Archiving #MeToo

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By Judith Rosenbaum

Two refrains have been battling it out in my mind in the recent months of #MeToo activism: the syncopated beats (thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda) of “This is not a moment; it’s a movement” and the age-old “This too shall pass.” Both, of course, are true.

As a historian, I recognize the collective power that creates change, which can feel both like a spark lighting a fire and like rolling a boulder up a hill. And nothing illustrates that power more than the groundswell of #MeToo revelations in recent months, in which women – bravely recounting experiences of harassment and assault that they had previously shouldered privately – have forced a new social reckoning.

At the same time, I know too well that we’ve been here before. Social change isn’t linear or steady or always forward moving. Stories are compelling until they’re not, and we move on to the next issue or return to business as usual. We make small changes, symbolic sacrifices, and then we congratulate ourselves on a job well-done. We might remember and celebrate one person (Rosa Parks, Anita Hill). The others fall away.

This moment has a history. It’s the history of Tarana Burke, the grassroots activist who founded the “me too movement” more than ten years ago to promote “empowerment through empathy” among women of color who have experienced sexual abuse. It’s the history of Take Back the Night actions, in which women around the world and over decades have gathered together to protest violence against women. It’s the history of Anita Hill, who quietly and calmly, again and again, told her story of sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas to the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee, and was dismissed. It’s the history of the abortion speak-out, in which women spoke up publicly about an experience so many shared but never uttered, and insisted that they – not just male doctors – should have a voice in public debate about abortion’s legality. It’s the history of women garment workers, who organized other women by sharing their stories and who transformed the labor movement.

If you don’t know this history, that’s not an accident or a coincidence – it’s because women’s voices, experiences, and accomplishments have been left out of the historical record, undervalued, and erased. The work of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where I am the executive director, is to elevate women’s voices, return them to history, and return their history to all of us.

I’m a historian, not a clairvoyant, so I don’t know if or how the #MeToo movement will be different – if it will have staying power or succeed in making systemic change. But what I do know is this: women’s voices will not be erased when it comes time to write the history of this moment. I say this with confidence because the Jewish Women’s Archive is beginning an archival collection of #MeToo accounts to ensure that the stories that have created a social media tsunami do not recede but are preserved for posterity.

As part of the Jewish Women’s Archive’s commitment to illuminating and preserving underrepresented voices and stories in our communities, we invite you to share your unique experience during this watershed moment in our history and culture. We are interested in documenting Jewish women’s stories of harassment and assault – and the responses to them – both within the Jewish community and outside of it, at the workplace, schools, camps, homes, and beyond. Taken together, these stories illustrate the systems and structures that shape women’s experiences, as well as women’s collective power to make change. In other words, they contain within them both the problem and the seeds of its solution.

Of course, the stories we are collecting are just the beginning of the story of this movement. Telling our stories is not an end in itself – it is necessary but not sufficient. Thankfully, there are many wonderful people and organizations who are stepping up to create institutional change and who are pushing us to be ambitious in defining next steps in the #MeToo movement. But as we move forward, we would do well to hold onto these stories as record, because when we lose sight of the enormity and universality of this social problem, we are more easily distracted into believing our social ills can be solved with quick-fix, individual solutions.

JWA will preserve these stories for you, and for the greater good. Eventually, we may share or curate the material to tell a larger story (those who submit stories will be able to choose whether they would allow their story to be shared at all, and in what format). Collecting the stories comes first. But we know that a rich collection will offer up new insights, themes, and understandings, and we look forward to mining this archive and enabling its stories to speak and spark change.

Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a national organization that documents Jewish women’s stories, elevates their voices, and inspires them to be agents of change. Organizational partners of JWA’s #MeToo Archive include Avodah, #GamAni, Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, and Moving Traditions.