Turning the Page: Dissecting the State of Women in America

Turning the Page: Dissecting the State of Women in America
Words by KC Orcutt, as published on @Medium

Pinpointing how we will remember this moment in time, as documented through hashtags such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.

On November 8, 2016, my roommates and I sat around our living room in Brooklyn, gathered around our TV. We knew it was going to be a long night ahead. By the time the pizza we ordered had long been devoured, things were looking grim. Our conversations had faded into a surreal silence, as reporters’ commentary filled the room and composed our tweets for us with energy and grim precision we couldn’t quite muster. Well past 3AM, we collectively stared at the screen baring the election results, glanced at one another without saying a word, then went to into our rooms to process how this was even possible, numbly drifting into long-awaited sleep. The next morning, it wasn’t just some twisted nightmare; Donald Trump would soon become president.

Three days later, I finally had something to say, something that had been collecting dust, kept safe compartmentalized in the back of my brain for a decade. Through my introspection about my own experiences as a victim of sexual assault, it dawned on me that Trump’s pompous behavior was more triggering than any bottom-barrel filth I had absorbed (and accepted) being a female fan of hip-hop music, and now, this foul-mouthed manipulator with a history stained with womanizing antics was going to be President Barack Obama’s predecessor?

Simply put, this man, who was elected into the highest office of our nation, is an abuser of women, and the combination of his wealth, his whiteness, his arrogance and his power proved to be both lethal and afford him the opportunity to be immune to even a drop of accountability. That November, the country — namely white voters — chose a racist, serial misogynist as president over a woman for reasons we’re still debating and discussing, all while hate crimes, police brutality, mass incarceration, crimes against women and other societal problems continue to plague us from coast to coast. At least nineteen women have come forward detailing allegations of sexual assault against the president of the United States and, to date, it hasn’t really mattered. Except, perhaps, for the women who have set their truth free, much like I chose to do as well.

In the time that has followed since America has been under Trump’s command and fixated on his unceremonious Twitter usage, women have refused to stay silent, with the words “grab them by the pussy” lingering around the corner from every political headline. We’ve seen hashtag movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp take over our timelines, we’ve seen men like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein have their careers be overshadowed by the irreversible unveiling of their reprehensible behavior towards women (despite the fact only one has become a convicted felon), we’ve seen Time Magazine choose a collection of prominent activists as their annual “Person of the Year” accolade (deeming them “the silence breakers) and we’ve seen millions across the globe actively participate in protests, marches and demonstrations bringing the movement to life beyond a computer screen.

As we fight against sexual harassment and abuse, body shaming, workplace discrimination, unequal pay, mansplaining, being catcalled on the street, domestic violence, rape culture, justice for women, toxic masculinity and more, it’s hard not to wonder what all of these hashtag movements will lead us to in the days, years and decades ahead. A hundred years ago, the generations that came before us fought for women’s suffrage, a movement that signified the first wave of feminism, reminding us that just because another Women’s History Month has come and gone, the work and the conversations don’t simply get neatly tucked away and comfortably set aside until next March rolls around.

As the fourth wave of feminism continues, one that has grown robotic legs thanks to the ever-growing visibility of social media (as well as one that has brought to light a global classist issue that gives those with the access to technology the loudest voices) one cannot ignore that a cultural shift is happening. With a newfound, razor-sharp focus on gender equality and justice for women, the movement has taken on several forms and various campaigns, including #NiUnaMenos (Spanish for “Not one (woman) less”), #YesAllWomen, #FreeTheNipple, #MeToo, #TimesUp, #StopTellingWomenToSmile (#STWTS), #WhatWereYouWearing, #YouOkSis, #SurvivorPrivilege, #WhyWomenDontReport, #SupportSexWorkers, #AskHerMore, #IStandWithPP (Planned Parenthood), the Everyday Sexism Project, 10 Hours of Walking in New York City as a Woman, Amber Rose’s annual Slut Walk and more.

“Women’s empowerment has been going on for a long time but I feel it started being more noticeable a couple of years ago,” Inés Vogelfang, an Argentinian filmmaker currently living in New York, asserts. “In 2015, we had Ni Una Menos, which was a movement that started because we’ve been having a lot of domestic violence-related killings in Argentina and the justice department wasn’t doing anything. I think that in countries like mine, people have started to be more conscious about gender differences and equality. With the movement in Hollywood and the movement around the world, social media is amplifying the voices of women who have been fighting for equality for a long time.”

Part of using social media, an aspect that this current wave of feminism inherently depends on, lies with keeping the conversation going. People are using their platforms to talk about issues that may not have been adamantly spoken about before, marking a change in consciousness that feels larger than the hashtags themselves.

“The fact that we’re getting conscious already marks a positive change,” Vogelfang continues. “Once you see these problems, there’s no going back. It’s like someone put a pair of glasses on you and you have no choice but to wake up to it.”

Calling out injustices is a necessary component of these movements, and one where social media comes directly into play, with many women dedicating their lives and platforms to advancing such a mission. However, as exemplified by the tragic murder of Marielle Franco, one of Brazil’s most prominent human rights activists and politicians who was fatally shot earlier this year, female activists can represent everything that the people who are in power don’t want to support, which is exactly why the fight must continue.

Franco was educated, overcame her own struggles and was tirelessly doing important work for a marginalized community, becoming a symbol of the resistance that will continue to inspire others. As we will continue to see, there are parallels between the movements happening in the U.S., in Argentina, in Brazil, in India and all over the world: the battle cry is becoming stronger as it becomes more unified.

The 2017 Women’s March, for example, was a worldwide protest showcasing the volume of how many are willing to fight for women’s rights, immigration reform, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, religious freedom, worker’s rights and more, with the underlying message that women’s rights are human rights. With over 500,000 marching in Washington D.C. and over five million marching across the U.S., all while over 600 sister marches took place across the globe, millions participated, giving the movement a feeling of global solidarity. In the U.S., the march became the largest single-day protest in American history, drawing to light the next stage of the challenge: creating an effective long-term strategy.

“My experience being the face of the Women’s March surely did broaden my perspective about the future of women,” says Munira Ahmed, who was prominently featured as part of Shepard Fairey’s We The People collection of posters created in tandem with the Women’s March. “Simply seeing the face of a proudly and visibly Muslim woman of color, chosen by so many to become emblematic of their movement, was a big shocker. I did not think I’d get to see that in my lifetime. It definitely spoke volumes to witness that unfold right after all of us watched who just got sworn in to the presidency of this nation for the next four years.”

At the time, Trump tweeted his support of the march, mentioning the “beautiful weather” and the “lowest female unemployment in 18 years!,” with his commentary proving that he was not and would not be paying serious attention to the criticisms of him that the march would be predominantly addressing. Trump’s history of disrespecting women, immigrants and people of color has since been ushered into the White House with him, as he works with fervor to reverse the previous administration’s policies, particularly those in areas surrounding abortion, the wage gap and health care.

“There seems to now exist a greater sense of redemption, and unity, and compassion, and celebration of one another, that I personally feel had only been present within our immediate communities and tribes, but not so much in the broader scope until recently,” Ahmed continues. “For as far back as I can remember, our abusers and attackers were rarely, if ever, held fully accountable for their actions. So many of us never felt we could voice our experiences without suffering backlash within our communities, even from loved ones. This created divisiveness, even among us women. Common problems we’d often face like date rape, or workplace harassment, or being grabbed at by a random man on the street, were too often something we’d only share details about with a close friend or two, but not report or make public. It always felt as if we’d know deep down we did nothing wrong, but we also know society tends to place the brunt of the blame and judgment on the woman when they find themselves in those situations. Though this mindset unfortunately still persists, it is empowering to see that women can now come forward and speak truth to power, and the men who violated them can lose political elections, Netflix specials, brand partnerships, endorsement deals, and the respect of their fans and peers. It’s a beautiful thing to see that we no longer have to default to suffering in silence. And that soon, rapists and assailants can no longer continue to take advantage of this societal norm of women being too afraid or embarrassed to speak up when they are sexually assaulted. Perhaps one day, even a U.S. President will have to face the music for his sex crimes.”

While the latter still feels more likely to appear in fan-fiction than in real life, the momentum from the Women’s March is still bubbling beneath the surface, getting closer to a boil as time presses onward. With the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches shining a light regarding the ongoing fight for women’s rights and gender equality on a national scale, many across the country are continuously organizing and finding ways to empower one another right in their own backyard, such as through community events, workshops and panel discussions.

Beginning in October 2017, Christina Brophy decided to turn an experience she had attending an expo, one where she was catcalled by a vendor (ironically at an event highlighting women), into a new passion, organizing an event designed to inspire, motivate and empower women to drive change in their own lives and the world. Weeks after the inaugural Women’s Empowerment Expo took place in Ventura Country in Los Angeles, Calif., earlier this month, Brophy is still collecting emails from attendees expressing how this event opened their eyes to a new realm of possibility.

“I quit my job and put all of my time into planning this event just so women could have a space to shine,” Brophy explains. “I had nearly a dozen different women speak about topics such as sexual harassment, abuse, self-love, domestic violence, depression. I didn’t realize the doors that I opened for people just by organizing this event. Originally, I just wanted to create something inspirational and make sure resources were available but it’s lead to other opportunities for others to speak and share their stories. I’ve gotten over 50 emails in the past week alone saying how much the expo changed them and how they want to keep it going. It was really touching to know that this event changed people for the better and all it took was me bringing people together. Women are powerful when we come together; unity has been something that makes us even stronger.”

Along with her partner, Katherine Murillo, Brophy is currently planning the Los Angeles installment of the Women’s Empowerment Expo, which is slated to take place at a 2,000 capacity theater, with a change in venue size and location speaking to how the event has grown exponentially since its inception just under six months ago.

“I am a firm believer that this isn’t a moment, it’s a movement,” Murillo says. “It’s not going anywhere. One thing that has stuck with me was, when I was at the Women’s March in LA, I saw a sign that said, ‘Silence won’t save us but sisterhood will,’ and it’s so true. Every single woman you know in your life has a #MeToo story. Every single one of them. These stories have almost been tolerated by us for so long that they have become normalized. We’re in this period where now we’re calling out how this isn’t normal. I don’t have to stay silent about it, now I can be open about it. That’s not saying that all women have to come forward — I believe in doing it in your own space and in your own time when you are comfortable — but we are in a time where it’s not as acceptable as it used to be and I feel even bad saying that because it shouldn’t have been acceptable in the first place.”

Murillo, who also works as an on-air host at her local urban radio station and is launching her podcast this spring, has written on her personal blog about a variety of topics through her perspective, something she says has completely changed her own outlook and been met with tremendous support from her friends and colleagues alike.

“You’re seeing people transform pain into purpose,” she explains. “We all have some sort of pain and you’re slowly seeing that that transform and transpire into so much more that is helping other women to grow. Women are commending others who have come forward with their stories, saying, ‘Thank you for being so courageous.’ You never know how when you share something how it will help heal somebody.”

With more and more women sharing their stories and their truths, the importance of people reading beyond a headline or beyond mainstream media is also emerging to the forefront, especially as women are encouraging others to understand this movement through education.

“So much of our judgments come from misinformation,” Murillo continues. “That’s always why I encourage others to educate themselves, whether it be about feminism or #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo. Whatever it may be, educate yourself. This is what women have been dealing with for decades. It’s now coming to surface. Oh, I’m sorry this makes you uncomfortable, but imagine how I feel… At the end of the day, everyone can identify with pain. It doesn’t matter what gender or background, pain is pain.

Elsewhere during our conversation, Murillo also explained how she is grateful that the environment of the radio station that she works at is a respectful one, as well as how her co-workers have been extremely supportive of her advocacy efforts. However, as Murillo notes, the same respect can’t always be said for some of the artists who have appeared on the morning talk show alongside her and her male co-hosts, adding that she can’t choose how someone views her as a minority in her field but she can choose not to entertain it. Unfortunately, women who work in music can understand what Murillo means all too well.

“The music industry has no choice but to begin to acknowledge and take action against the disenfranchisement, harassment, and outright abuse that women deal with almost on a daily basis being in this industry,” Toniesha Payne, an urban digital marketing coordinating at a major label, says. “It’s sad to say but a lot of women in this ‘boys club’ of an industry feel marginalized, ignored, disregarded and disrespected. I’m happy that women are beginning to speak up and tell their stories. One of my favorite moments in music history was the amazing speech Madonna gave when she was named Woman of the Year at Billboard’s Women in Music awards in 2016. She took that moment to discuss the sexism and misogyny she faced throughout her career. She opened up her speech like ‘I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean a female entertainer.’ That stuck with me, ya know. Because so many women in the music industry feel like that or have felt that way at one time or another. I found that to be so brave because being a female in music and speaking about sexism has risk. It’s risky because you could easily face sexist bullying or be labeled as the ‘angry feminist bitch,’ or even be blackballed for sharing your story. Imagine speaking out about something so sensitive and being further victimized. Imagine the mental toll it takes on you.”

With the #MeToo movement bringing the stories of women to light, another hashtag has presented itself, #MusicToo. Although, as we’ve seen with allegations made against men such as R. Kelly, XXXTentacion, Kodak Black, 6ix9ine and as I type this, Fabolous, the music industry has a lot of work to do, beginning with accountability, or in same cases, simply addressing or acknowledging that the dialogue does in fact include them too. The music industry, in time, will be next to follow suit, now that Hollywood has begun setting a precedent of how to address said allegations of sexual misconduct in a way that has real consequences. As many can attest, this will not be an easy battle. The industry, by design, is not necessarily yet equipped to tackle these issues head on, making the issue that much more complicated. Consumers of hip-hop specifically have been programmed to separate the art from the artist, something that doesn’t necessarily reflect where the cultural conversation is going anymore. Slowly but surely, I believe the music industry will begin to embrace these topics after enough pressure from its driving force (the fans), especially as the accountability factor comes into play in new ways. Push will eventually come to shove, especially as hip-hop continues to grow and evolve.

“Men need to begin to enlighten themselves about what is going on, they need to check their colleagues and friends if they see them doing anything that is sexist and abusive,” Payne continues. “If we really want change and to make safer spaces within the music industry, we all have to be involved in this fight.”

While reflecting on the now-famous words Ava DuVernay shared, that “To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser. Because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours,” Payne also made note of how it is important to highlight and support the women who are in the trenches alongside her.

“Women [in rap] have fought against all the odds,” she continues. “I’m sure they have dealt with their fair share of abuse in this industry but they keep going and keep fighting and keep ending up on top. Women such as Karen Civil, Kei Henderson, JunglePussy, Shabazz, Kari Faux, Lola Plaku, Kesha Lee, Kodie Shane, Rico Nasty, Patience Foster, Europe Angelique, Loudy Luna… Of course, there are many more but all these women I named inspire me so much. These are powerful ass women in this industry that are standing ten toes down and claiming their throne. I love that so much. These women and myself are the definition of RECLAIMING OUR DAMN TIME. One other thing the music industry needs to address is how they treat black women in particular, as well as the LGBTQ community. Me being black, being a woman, and being gay is damn near like being black 3 times. I can go on and on about that.”

Anastasia Wright, owner of IMG Records and Agency also notes the importance of supporting other women who work in the music industry, often speaking on panels and offering her knowledge as the founder of a company that primarily employs, and works with, women.

“When I look back at this time… I feel it’s great to feel supported by fellow women,” she begins. “In my every day, walking down the street, I remember when women didn’t say hi to each other or compliment each other. Now, I see more of that happening. I think it’s great that there’s a larger underlying sense of yeah, I’m a woman, you’re a woman, let’s see how we can support each other and be there for one another in all these different spaces. Part of the sub-movements that comes with that is the self-care movement, something that I’m really happy about. Women are understanding that we have these spaces to express what we’re going through, and doing so doesn’t make us weak.”

When it comes to accountability in the music industry, Wright agrees that there’s a lot of work to be done, adding that she doesn’t see the same transition happening in music as we’re seeing in television and film.

“People stepping down because of an allegation or something of that nature is like a blip on the radar in the music industry,” she explains. “It’s different because accountability would have to happen at the highest level and the industry isn’t ready to do that. It’s just way more complex and I don’t think the necessary support would be there. I don’t think the music community is ready because we’re going to have to talk about some of our favorite people. We don’t want to talk about how certain rappers have hit their wives because they are some of our favorite rappers. People don’t want to talk about those things. It opens up a conversation that everyone is going to have partake in and I don’t think music is ready for that. There’s always going to be a double-edged sword, as well. I’m a woman; I listen to hip-hop. However, I do think artists should understand what they are promoting and why they are promoting it and they should be able to answer to that. If you’re promoting a certain message through your art, you should be able to answer to that.”

Marie Driven, the co-founder of Playbook Media Group, has eight years experience and counting working in the music industry, organizing events, handing publicity and representing artists, often thinking about how other women remind her why she does what she does.

“After a while when you’ve worked in music or in a male-driven field for so long, you start to lose the energy that you did before because of the obstacles that have been in your way,” Driven says. “But there are always reminders, such as women coming forward to give you props for your work or tell you that you inspire them, that remind you why you do this and why you got started in the first place.”

Through her company, Driven also organizes an annual brunch, honoring a variety of women who work in media and in the arts, with this year marking her third-annual event.

“A lot of women don’t get acknowledged for the behind-the-scenes work they do, and that’s not exclusive to music,” she explains. “I want my company to always acknowledge women, especially those that we may email with or meet at industry events or work with on a regular basis. I want to let other women know, I see you and I celebrate you.”

The same sentiment is true across college campuses, especially as students are helping lead the charge with a new dawn of activism upon us.

“I would describe this as the intersection in time where truth has found it’s vehicle,” Ankofa Chris, a student at Marist, explains. “The events that sparked these hashtag movements have been happening much longer than these hashtag movements themselves have existed. Same with the feelings about these events. But with the power of social media, we are able to widely and constantly practice our freedom of speech in holding each other accountable for what is ‘right.’ Like my mother says, ‘Be good even when you think no one is looking.’”

Chris also explains how grateful she is that she has grown up with a “powerhouse” for a mother and the women changing the world of which she is fortunate to be friends with.

“I would say the demographics of the people in activism have grown, if anything, thanks to the man who currently occupies the White House,” Chris adds. “There are greater bonds of solidarity in these marginalized groups and I only hope that they maintain this respect as each group transcends their obstacles. Even those who just wear t-shirts from Forever 21 with feminist sayings are still very much moving this movement forward.”

As we examine this moment in time as being a time of truth, or at least a time calling for the exposure of truth in new, amplified ways, the latter part of this decade will be remembered as a cultural shift for women across the globe. If we continue to carry the words and wisdom of those who came before us and honor the truth being spoken with every passing moment, the question of whether or not we were on the right side of history will become that much easier to answer.