setbacks, and transformations, will it look like celebrities who were mostly white and female made Hollywood a better place for their peers, or like Burke and brown and black girls and women found ways to support one another when other systems failed them?

Thinking Partners Meeting 10.09.2018

Note: To make information on our website easier to find, we’ve moved meeting summaries to our blog and deleted the “Discover” page. You’ll find all Thinking Partner meeting summaries under the “Project Updates,” “Meeting Summaries,” and “What We’ve Learned” categories.

A number of thinking partners and steering committee members gathered at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia for the first in our series of conversations. The conversation focused on the two major goals of this project: documenting current resistance, and inviting people to see themselves in resistance narratives that are kept in archives/libraries/special collections.

Several themes became apparent as part of the conversation. One was that we need to rethink common knowledge about what stories are known, as some stories may seem “hidden” but will be told by people if they are asked what history is important to them.

We also discussed the importance of personal and individual stories, and of people stepping up when systems are failing. Many people doing radical things may not identify themselves as resistors, so how can they be reached?

There was also debate among those in attendance about what the best way to preserve stories can be. It is important to determine where people consider their stories safe, and to be sure that such places, and places where people trust their stories to be told, have resources. But there is also potentially value in “canonizing” stories by talking about them in traditionally-elite institutions, as long as this is done in a way that centers the experience of the groups in question. It is always important to insist upon the inclusion of people who may not be obvious in records.

On a practical level, it was suggested that having a short, written form that people can fill out to give feedback is helpful in collecting information. In order for this to work well, it is necessary to have a specific question or hook, even if action items are still pending.

Implemented Action(s) Following Meeting: The steering committee developed three central open-response questions related to the project goals and created a Google form and 5×7 response card to receive public replies.

Seeking Experts to Open Doors

By Mariam Williams

In September, several members of the Chronicling Resistance steering committee attended the Annual Meeting of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. There we heard a keynote address from Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance.

Based on her second book, Simon’s keynote address (much like this TEDx Talk) gave leaders of various organizations and institutions a crash course in “how to invite people outside of their traditional circles, into that thing that matters to [them].” In other words, she answered the following question: how do you make a place, issue, cause, art form, business, etc. relevant to people who currently, for whatever reason, don’t care about it, don’t know it exists, or don’t think it’s of any importance to them?

Who are archives important to? With whom do narratives of resistance resonate? The answers aren’t necessarily two different constituencies, but one group may, to paraphrase Simon, look at the front door to an archival institution and see a systemic lockout while the other may look at the same door and feel like they are about to enter their own home.

I’m closer to the latter group. For most of my life, I’ve had the ability to nerd out and go down rabbit holes of documents and files just because it’s interesting. On the other hand, I also know what it’s like to enter a place built in the 1800s and have an archivist who’s certain I don’t know protocols about food, beverages, pens, and bags watch me closely as I do my work. Such an archivist’s behavior (and such necessary rules) aren’t ones everyone can tolerate. But it doesn’t mean the stories inside the archives wouldn’t be important to them if they knew they were there. It may just mean, as Simon suggests, the effort it takes to get into those archives and draw meaning from them isn’t worth it to everyone. And it may mean we have to build a door that they think will be worth going through, a door that opens to something meaningful for them.

What does that door look like? What does the invisible “Welcome” mat outside look like? That’s the question I’m wrestling with. With a group of consultants we’re calling Thinking Partners, the Chronicling Resistance staff and steering committee is attempting to construct those doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways.

Simon encourages “community-first programming, using a community’s assets and resources to build a project together.” Listening to the community’s wisdom and then adapting existing doors and spaces rather than prescribing what they should look like–because honestly, we don’t know what they should look like. We, the historians, archivists, and academics who are degreed and skilled in what we do are not the experts in this project.

For the next several months, Chronicling Resistance staff, steering committee members, and consultants will be attempting to construct new doors and welcome mats for communities whose voices of resistance may not have been heard clearly enough by the people who have used the archives to write their stories, and for communities who are still trying to tell their stories in their own ways. I’m excited to look to people whose histories, stories, and contributions often have been undervalued and call them experts.

The Philadelphia Region: Resisting Since 1688

By Laura Blanchard

Resistance takes many  forms and embraces many topics.

In the Philadelphia region, resistance began with a protest against slavery in 1688 and continues to this day. Our ancestors and our neighbors could be found on the front lines of movements to foster emancipation; assert the rights of women, minorities and others; and challenge the status quo in science and religion.

And some of our ancestors and neighbors could be found on the other side, pushing back against efforts to extend rights or challenge the norms.

As we work to make sure that current and future resistance narratives are captured, preserved, and shared, we can also look back at materials that have been safeguarded in the region’s libraries and archives.  Here is a sampling: