Today the media is filled with pundits talking about sexual misconduct. Examples drawn from Capitol Hill include Roy Moore (Senate candidate from Alabama), Al Franken (Senator from Minnesota), past Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, and current President Donald Trump. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner recently started a 21-month prison sentence for sexting with a minor. We also watched Fox News terminate CEO Roger Ailes and political commentator Bill O’Reilly for their sexual misbehavior. Hollywood finally stopped legendary producer Harvey Weinstein who proclaimed that he “needs help” for a sexual addiction, hoping the public will accept this explanation of years of abhorrent treatment of women whose careers he could, and did, affect. In athletics, we heard Olympic gymnast and gold medalist Aly Raisman report about the years of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the team physician Larry Nassar.
These are sensational and heartbreaking stories, but they are only the tip of the iceberg, and many women are now speaking out about sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual intimidation, and sexual discrimination by men in positions of power. Such a large group coming forward gives us hope that change—positive and permanent cultural change—is actually beginning, that it can actually happen.
Yet, each generation of women can recall stories (think Anita Hill and Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas in the 90s or Senator Ted Kennedy and his brother’s secretary Mary Jo Kopechne in the late 60s) that were temporarily sensational and personally destructive, but that ultimately went nowhere. They quickly faded into the media background and to the backgrounds of our minds, their demise orchestrated and overshadowed by men who wielded power.
Will this time be any different? Do we finally have enough women in the national legislature, in elected positions of all levels, in print and online media, in corporations that purchase advertising, and in leadership positions to insist on cultural change? Is there finally a critical mass of women speaking out so that sexual misconduct can no longer be hidden and will no longer be tolerated by our society?
As in the past, women are the ones being challenged to stop the perpetrators. Women are always admonished to rise up and take a stand at the voting booth, in the workplace, on university campuses, and in our communities. This has been the repeated refrain over the years, and, as women, we acknowledge our responsibility.
But, perhaps, instead of just women, it will be the millennial generation of women and men who, together, will bring about what has eluded previous generations. Will they say, “Enough!” and work to stop sexual assault and harassment. Will they require fairness and equal opportunity regardless of sex or gender or power differentials? Or, will the world simply turn on its axis and the next generation will face the same challenges as today and in the past? My money is on the millennials.