While researching a book in the mid- 1990s, I spent 67 days over 12 months in a Halifax courtroom listening as 35 women of every different age and social and economic circumstance—confidently/hesitatingly/ angrily/tearfully/matter-of-factly—walked a preliminary hearing through the particulars of what they claimed were unwanted sexual encounters involving one Gerald A. Regan.
Regan, then a prominent lawyer and politician, had served as premier of Nova Scotia for eight years, and as a federal member of parliament and cabinet minister—including, ironically, as the minister responsible for the status of women—for another six.
Although the allegations ranged all the way from unwanted kisses to rape and stretched over four decades from his beginnings as a country lawyer to his post-politics life as a member of corporate boards, there was a mind-numbing similarity to the descriptions the women (who did not know one another) gave of what they said happened to them. The attacks, they would testify, would inevitably begin without warning or preamble. He would “drive his tongue down my throat.” When it was over, he would “act as if nothing had happened.”
At the end of his preliminary inquiry (the details of which were banned from publication at the time), prosecutors decided to proceed to a full jury trial in only three of the most serious cases, those involving rape and attempted rape. Without having heard from his other three dozen women accusers, the jury took just eight hours to find Regan not guilty on all counts.
I couldn’t help thinking back to that case during 2017, the year of our painful societal shaking/awakening to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault: Donald Trump, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Mark Halperin, Ray Moore, Al Franken, George H. W. Bush, Louis CK, Travis Kalanick, and whoever comes next…
As the myriad, no-not-another-one accusations of sexual misconduct by powerful men in the worlds of politics, entertainment, media, technology and business roiled and unraveled the long accepted if unacknowledged order of gendered life as we have known it, I often wondered if the Regan case would have unfolded differently today.
By that, I don’t mean Regan would have been found guilty. Trials (witness more recent ones involving Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi et al) rightly set the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt bar high, making criminal convictions in what are often inevitably he-said/she-said cases that involve long-past incidents with little corroborating evidence chancy at best.
That said, I do wonder about the longerterm public impact of the Regan case. At the time—even absent a guilty verdict— the Regan revelations didn’t resonate much past its particulars. In part, of course, that was because the jury found him not guilty. But even if one believed the women, the conventional wisdom—at least among those who claimed to know and, often, to influence conventional wisdom—was that his was a singular case of individual bad behaviour rather than a systemic problem we needed to address.
What’s changed? Start, of course, with the never-filled, never-fillable 24-hour news cycle that demands new, and more, and next, and now. Add in the collapse of the old media gatekeepers, who for so long controlled what was, and was not, news. Don’t forget too the changing of the journalistic guard that brought more women into gate-keeping positions of opinion-shaping power. And then, of course, there is the ubiquitous pervasiveness of social media—Facebook sharing, viral tweets, public shaming, anonymous outings, digital pile-ons—that made the hashtag #metoo as inevitable as it is necessary.
And it is necessary. As a society, we have waited far too long to begin this conversation, far too long to question what too often happens at the intersection of power and opportunity, far too long to do something about it.