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#MeToo founder has mixed feelings about how it unfolded

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The week before Tarana Burke walked down the red carpet at the Oscars on Sunday night, everyone asked her the same questions: "What's the statement?" "Are you all going to wear black dresses?" "Are you going to wear a rose?" The founder of the #MeToo movement told them: "We don't need another 'thing'. If we keep on 'making statements' and not really doing the work, we are going to be in trouble."

It was one Sunday morning in October last year when Burke awoke to find the movement she had founded in 2006 had taken on a life of its own. After it was adopted and hashtagged on Twitter by actress Alyssa Milano, multiple survivors of sexual assault were prompted to come forward. Overnight, the quiet work Burke had done spawned a social media firestorm, the kind of revolution that will be documented in history books.

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"But honestly, that morning I just felt panicked," says Burke, a warm and enthusiastic 44-year-old single mother. "I spent the first part of that day feeling like the work I had invested my life in was going to be erased by a simple tweet. Then I had this moment of total clarity."

Burke had founded #MeToo in the same year she set up Just Be Inc, a non-profit organisation for victims of sexual violence. Both were inspired by an incident that happened when she was working at a youth camp for troubled children in Selma, Alabama. "A sweet-faced little girl, Heaven, who had clung to me, told me that her stepdaddy was doing things to her," she says. Burke - who had been assaulted as a child by local youths - listened until she couldn't take it any more. "What happened to her was different from what happened to me, but some of the details were near enough. Why couldn't I bring myself to say: 'Me too - this happened to me too'?"

Burke's inability to help Heaven has haunted her for years. Even today, she says "talking about it brings up a lot of old feelings of guilt. Because in that moment I failed that girl." Skip forward 22 years and Burke is sitting at her desk in Brooklyn - where she now runs the non-profit organisation Girls for Gender Equity - trawling through outpourings of "me too" pain from women all over the world. "I'm looking at these and trying to figure out how to save my work, and then I realise: my work is happening right in front of me."

Ten days before #MeToo entered the wider public consciousness, Harvey Weinstein had been exposed by The New York Times for allegedly sexually assaulting a number of actresses. As the scandal grew, with a number of other high-profile men being accused, so did #MeToo. Within a week, the slogan had been used more than 12 million times; within two weeks it had reached 85 countries. But while initially it had been started as a cause for good, #MeToo became divisive, building walls as it broke them down between women young and old, but most of all between women and men, many of whom said they felt victimised.

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"It should never have become an 'us and them' thing," Burke insists. "#MeToo has been popular because of the moment we're in, but it's not really a women's movement: it's a movement for all survivors of sexual violence. Yes, women are the drivers because so many are victims, but we can't erase the boys who spoke up about Kevin Spacey or the millions of men who have been subjected to sexual violence, too.

"Men are not the enemy and we have to be clear about that."

The 100 French women - including film star Catherine Deneuve - who signed an open letter in January denouncing the "hatred of men and sexuality" supposedly prompted by #MeToo "are a perfect example of our need to unlearn and relearn", sighs Burke. "Unless you are committed to bucking the system, you will keep coming up with those same conclusions. I just don't think they got it. I was so saddened by that letter."

The idea that Hollywood actresses are too elite either to suffer or care baffles her. "The Ashley Judds and Annabella Sciorras just stood up and told their truth. They didn't call for anything, just to be believed." She admits that when Michelle Williams invited her to the Golden Globes in January, she had reservations, "because I didn't know Michelle and you always have to ask yourself: 'Why is this person attaching themselves to me?'" However, she says the two of them had "an amazing time" and "there's no doubt she wanted to use her position to serve this movement."

She won't say the Oscars have got too political ("the personal is political for so many") and she refuses "to try to quantify someone else's trauma. Everyone wants me to say, 'Well, this woman should or shouldn't have felt this way in response to that', and that's not my place." But was it right for Matt Damon to be vilified for saying "There's a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape"?

"We all have the right to an opinion, sure, but can we say how someone else should feel? Take the Aziz Ansari case," she says, referring to the American actor accused by an anonymous woman he once dated of ignoring "non-verbal cues". "I don't have the right to tell that girl how she felt." But does the girl have the right to attach #MeToo to her story?

"I won't tell anybody that they don't have that right," frowns Burke. "I have met women who have had two very similar experiences, and one will say to me: 'Oh, he was really aggressive and I liked the way he pulled and pushed on me' - while the other will say 'That completely freaked me out.' I'm not going to dismiss the woman who disliked the experience. But I will say this: we need to learn to be very specific and careful about the language we use. Because if you say something is assault, there are legal connotations and ramifications."

Another conversation Burke feels is "a distraction from the larger issue" is "How can people hug or date in the age of MeToo?" And she scoffs at the idea. "As human beings we should be able to interact with each other. I was just talking to Sheryl Sandberg about this new data saying men won't take business meetings alone with women any more - men should feel insulted that the only solution for them to be safe from sexual harassment or claims of sexual harassment is to be separated from women. Like they have no self-control or can't be trusted?"

And yet she must understand that men are terrified? Surely, the kind of trial-by-social-media we have witnessed needs to stop or the whole movement will be undermined. Due legal process can never be bypassed. Burke pauses. "Some people feel like they need to call the name of their abusers and perpetrators out loud in order to get healing and justice, and I understand that notion. But I do think that over time people will realise that there is a longer journey beyond that, and a process."

Burke is wise enough to know that #MeToo will either disappear "or not be as popular", but for now she's simply keeping busy with the speaking engagements, the travel and the documentary she is trying to put together. She's tired but happy and hopeful - and next week she is going back to Selma. "I want to find Heaven," she tells me. "I'm going to try to track her down."

What will she say if she finds her? After a long silence, Burke says: "I want to let her know that my inability to connect with her that day and give her what she needed propelled an entire movement. And I want to apologise, because everything I have done is really an apology to her."

 Telegraph, London

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