One Less Empty Chair?

By Laura Barcella, Yahoo Style

For many feminist-minded women, speaking out about our most painful truths—especially online—is just, well, what we do. It’s expected of us, in a way, considered par for the course when we’re trying to make our voices heard, and seen as a near-necessity when we’re trying to leverage those voices into concrete tools for broader social change. But that doesn’t make speaking out easy, and it certainly doesn’t make it safe.

This is why observing the powerful reach of New Yorkmagazine’s recent story “I’m No Longer Afraid”—shared 161,000 times as of this writing—was beyond inspiring. And the article itself? Well, it was nothing short of groundbreaking. In the magazine’s cover story, 35 of the 46 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting them sat down to recount their memories of what he allegedly did to them.

The women were photographed for the cover in black and white, lined up next to each other in chairs, with one empty chair symbolizing the survivors who have yet to come forward. Though the accusers range in age from their 20s to their 80s, the commonalities they share—most recall being drugged and assaulted in various ways by a trusted public figure they considered a mentor—are both horrifying and awe-inspiring. Witnessing so many women willing to risk public scorn to stand up against a man who had, as Hannibal Buress said last year, a “Teflon image,” feels beyond brave.

But this wasn’t the first time a group of women from divergent paths came together to speak truth to power in the pages of a magazine. Back in 1972, in the very first issue of the pioneering feminist magazine Ms., a group of 53 women signed a public statement saying that they’d had abortions (some of them had not, but they signed as a show of support for a woman’s right to choose).

The “We Have Had Abortions” petition was endorsed by the powerful likes of Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Anais Nin, Lee Grant, and Billie Jean King. It was a loud-and-proud public statement meant to pressure the national government into legalizing and legitimizing a fundamental reproductive right. It also helped encourage women not to feel ashamed about exercising that fundamental reproductive right. It’s believed that one little Ms. story helped lay the foundation for Roe v. Wade’s passing the following year, as well as for helping to pave the way for the “I Had An Abortion” movements that sprung up in feminism more recently.

Back in 2011, New York ran a story called “An Oral History of Ms. Magazine” in which some of the women associated with the 1972 Ms. petition recalled the significance of the feature and the cultural shift it helped spark. In the oral history, Letty Cottin Pogrebin explained of her involvement, “I thought it was especially important because as a wife and mother of three, I could not easily be accused of being a ‘baby killer.’ Almost all my friends had had abortions. I wanted everyone to admit it.”

New York’s current Cosby feature has the potential to carry similar weight. Though it’s doubtful the disgraced performer’s accusers will see justice in any formal legal sense—the statute of limitations will probably prevent Cosby from ever being tried in court—their stories have already prompted a painful and profound discussion about rape survivors under the hashtag #TheEmptyChair.

Writer Ashley C. Ford tweeted, “The power of standing together and sharing our stories as victims or survivors of rape is undeniable, but it is not required of us.” She’s right, of course; speaking out is important, but it can also be dangerous, and no woman should feel pressured to put her life, reputation, job or sanity on the line to serve some murky “Feminist Good.”

But it helps, at least a little, to see the flood of support women can (albeit occasionally) receive when they make the bold choice to be frank and unapologetic about the traumas and injustices they’ve suffered. If the Cosby accusers’ bravery inspires just one more survivor to take a seat at the table—to reclaim that empty chair—it would be a great thing.