#MeToo movement says it’s still standing strong after landmark conviction against Harvey Weinstein overturned

Activists say the campaign to empower survivors of sexual abuse is bigger than ever, and ready to counter the ultra-conservative initiatives aimed at rolling back women’s rights

Harvey Weinstein
Former producer Harvey Weinstein appears in court in New York.David Dee Delgado (REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

The #MeToo movement is today — seven years after producer and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein was met with a wave of accusations — a massive iceberg. The tip is made up of famous women, largely from Hollywood, who dared to break the silence around sexual violence perpetrated by powerful men. While the rest of the iceberg is made up of the thousands of anonymous women — unseen by the public — who, moved by these women’s example, also stepped forward and dared to denounce the intrinsic impunity of power relationships at work, and by extension in life. That’s why the movement sees the New York Court of Appeals’ decision to overturn the first conviction against the powerful Hollywood producer as a setback, but not as a defeat: the fear of speaking out is gone.

The court’s decision to overturn the historic verdict, which saw Weinstein sentenced to 23 years in prison in 2020, means that there will be a retrial. The co-founder of Miramax, however, will remain in prison for a separate rape conviction in Los Angeles. But as it was a landmark ruling, the setback has disappointed activists and survivors. Ashley Judd, one of the actresses who led the charge against Weinstein, called the overturning of the conviction was “institutional betrayal.” “This is what it’s like to be a woman in America, living with male entitlement to our bodies,” said the actress.

Douglas Wigdor, a lawyer for eight of the women who accused Weinstein, called it “a major step back in holding those accountable for acts of sexual violence.” “Overturning the verdict is tragic in that it will require the victims to endure yet another trial,” he added.

Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center and co-founder of the legal defense fund Time’s Up, said the decision was a “step in the wrong direction, devastating news for the Silence Breakers, the brave women who at great personal risk told their stories of sexual abuse in 2019. We want them to know they are not alone.” “The decision,” added Goss Graves, “does not erase the truth of what happened. It does not alter the reality that Weinstein is a serial sex offender who exploited his power for decades. It does not alter the reality that he was also sentenced in 2022 in Los Angeles to 16 years in prison.”

Some of the survivors have already said they would be willing to testify again, even if it means reliving the trauma. Ambra Battilana, a former victim of Silvio Berlusconi in her native Italy and the first to denounce Weinstein in the United States, in 2015, said she would take the stand in a new trial, which Manhattan prosecutors expect to be held in the fall. But Battilana — who was not believed by the District Attorney when she first accused Weinstein in 2015, despite presenting a tape recording — was scathing of the U.S. justice system. “If the D.A. had taken my case seriously in 2015, we wouldn’t be here. This is an ongoing failure of the justice system — and the courts — to take survivors seriously and to protect our interests.” Battilana did not respond to this newspaper’s request for an interview.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a former assistant attorney in Manhattan and now a law professor at Northwestern University, explains why the sentence was overturned. “In most states, including New York, the law is designed to limit juries’ access to information about a defendant’s past ‘bad acts,’ including testimony about alleged sexual misconduct similar [to that on trial]. There are exceptions, which is why the trial judge allowed the jury to hear from three women who had not been victims of the crimes charged [against Weinstein],” said Tuerkheimer, author of Credible, Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers. “But the Court of Appeals,” she added, “disagreed with this evidentiary ruling. In a 4-3 decision, the Appeals Court held that the testimony of the three additional female accusers was improperly admitted, which meant that Weinstein’s trial was unfair.”

Some blame the decision to overturn the landmark verdict on the errors made by former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who built the case on Battilana’s initial complaint and who, according to some members of his team, was silenced by Weinstein’s all-embracing power. Now it is up to his successor, District Attorney Alvin Bragg — the prosecutor who accused Donald Trump in the Stormy Daniels case — to reactivate the trial.

The state Court of Appeals ruling reopens a painful chapter in America’s reckoning with sexual misconduct by powerful figures — an era that began in 2017 with a flood of allegations against Weinstein, and that spread beyond Hollywood. Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was found guilty of sexually assaulting more than 140 women over nearly two decades. While the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church has ruined many dioceses and put others in difficult spots.

For Jennifer Mondino, director of the Time’s Up legal defense fund, the overturning of Weinstein’s conviction was “a huge shock, a huge disappointment, especially for the women, who were so brave and shared so much pain for so many years.” But, she continued, “the court’s decision does not negate the truth of these women’s experiences, other courts [the one in Los Angeles] had already found him guilty, which means that millions of people heard their allegations.” According to Mondino, the clamor of the voices of thousands of women has allowed the movement “to move forward.”

Harvey Weinstein
Former film producer Harvey Weinstein appears in court on May 1.David Dee Delgado (REUTERS)

Legal defense fund for women

Backed by more than 300 women in Hollywood, the Time’s Up legal defense fund was born in 2018, months after the start of the #MeToo movement. It is aimed at supporting women, men, Black and LGTBQ+ people without access to media, and without money to file a lawsuit. “Since it was launched, we have assisted more than 5,000 people experiencing harassment at work, and three-quarters of the total identify as people of color and in low-paying jobs. The number is growing, because this is still a phenomenon that is present everywhere: in agriculture, in the cleaning sector, in restaurants; people who did not know that what was happening to them was sexual harassment, and now they do, that is the great strength of the movement,” explained Mondino.

But this progress is under threat by the systematic ultra-conservative offensive against feminist demands — the Supreme Court’s repeal of the constitutional right to abortion was the wake-up call of what is looming — and by the possible victory of Donald Trump in the November elections. Indeed, buoyed by the #MeToo movement, columnist E. Jean Carroll successfully sued the former U.S. president for sexual harassment — a feat that would have been unthinkable before. By revealing the criminal behavior of powerful figures, the movement also indirectly led to the arrest of pedophile tycoon Jeffrey Epstein, whose suicide in a Manhattan jail in 2019 prevented him from being tried for sex trafficking and sexual abuse of underage girls. It also led indirectly to a long list of cases against powerful figures from a wide range of fields.

“They are going to find we are even stronger,” said the director Time’s Up, alluding to the ultraconservative offensive “against reproductive rights, abortion and #MeToo itself. Their attacks strengthen us, because it is not the first time they have attacked us. We’ve faced criticism before, but the movement is much bigger than the women who make it up. Women together who are bringing change […] women who have built a community among themselves, have empowered each other and have empowered others.”

The #MeToo movement has been accused of only representing the white elite, and not the multiracial society that is the United States. But that has not stopped countless groups from embracing the movement. For Tarana J. Burke, a social activist with three decades of experience with African American women and girls, #MeToo “is more than just a moment in time; it is a commitment and a vision that are bigger than any hashtag or viral moment.”

In response to the court’s decision to overturn Weinstein’s conviction, Burke — who is the founder of one of the many #MeToo platforms — said: “This is not a blow to the movement. It’s a clarion call, and we are prepared to answer that call.” Burke claims to have coined the hashtag in 2006 to describe women victims of sexual violence, but it wasn’t until October 2017, when the article uncovering Weinstein’s abuse was published, that it finally saw global recognition. By 2018, the hashtag had been used on the social network Twitter (now X) more than 19 million times.

Thousands of women have now publicly stood up to denounce the powerful men abusing women in subordinate position. The recent setback in the courts, they say, is just a stone in the road: you just need to go around it to keep moving forward.

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