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The Floodgates Aren't Open Until Working-Class Women Tell Their Stories

Until the women who clean hotel rooms and wait tables are part of the conversation, the floodgates aren't truly open.

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The string of powerful men taken down by long-suppressed charges of sexual assault and harassment has been nothing short of stunning. For the women who work in the entertainment and media industries where these men loomed largest, it is bringing up powerful emotions — trauma and rage, but also a new sense of power and hope. But what about the women making their lunch?

As outrage swells on behalf of the movie stars, models, artists, and writers whose stories of abuse are emerging in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, the voices of working-class women — who are the most vulnerable, and have the least recourse — are simply not being heard. There’s a long and unfortunate trend of the gains won by the women’s movement being distributed unevenly along class and race divides, and we’re in danger of continuing that pattern today if low-wage women continue to be excluded from this latest round of reckoning.

At best, any progress won will be limited if working-class women are left out. At worst, the already gaping class and race divides between women could be widened.

Like everyone I know, the “Weinstein effect” brought on a rush of bad memories for me, but relatively few of them came from my years in media and publishing. The worst of it happened when I was working in minimum-wage service jobs. As I absorb the daily deluge of predation and perversion, I’m returned not to the high-rise offices where I wrangled my first magazine assignments, but to the grease-splattered kitchen of the fast-food place where I spent evenings and weekends working for gas money in high school.

That was where a corporate “quality control” manager pressed his erection into the small of my back, his hairy arms circling mine as he demonstrated the proper way to fold the corners on a hamburger wrapper (my corners were fine; in fact, I took pride in them). It was where a night manager hid in the back of my Dodge Dart, nearly causing me to run off the road when he reached around in the dark and grabbed my breast as a “joke.”

Then there was the restaurant where I waitressed as a student, with drunken college reunion celebrants demanding my bra so they could hang it from the chandelier. These were the men who had the greatest power to silence me, because these were the jobs where I had the least power to do anything about it.

My years in the service industry were limited; I was lucky enough to go to college and get out of the industry. But few of the women I worked with had the same opportunity. According to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly two-thirds of the 20 million low-wage workers in this country are women, working as home health aides, child care workers, fast-food workers, restaurant servers, maids, cashiers, and the like. More than a quarter experience sexual harassment on the job, but few will encounter an HR manager, sympathetic or otherwise. Even fewer will have access to an investigative reporter looking to reveal the truth about their sleazy but obscure boss.

Instead, they’ll encounter men like my grandfather, who pulled a George H.W. Bush every time we went out to dinner, pinching the waitress’s butt while playing the buffoon. As a child, I wondered why these women forced a laugh and wriggled free rather than clocking him. As a teenager, I got it — they couldn’t afford to lose a tip, let alone their job. Now, as an adult and a mother, I wonder why my father pretended not to notice rather than telling his dad to cut it the hell out.

Our current moment, from the courageous women speaking out in the press to the #MeToo movement online, has a tremendous amount of power and potential — an "aha moment" at a scale we have not seen since Betty Friedan used the term so memorably half a century ago.

It would be a tragedy if that power and potential skips over the women who serve the lunches where the uncomfortable moments happen; who change the hotel sheets and wash the champagne flutes after the Weinsteins of the world have mucked up their lairs and moved on. For these women, retaliation for speaking out can mean losing not a mentor or a reference, but the job that feeds their kids.

I wonder how these women, who make up the silent (or silenced) majority of the female workforce, are feeling as actresses and editors tell their long-suppressed stories of grotesque encounters in New York hotels and Hollywood film sets. What might they hope to gain from this revolutionary moment, and will any of the promised changes “trickle down” to their workplaces? Or will they be left behind, again, by whatever reforms emerge?

One can even imagine a scenario where things could get worse for them, as powerful men learn to keep their hands off their professional peers, or anyone with access to a journalist’s ear or a widely followed Twitter account.

The story we’re choosing to tell ourselves is that “the floodgates are opening.” But for now, it’s more accurate to say that a small crack has formed in a very large and sturdy dike. For every actress hushed by a six-figure settlement, thousands more women are silenced by the threat of losing a minimum-wage job their families need to survive. Until we seek out their voices, and do the difficult and politically complex work needed to protect them, the #MeToo movement will look more like #WeFew.

Nell Bernstein is the author of Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Justice.