The common view is that we want more victims of abuse and harassment to come forward. Governments spend millions on awareness campaigns, with gritty directors signed up to help young people understand what consent means. They hit home. Awareness is good. I obviously don't disagree, I've dedicated my life and pretty much all of my political career to encouraging people to speak up. Just a word of caution, though: what happens when we do speak up, what happens next? We must not open a giant door into an empty room.
In 2017 we, the women of the world, yelled, hollered and shrieked #MeToo – the noise was deafening. Now we must turn that chorus into action. The women of the US seem painfully ahead of the curve on this subject thanks to the power, wealth and ultimately the courage of the women who came forward and the women who believed them. Those same powerful women have once again played a blinder and set up #TimesUp. Time’s Up is a campaign set up by a collective of women to raise legal funds for less powerful or wealthy women in every industry in America. It aims to help powerless women access legal support, and ultimately justice. Bravo ladies.
This week, glossy headshots of Eva Longoria, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon danced across my Twitter feed as I sat in my pyjamas receiving the stray children I had agreed to look after, as most of my mates had to go back to work, while I could work from home. As I read about what they were offering American women, I was reminded of the hundreds of emails I have received since the #MeToo campaign began. So much of the media coverage following the Weinstein dam breaking has been about big bad bosses in Hollywood or sleazy entitled men in Westminster. Somehow, even though we all screamed together, we managed to make the ordinary reality of the workplace into an “other”, a distant bogeyman. But the emails in my inbox tell a different story: a story of barmaids groped as a matter of course; of a retail worker who, during every single shift she works, has to tolerate the same man coming in to hassle her, a man who then hangs around after the shop closes waiting for her. Pages and pages of testimonials fill my days, from doctors’ receptionists and doctors themselves, women who work in the law, in publishing, in finance.
I have the same stories to tell: a boss who stuck his hand down my trousers then acted as if nothing had happened
Even today, I have been sent fresh stories of a woman sacked from work in the UK for speaking up, and a woman being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement to cover up for a man who raped her so that his reputation remains intact.
I have the same stories to tell: a boss who stuck his hand down my trousers then acted as if nothing had happened. The manager who said suck it up if the punters get a bit handsy when you are collecting the glasses. UK women need a collective backing up of their voices too. So as I sat in my pyjamas with my mate’s daughter, watching Beauty And The Beast, and saw #TimesUp trending on social media, I dropped a message to Caroline Criado Perez, feminist activist extraordinaire, saying: “Hey why don’t we do this here, fancy making sure this happens in the UK.” And there from my living room we plotted all day. Only 36 hours have passed and already many women and women's organisations like the Fawcett Society have been in touch to offer help, saying, “What can we do?” The women in the UK have made their voices hoarse speaking up in the last few months, we are buggered if people think we are going to stop now. We want action.
So watch this space: we have been talking to the brilliant and brave women behind this movement in the US. Give us a bit of time and I am pretty sure we will have something for the UK that means when abused and harassed women open that giant door, there is a room full of people to help them. Just as is happening in the US, it will be vital to crowdfund in order to offer legal support to people here who do not have the means to be as brave as they feel. We want companies to recognise that their responsibility is to the people who complain. No longer will we tolerate a workplace, or anywhere for that matter, where the abused are more scared to speak up than the abusers are of getting caught. Will you step forward to help us?
I would have started a revolution from my bed, but someone had to get up and give the kids some breakfast. UK women will pull together to get this done because, let’s face it, that’s our everyday reality. Let’s crack on with changing things.