In the workshops, she told the anonymized stories of famous Black women who had experienced sexual violence. Using quotes the women gave in interviews, Burke shared the women’s own accounts of their experiences before categorizing them — as rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse. At the end, she revealed who they were: Oprah, Gabrielle Union and Maya Angelou, among others.
“These girls couldn’t believe that the Black women they adored and admired had dealt with the same things and gone on to be somebody important and celebrated,” Burke writes in her new book, “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement,” published last month.
Through those workshops, “I was trying to make the connection that these were regular girls, they went to school just like you, and unfortunately some of the same things that happened to you happened to them,” Burke told The Lily. After she revealed the celebrities’ identities, she gave the girls the opportunity to disclose whether they had had any similar experiences by writing two words on a piece of paper: “Me too.”
Burke didn’t know that she was planting the seeds of a global movement that would unfold both online and offline four years ago this month. She was credited for her years of activism soon after the New York Times published its October 2017 exposé of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, prompting the #MeToo hashtag to go viral after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the words. But “very few people asked about what that [early] work was,” Burke said.
She did see a direct connection between those early workshops she ran and the resonance of those famous White women’s allegations against Weinstein: “We get it in our minds that [celebrities] are exempted from the same types of pain, the same types of shame that we carry,” she said.
According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, the country’s largest survivor advocacy organization, nearly half a million Americans 12 and older are the victim of sexual assault or rape every year. Native American and Black girls and women have also been shown to experience higher rates of rape and sexual assault than White, Asian and Latina women, according to a 2013 Department of Justice report.
As a child, Burke also became a survivor: She was raped when she was 7 — an experience that informed her life’s work supporting survivors, she said, and that she therefore felt compelled to write about in “Unbound.”
But prior to doing so, “I had safeguarded my story very deliberately for the last four years,” Burke said. “Part of that intention has been because I really believe as survivors … a lot of times, our credibility is predicated on our trauma.”
That’s changed since 2017, Burke believes, thanks to the groundswell of support and attention survivors have received as a result of coming together to say #MeToo. “There’s less of a need for receipts, if you will,” she said of the current moment. “I think we are moving closer to … where people who come forward don’t have to sort of cut and bleed for people to give them the credibility to represent the movement.
“One of the big functions of the literal words ‘me too’ is that they are enough that if I say ‘me too,’ you don’t have to know if I was raped as a child … you just have to know that we are connected by a shared experience, and that experience is not the physical thing that happened to us, but what that thing left us with,” she added.
Since 2017, the movement has been credited with leading to a slate of policy changes around sexual harassment and the resignations and firings of powerful men — among them former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, “Today” show host Matt Lauer and talk-show host and “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Charlie Rose. Men accused of wrongdoing have also been held accountable under the law: Harvey Weinstein is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting two women, and faces 10 additional counts of rape and sexual assault in California (Weinstein pled not guilty to those counts in July); last month, a jury found the singer R. Kelly guilty on nine federal sex trafficking and racketeering charges in a case that some activists hailed as a turning point for Black women, given the work many did to hold him accountable.
By other measures, the movement seems to have stalled: In June, Bill Cosby was released from prison after nearly three years behind bars due to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that he was wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting a woman, which some survivors saw as a setback for the movement.
Burke prefers to judge the movement’s success by another metric: how it has impacted the lives of survivors themselves, pointing to the fact that 4.7 million people used the hashtag within the first 24 hours of when it went viral.
“That is an opening of possibility” of healing for those millions of people, Burke said.
That hashtag also opened doors — and took different forms — for survivors around the world, according to “Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Womens’ Rights,” a book written by Meighan Stone and Rachel Vogelstein and published in July. (Burke wrote the book’s foreword.)
Despite the fact that women in more than 100 countries used the #MeToo hashtag to demand change in their societies, “we found that the story of the movement’s global impacts was largely untold,” according to Stone, who currently advises the nonpartisan voter registration website Vote.org and previously worked as president of the Malala Fund. “There’s been so much attention on women in the U.S. and maybe Europe, but we haven’t heard what women in Africa, what women in the Middle East and Southeast Asia … have been able to achieve and realize.”
Those gains, Stone added, have been both “transnational and interconnected, but also hyper-localized. In “Awakening,” the authors document how the #MeToo movement unfolded in seven countries: Brazil, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sweden and Tunisia.
In Nigeria, women throughout the country used the hashtag #ArewaMeToo to show support for women speaking out against sexual assault in the country’s northern region — its most repressive for women — after Khadijah Adamu, a 24-year-old blogger and pharmacist in the north, shared her account of a former boyfriend threatening to kill her (“Arewa” is the Hausa word for “north”). Survivors also took the movement to the country’s educational system, leading BBC Africa Eye to produce the 2019 documentary “Sex for Grades,” which investigated the culture of sexual harassment at some of Nigeria’s and Ghana’s top universities. Outrage following the film prompted the creation of a national sex offender registry and the Nigerian Human Rights Commission to open investigations into sexual and gender-based violence, according to “Awakening.”
Other countries’ movements began before the #MeToo hashtag took hold in the United States: in 2013, a 28-year-old Brazilian journalist named Juliana de Faria founded a website and created a hashtag — #ChegadeFiuFiu, Portuguese for “no more catcalling” — that prompted thousands of women to share their stories of street harassment. Two years later, de Faria started another: #MeuPrimeiroAssedio, or “my first harassment,” which eventually morphed into Spanish (#MiPrimerAcoso) and spread to western Europe and Southeast Asia.
Stone sees these events, and the others detailed in the book, as proof of how digital tools have “democratized the movement” for survivors: “We’ve seen women visibly leading and calling for change who are from across a spectrum of backgrounds,” she said. “We saw the ability to be able to go to Twitter, go to Facebook and organize in really deep, meaningful ways was a game changer.”
Through the book, she and Vogelstein “wanted to show that this movement is open-sourced and extremely effective, and also show the tactics that really worked in different countries,” she said.
And those tactics are finally being taken seriously, Stone believes, thanks to Burke and the movement she has led.
“I firmly believe that Tarana Burke’s work and the #MeToo movement’s global impacts are part of why we are finally paying attention to the harassment, assault and violence against women globally,” Stone said.
For Burke, the last four years “have been about trying to build and sustain this movement before it goes off the rails and becomes a hashtag that’s forgotten or becomes something that’s just about men who cause harm,” she said. “We have been trying to keep laser-focused on survivors.”
But Burke hopes the movement continues to grow, particularly in spreading the understanding that it’s “not just a women’s movement,” she said: “We live in a world that is increasingly understanding the fluidity of gender, so we have to be clear that everybody [affected] doesn’t identify as a woman.”
And “men often get framed only as perpetrators and people who cause harm, and there’s very little space made for them as survivors,” she added. About 3 percent of men in the United States have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, according to RAINN.
But Burke isn’t blind to the progress the movement has made over the past four years: “I think what we’ve made possible is the millions of survivors who feel comfortable coming forward,” she said. “I think we’ve made it possible for people to see healing as a possibility.”
Back in her early days doing “me too” workshops in Selma, she had “limited resources and even less community support,” she writes in “Unbound,” adding that people saw her efforts as “social work” rather than part of a broader social justice movement.
Now, she said, more people finally see “the fight to end sexual violence as a social justice issue that we should all be a part of.”