Leading U.S. feminist thinkers from across the political spectrum are anticipating a tumultuous 2018 after last year's groundswell of high-profile sexual harassment claims, which brought down major figures in the worlds of entertainment, business and politics.
Marking the one-year anniversary of the January 21 Women's March, which some activists have described as the primary catalyst for changes that improved the lives of women in 2017, they say the #MeToo movement, while certain to continue, is at risk of fragmenting.
"If history is a guide, 2018 will be very messy," third-wave feminist Jennifer Baumgardner said in a recent interview with VOA's Albanian service. "Historically, when there is a big upswelling of feminism, it is quickly accompanied by splits and Balkanization."
Although Baumgardner said she welcomed the new climate in which women feel free to speak out about sexual harassment, "I do think that a lot of these cases that are making the news feel very insincere to me because they are being deployed for partisan purposes."
"Claims of harassment can be weaponized in our political system in the United States ... because we have a highly polarized political climate right now, a kind of 'any means necessary' to get your person in office is being deployed," said Baumgardner, former editor of the left-leaning feminist periodical Ms. and producer of the influential 2013 documentary It Was Rape.
Anticipating that some men are bound to bring wrongful-termination or defamation suits into the courts, Baumgardner also predicted a "boom year for lawyers and HR [human resources] professionals."
Threat of 'sex panic'
In November, Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute and author of books including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys, published an op-ed piece in the New York Daily News warning that a "panic in the air ... could ruin the #MeToo movement."
"The #MeToo movement has already changed the workplace for the better," she told VOA via email on Friday. "There is a new resolve to bring it up to 21st century standards of equity and respect. But this worthy reform effort could [still] easily devolve into a sex panic. Panics breed chaos and persecution — they don't solve problems. We need clear rules and reasonable definitions. What we don't need is a war on men or policies that treat every awkward flirtation or off-color remark as fireable offenses."
Clear rules and reasonable definitions, she added, include things such as workplace leadership that insists on "civility and respect," clear anti-harassment policies and reliable mechanisms for reporting bad behavior.
Despite historic victories of the American women's movement, which Sommers called a "broad-based vehicle for social equality," she described today's feminism as a "take-no-prisoners special-interest group."
"It sees the world as a zero-sum struggle between Venus and Mars. But most women want equality — not war," she said. "Men aren't their adversaries —they are their brothers, sons, husbands and friends. So, my advice to the organizers of the Women's March: Tone down the rhetoric. The #MeToo moment just might change the world for the better — but only if men and women of good will work together."
Nuchhi Currier, president of the Washington-based Woman's National Democratic Club, seemed to echo that sentiment in a recent interview with VOA's Russian service, in which she called for improved communication between men and women, and between different generations of the feminist movement itself.
Shifting political landscape
Predicting that "women are going to be the story for the next decade," Currier also said, "I think politics is going to change completely."
"Because we seem to have gone to such an extreme in this country, there are such deep fissures that have emerged between, say, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, that I don't think it's sustainable," she said. "Even within the Democratic Party, there are fissures between the extreme progressive wing and the establishment wing, and if those fissures get wider and wider, that's no solution for the country. It weakens the country."
Unlike the suffragists who were sometimes forced to fight physically for the right to vote, contemporary feminists, she added, enjoy the relative privilege of battling in a mostly verbal context. Like their suffragist founders, however, their fight for fair and equitable treatment will be long.
"I don't think today can compare to what [the suffragists] had to go through," she said. "That activism, which actually led to women getting the right to vote, that was a very bloody time for women."
Once suffragists secured the right to vote, Currier added, it marked only the first step of a much longer journey. "We still have very poor representation in government and in high-level professional office. Women are in the majority. It's not that they don't work. It's just that they don't get to high positions frequently enough, and they don't get paid enough.
"There are always roadblocks in their progress toward the top," she added. "And unless women are sitting in boardrooms and sitting in seats where they actually affect policy, nothing will ever change. Because there is always going to be exploitation. That's part of human nature."