There’s this thing that women do: they’re in a meeting, say, or at a dinner party and they hear something that bothers them. A comment about someone’s breasts, perhaps, or being mansplained the geography of the neighbourhood they’ve lived in for five years by a man who has been there exactly once. They feel a little hit of rage, but let it pass. It’s not worth it, they think, then they soldier on.
But, later that day, the rage comes back. It boils and bubbles like a soup that’s been on the hob too long. “I was probably just imagining it,” they think, in an attempt to make it go away. “There is no point in saying something — this is how men are.”
For most of human history, the story stopped there. The ass-grab by the boss gets brushed off as an offhand gesture. The junior colleague constantly expecting you to make the tea gets chalked up as a misunderstanding. The lingering stare and smacking noises coming from the leering builder were just because he was lost in thought.
But things have changed.
The ousting of larger-than-life American TV host Bill O’Reilly by Fox News is stunning, breathtaking proof of that. For Brits, it’s quite hard to grasp the pull that O’Reilly has had on American life for two decades. As Lauren Collins once deftly noted in The New Yorker, “In Britain, unlike in the United States, television tends to be a dignified affair, while print is berserk and shouty.” Television in the US is the inverse of that and Bill O’Reilly more or less pioneered the "beserk and shouty" tenor of cable news today. Naturally, he did it with the default self-assuredness that privileged white males — even those with bad skin, a paunch and patchy hair — are born with.
From the time I can remember being cognisant of politics as a teen growing up in America, I knew Bill O’Reilly was the opponent of all that was good, progressive and true. And not only did this man get a newspaper column or an occasional slot on a morning show, he got to man the desk of his own show, where he invented facts and realities long before Donald Trump was a politician.
I think we often forget what the biggest thing that’s changed in the era of modern feminism is: our collective consciousness
But, now, he has been dethroned. He was fired after an exposé revealed that Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, stood by him as he and the company settled five cases brought forward by women over sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour. It’s true that his time slot will be replaced by yet another default white male, Tucker Carlson, whose most recent viral moment was inviting prodigious Teen Vogue writer Lauren Duca on to his show, only to tell her to “stick to the thigh-high boots — you’re better at that". But, still, the way O’Reilly was dethroned is worth considering.
On Thursday, feminist writer and de-facto Trump-resistance leader Rebecca Solnit wrote on Facebook: “O’Reilly fell because women spoke up, journalists listened, then people organized.” While it’s notable that 20th Century Fox stood by their man in the face of numerous allegations until it hit them in the earnings statement — roughly 80 advertisers pulled their slots from O’Reilly’s show after a New York Times investigation was published on April 1, totalling an estimated $35m — it’s the first part of Solnit’s statement that really matters.
For literally centuries of human history, women have not spoken up because everyone in power has been a man. They didn’t speak up when the most powerful man in conservative America called them “hot chocolate,” as an African American clerical worker claims O’Reilly did to her. They didn’t speak up when the head of the network they were a star at asked for sexual favours in exchange for career advancement, as Fox’s founder Roger Ailes allegedly did to now-defected host Megyn Kelly. Similarly, there were women at the BBC, I’m sure, who knew what was up with the glaringly creepy Jimmy Savile for years. That none of them were in charge or empowered to say something is why he got away with it for so long.
In other words: these things, no doubt, have always happened. These things, no doubt, have always bothered women. The difference is now, when the rage resurfaces, we find ourselves less willing to suppress it.
This is important because, these days, it can feel like feminism is making precisely zero progress. Look at who’s in the White House. Look at how men look at you on the Tube when you dare to wear a sundress. Look at #Legsit, for Christ’s sake. And look at how we ceaselessly argue about what feminism is and who’s doing it right. In the face of all this frustration, I think we often forget what the biggest thing that’s changed in the era of modern feminism is: our collective consciousness.
When I first moved to London in 2011, “street harassment” was yet to be part of the everyday lexicon. There was literally no term for that rage you feel when a man disrespects you in public — but doesn’t do something unlawful or egregious enough that warrants calling the police. I felt the rage, but I didn’t know what to call it. Now, thanks to the work of people like Laura Bates and the Stop Street Harassment campaign, I do. When a man grabbed my arm on Old Street the other week — acting on his instinctive entitlement to my body and disguising it as a compliment — I knew what to call it. I knew why I felt rage. I put it on Twitter and I didn’t suppress it.
Had the women at Fox News done what women have historically done — suppress their rage to get through life — Bill O’Reilly would be on TV tonight. The reason he’s not is because women like the ones who spoke up at Fox have, quite simply, had enough. They named their rage and people listened. That, more than anything else, is what we have modern feminism to thank for.