When Oprah commands us to pay attention, many of us do. And so it was Sunday night when, at the first of the season’s gatherings of celebrities celebrating themselves, she embraced the cause of “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” On behalf of them, she declared: “A new day is on the horizon!”
Let’s hope so. But first we have to get past a media obsession with what they know best: celebrity and the handicapping of political contests.
Within minutes of her rousing speech as she accepted a lifetime achievement award during the Golden Globes ceremony, the media frenzy was not about “the women whose names we will never know” – the people Oprah had singled out: “They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
Instead, her powerful words were transmitted to us on television, radio and the internet as: Is Oprah running for president in 2020?
Frankly, like Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, I don’t give a darn. I do care that this moment not be lost – not the Oprah moment, but the fledgling efforts of women to be heard on issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault and economic equity. Since the fall, when shocking stories in the New York Times and New Yorker magazine ushered in a period of reckoning in a variety of sectors – from entertainment to news media to politics – the focus on celebrities has drowned out efforts on behalf of working class women.
One such effort, using the hashtag #MeToo, was launched a decade ago to address the problems of women “in underprivileged communities who don’t have access to rape crisis centers or counselors,” according to Tarana Burke, who has said she meant her Me Too movement to spawn “empowerment through empathy.” When Hollywood appropriated #MeToo, it went viral and influenced Time magazine’s selection of “The Silence Breakers” on sexual misconduct as the Person of the Year for 2017. Somehow the magazine’s cover of influential women left out Ms. Burke.
Now the focus on Oprah Winfrey threatens to overshadow a major effort to correct the imbalance.
On the eve of the Golden Globes, the awards presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to recognize achievements in television and film, a coalition of 300 women of Hollywood launched what they are calling Time’s Up. These actresses, producers, directors, agents and lawyers (including an old classmate of mine) have announced a range of actions, including setting up a multimillion dollar legal defense fund for women in low-wage jobs who are most likely to face workplace issues.
Of course, in lending a powerful voice to a cause, Oprah was doing what black women have done since taking up the abolition of slavery and women’s right to vote. Back then, as white women debated a course of action, the formerly enslaved Sojourner Truth reminded them to think more broadly, famously asking, “Ain’t I a woman, too?” In 1964, amid efforts to reform the political system, Fannie Lou Hamer, a farmworker and activist, famously told Vice President Hubert Humphrey and other Democratic Party officials, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Just last month black women in Alabama assured that a Democrat with integrity defeated President Trump’s candidate for the U.S. Senate, a Republican who would have difficulty defining the word.
In Hollywood Sunday night, about a half dozen women activists, including Ms. Burke of #MeToo, strolled the red carpet with leading actresses – all wearing black in response to Time’s Up’s call. A few days before, the activists had said in a joint statement: “Too much of the recent press attention has been focused on perpetrators and does not adequately address the systematic nature of violence including the importance of race, ethnicity and economic status in sexual violence and other forms of violence against women. Our goal in attending the Golden Globes is to shift the focus back to survivors and on systemic, lasting solutions.”
As Oprah herself noted, “this transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace.” Now if only media would focus on that rather than the 2020 campaign game.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.