Oprah Winfrey, accepting the 2018 Cecil B. DeMille Award, speaks onstage during the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 7, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif. PAUL DRINKWATER / NBCUNIVERSAL VIA GETTY IMAGES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This Life: Was Oprah right? Is a new day on the horizon for women?

A lot of folks seem to believe that Oprah’s acceptance speech Sunday night at the Golden Globes was a stump speech.

Whether it was or not, it certainly fueled speculation about a 2020 run for president. I don’t know about that, but there’s no doubt the Oprah Effect was in full force. By the time she was done wringing our collective hearts, both men and women were on their feet, some with tears streaming down their faces.

I didn’t have quite that reaction, but because I love a good story, I hung on her every word — those first few in particular where she described sitting on the linoleum floor of her mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards.

Bancroft opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.”

Oprah went on to recount the story of Recy Taylor, the young wife and mother who in 1944 was walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Ala., when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road.

“The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted,” she said. “Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

Recy Taylor, shown in her home in Winter Haven, Fla., died last month at age 97, but her impact lives on. Oprah Winfrey highlighted the story of Taylor’s 1944 rape by six white men during her speech at the Golden Globes. AP PHOTO / PHELAN M. EBENHACK, FILE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For Oprah, it was Bancroft’s five little words uttered in 1964. For me and I suspect for a lot of others, it was these seven little words spoken Sunday by Oprah herself that took hold of me: “a new day is on the horizon.”

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I wondered about that, but the optimism was palpable. Women felt hopeful. They say the handwriting on the wall indicates that yes, Oprah is right. A new day is coming.

Emily Orlando, an associate professor of English and former director of the program in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Fairfield University, thinks so. So do Paige Meltzer, director of Wake Forest University’s Women Center; Anne Blaschke, visiting assistant professor of history at College of the Holy Cross; and Terri Boyer, director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.

Those seven words reminded Orlando of the African-American poet and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who spoke of “a brighter coming day.”

“I felt like Oprah was channeling something divine,” she said shortly after the awards show, “but none of this progress would be possible without the public and private work of the many generations of women and men who labored before us.”

Orlando said that American women have been organizing in the name of equal rights for all citizens at least since 1848.

“What’s disheartening is that for generations, the abuses that have now come to the forefront had been disregarded

What You Need to Know: Oprah Winfrey

and swept under the rug,” she said. “Women who spoke up were blacklisted, their careers and their lives destroyed. It’s particularly insidious that people knew and cheeks were turned.”

That changed with the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and for the first time, people started to talk about and take allegations of sexual abuse seriously.

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“There’s a heightened awareness the likes of which I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said Orlando. “The new consciousness is trickling into every profession and every discipline. People are being held accountable. I don’t see how we can go backward into silence from here.”

For Meltzer, the evidence is in the diverse, inclusive social movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter being led by women of color; and movements supporting cross-class and cross-sector solidarity, seen by the letter of solidarity sent from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (a national farmworker women’s organization) to women in the entertainment industry in November and the launch of Times Up Legal Defense Fund last week.

“#MeToo and #TimesUp movements are shifting the national conversation,” Meltzer said. “We see it in how people believe the experiences women and men share who come forward about sexual harassment and in how people aren’t treating sexual harassment as a women’s problem to solve.”

That Hollywood would use the stage for activism isn’t all that unusual, Boyer said. The inclusion of those outside that circle was.

“It wasn’t just the privileged (mostly white) Hollywood elite, but that several of those elite brought women activists whose identities and experiences were vastly different from their own — and yet they were finding commonality,” she said. “This is just a start, but if the movement continues, with all women coming together and saying, your problem is my problem, even with acknowledgment of our difference, then our unified strength will lead to a truly ‘new day.’”

Blaschke said that what stood out for her was Oprah’s empathy, energetic anger, and extensive use of historical context in highlighting the bravery of “the women we’ll never know.”

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“While previous feminist ‘waves’ have wielded powerful tools to demand equality — for example, the vote, the courts, boycotts, picketing, consciousness-raising — Oprah embodied two that our current ‘fourth wave’ uses in abundance: outrage and empathy,” Blaschke said. “She showed a respect for historically powerful role models and for the relevance of the past to our current moment as women and men who have suffered abuse find solidarity and women across industry receive lower paychecks than their brothers, sons, dads, partners and husbands.”

In addition, the entertainment mogul deftly bridged the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements for gender equality, pointing out how many fields still pay women significantly less than men and how consistently, in American history, women of color have held jobs in which they’re particularly vulnerable to sexual predation, Blaschke noted.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Oprah suffused a speech about the essence of feminism right now — female and male survivors and allies supporting one another and demanding full equality — with historical resonance,” she said. “But if previous feminist movements offer perspective, perhaps they remind us that the work will have to continue innovating, long beyond the entertainment industry’s glamorous awards season.”

So we’re left with the question that everyone seems to be asking — will Oprah run?

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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