The year 2017 has been marked by a shift in the balance of power and a recalibration of roles and status. A new power is asserting itself in the world, and traditional holders of influence and authority are on the defensive. They are struggling to protect their status and legitimacy while the institutional order that represents traditional arrangements of authority and influence is imploding.
2017 has been called “the Great Reckoning” and “the year of the women’s march,” while Time magazine identified “the Silence Breakers” — women who spoke out against the systematic abuse of power by men — as its person of the year and the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared “feminism” to be its word of the year. No specific event made the year that concluded so monumental in this long overdue accounting. The election as U.S. president of Donald Trump, a man who bragged on tape about the ability of powerful men to abuse women as they chose, was not the trigger. Other White House occupants have committed equally disturbing acts of abuse against women.
If a single individual deserves that “credit,” it is Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in the movie industry, who used his position to become a political player, a taste maker and a serial abuser of women. Yet close examination suggests that it was not Weinstein who is the key to this transition in sentiment and its effect, but the victims themselves.
The victims whom Weinstein allegedly abused were some of the most visible and admired women in the world, and who, as a result, enjoyed power and privilege themselves. If they were unable to protect themselves from predation and victimization, then what hope is there for all the other women who did not enjoy that status, money or visibility? This exposure transformed the debate about the place of women in society — and not just in the United States — from one that focused on sex to one that instead centered on power.
Too often, debates about women take two discrete forms. In one, the issue is sexual or physical abuse, and the focus is on horrific images and tales of violence perpetrated against women. This contextualization allows most men to take comfort from that fact that this does not concern them as they do not indulge in such acts.
In the second debate, the focus is on the representation of women in society: the percentage of the workforce they represent, their average annual wage, and their representation in boardrooms and political assemblies. This is a dry, desiccated and depersonalized discussion, one that allows men to plead that they too are the victim — or at least unable to influence — anonymous forces at work on societies.
The events of 2017 merged those two strands, and made plain that the hardships experienced by women are linked. Their lack of representation within the power structure facilitates violence against them. This explains the potency of the #MeToo hashtag: It provided a way for ordinary women to share their experiences and gain a sense of empowerment through that sharing.
Those experiences are far too common. The World Health Organization estimates that one women in three is a victim of violence, either physical, sexual or psychological. According to the European Union, 45 to 55 percent of women over the age of 15 in Europe have experienced sexual harassment. The United Nations reckons that in some countries as much as one-third of adolescent girls’ first sexual experience is forced.
Fortunately, Japan has no figure to compare with Weinstein or Trump, but this country cannot dismiss this phenomenon either. According to 2016 government report, almost a third of Japanese women have been sexually harassed at work. One analysis shows that there were about 60,000 tweets on sexual misconduct over a recent two-month period in Japan, with a striking jump after one sharing of a single incident of harassment. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that “creating a society in which all women shine is one of the defining policies of Abenomics,” and his government set numerous goals to accomplish that objective. In some cases, he succeeded: The labor force participation of women has increased. In others, he has not and has had to scale back targets, such as in the representation of women in boardrooms. Without question, however, women here, as in other countries, do not have the access to power, success and opportunity that men enjoy.
The challenge now is to ensure that the awakening of 2017 does not end in inaction. Women must seize this opportunity and work with men to recalibrate power in their societies in ways that offer equal protections and equal opportunities for all. There is, in fact, no alternative.