From experience, women often assume that any opposition to power will produce retaliation followed by retrenchment: not only that any progress made will be clawed back, but that those pushing for it will be punished. While often realistic, fear of blowback can impede insistence on change and the collective mobilization it requires. Anxiety about backlash, however well founded, keeps one’s antennae endlessly attuned to giving power what pleases (and please pacifies) it. This contributes to keeping dominance in place.
When I was working in the early 1970s to shape the concept and create the legal claim for sexual harassment when it did not exist, I called the organization then called 9to5 and explained to the woman who answered the phone what I was trying to do, asking if she would be willing to talk with her members about my project on unwanted sexual attention and pressure at work. She finally called back, saying they could not help.
Me: Why is that? Her: Our members think this would take away their only source of power. Me: I thought this was about a source of their powerlessness. Her: I understand what you’re saying, but we can’t help right now. Maybe later.
The organization grasped the issue soon after, but mistaking powerlessness for power hardly began recently and has hardly gone away. Among its underlying dynamics, together with maintaining an illusion of control when one is being controlled to hold onto self-respect, is a fear of the consequences of challenging a power seen as unchangeable, as inevitable, as well as omnipotent. Retaliation can be especially acute when one behaves as if one has rights. But #MeToo is giving the lie to the totality of male sexual entitlement, and is finally exposing the price of not challenging its power.