Mary Beard’s Manifesto

This past week, I had a little talk with myself about work and play.  I told myself that I needed to impose real playtime on the weekend, to be more deliberate about not using few and precious free hours simply to do more work.  This is the kind of stern talking-to we all practice from time to time.  For me, the results are variable at best.

In the free hour I had last Saturday afternoon, I marched myself to my little comfy office in our house, sat down as a big gesture into the comfy chair, sipped luxuriously at a late cup of coffee, and opened a novel, one that I thought would be light but not too light, enjoyable for a little afternoon literary siesta.  With many friends and colleagues at women’s marches around the world, I second-guessed my decision to have a much-needed day at home after the previous week’s inaugurations and parades, but I tried to stick to this deliberate approach to free time.

Well, it seems I don’t read “light” too well anymore.  Sure, I can still watch a soap opera and other junk on television and Netflix.  I can even re-watch this stuff.  But the reading I do seems almost sacred these days—you know, so much to read, so little time—that I allow myself to move on quickly if “light” means “fluffy and annoying, treacly and a waste of time.”  When our son was little, he could sit in our laps being read to for stretches of two hours or more.  He could never get enough of hearing the stories, seeing the illustrations, and putting it all together.  Our daughter at that age would sit in our laps, listen to one or two books for a few minutes, make a quick judgment, snap the book shut herself, and announce abruptly, “The End.”  During my first 50 years I was more the two-hour (really, much more) stretch type, but now I’m noticing a healthy dose of “The End” creeping in.  I read three chapters of the novel, closed it with one heavy-handed palm, and reached instead for Mary Beard’s recently published Women & Power. A Manifesto (Liveright, 2017).

I had bought the book for myself back in December, and my husband had also given a copy to me as a gift. I had to read at least one of the copies, didn’t I?  The next hour or two in the comfy chair ticked by very quickly as I absorbed Beard’s brilliant tome—part Greco-Roman cultural history of gender, part UK and USA current events steeped in race and gender, part let’s-stop-putting-up-with-bullshit manifesto.  Based on two different London Review of Books lecture series offered by Beard, the first in 2014 and the second in 2017, Women & Power has two sections: “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.”  Beard’s style is at once erudite and colloquial, dazzling with her deep knowledge while inviting in readers who might be less educated on gender and its intersections.  She acknowledges how and when her feminism is intersectional and is clear on when it is not.

Here’s a sample of Beard’s deep knowledge as it erupts in broad manifesto:  “An enormous amount of modern feminist energy has been wasted on trying to prove that these Amazons did once exist, with all the seductive possibilities of a historical society that really was ruled by and for women.  Dream on.  The hard truth is that the Amazons were a Greek male myth.  The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one, or—to go back to awful Terry—one that had been mastered, in the bedroom.  The underlying point was that it was the duty of men to save civilisation from the rule of women” (62).  Basically, as many of us felt after seeing the newest “Wonder Woman” movie, powerful women are still often created through the male gaze, and they’re still somehow hell-bent on war and destruction.  I highly recommend this blog post by Edurne Portela for an examination of #MeToo, women’s physical power, and the mockery of demonstrations of women’s physical power that is supposed to serve to put the woman out of place (physically defending herself; lashing out; jumping into the fray to help a friend) back in her place.

A few pages after Beard’s analysis of the Greek myth of the Amazon women, the author establishes Medusa as “one of the most potent ancient symbols of male mastery over the destructive dangers that the very possibility of female power represented.  It is no accident that we find her decapitated—her head proudly paraded as an accessory by this decidedly un-female female deity” (71).  Beard here is speaking of Athena, who wore the image of Medusa on her breastplate.  The illustrations Beard includes (77) of three world leaders depicted and decapitated in the head of Medusa are powerful.  Who are these world leaders?  Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Angela Merkel (Germany), and Hillary Clinton (USA).  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the very real trope of “Lock Her Up,” applied to several world leaders.)  The message?  Take heed, women out there who might consider running for office.  There is a price to pay, and that is your own head.

Beard’s manifesto is the whole work, of course, but several important lessons to be learned include (1) we need to know and understand our raced and gendered history and culture; (2) without changing actual structures of power, people of color and women will continue to be accused and decapitated; (3) we need to “decouple power from public prestige,” thinking of it as “an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” (87); (4) we must recognize everyone’s “ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually” (87).  Beard concludes the section by reminding us that the innovative founders of Black Lives Matter are all women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

I have also just read Acting White? Rethinking Race in “Post-Racial” America, by Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati.  My university’s Mudd Center for Ethics is sponsoring a visit by Professor Carbado this week.  The book’s focus on cultural history of race in the United States and the resultant ways in which individuals and groups can feel they have to perform a certain perception of race is much-needed and very compelling.  What the authors call “Working Identity” (the performance impositions of our everyday lives) is a key concept, and the authors assert that such performance requires “time, effort, and energy” (3).  Indeed.  For individuals and groups in and on the intersections of race and gender, race and gender identity, and race and other “performable” categories, the time, effort, and energy required consistently drain the body, mind, and soul.

It appears I have again converted leisure into work, but what a privilege to be able to do so.  Consider reading Beard, Portela, and Carbado & Gulati!  They will make for a fine weekend.

(Tune in next week for an examination of a Pennsylvania congressman who used taxpayer funds to settle his own sexual harassment case and a Vatican Pope who again doubts the veracity of claims made by people who have been sexually abused by priests and bishops.)

C’mon. Are You Kidding Me?

(Summary headlines from The New York Times, 12-15-17)

I need to write about how 2017 kicked my ass month in and month out, but I will save that for next week.

I’m saving the story of 2017 kicking my ass for next week because, well, it is still kicking my ass.  Take a look at the images above, a partial list of headlines from the December 15th (2017) edition of The New York Times.  There is no end to the list of harassers and assaulters, and yet there also seems to be a long line of doubters, some of whom are boasting, jousting doubters who are causing a backlash against the women who have me-too-ed.

This past week, my family and I had the good fortune of seeing many family members and friends for the holidays.  We are lucky to want to see so many people and always feel like we come up short, like we wish we had another week to finish the conversations and start some new ones.  This year was no exception, but I did hear some conversations in big-group settings that I wish I hadn’t heard.

Men from my father’s generation think that women and men will never be on the same page and that the #MeToo business proves this.  They think that women have gotten uppity in their quest to rupture gender role expectations.  They have no idea what non-binary means, and they really don’t want to know.  They long for the days when things were simpler, when men could stroke, grope, and fondle and women just shut up about it.  These particular men in my conversation don’t necessarily want to wantonly stroke, grope, and fondle, but they certainly don’t want to have to hear any complainin’ about other men’s stroking, groping, and fondling.  Mostly, they long for the days when men could stroke, grope, and fondle and never question whether it was right or wrong. They definitely don’t want the words “stroking,” “groping,” and “fondling” to be replaced with “harassing,” “attacking,” and “assaulting.”  That’s just over the top.  Too much, I tell you.  It’s time to restore some balance and civility and let the strokes, gropes, and fondles fall where they may.

Men from my own generation want to gather to talk about not riding elevators with women.  They have had the Human Resources training.  They have read about Harvey Weinstein.  They want to maintain their sexist work cultures without the threat of being accused of sexual harassment.  They want to believe that sexual harassment and sexual assault are confusing and nuanced concepts.  They don’t know it, but they want to become Mike Pence and never dine with any woman who isn’t their wife (remember: that’s most women).  After all, any random woman on an elevator might accuse them of sexual harassment.  They don’t know how to be alone in an elevator with a woman because who knows what exactly sexual harassment is?  If they’re pushing buttons to get to the fourth floor, is that sexual harassment?  If they say hello to the other person in the elevator, is that sexual harassment?  I mean, who really knows?  How can you know?  Is it possible they could just say, “Hi.  How are you?” and then not stroke, grope, or fondle another person on the elevator?  If they could succeed in doing that, they might be able to assure themselves that this is not sexual harassment.

Many men from a generation younger than me seemed to actually get it.  Huzzah!  They understood that women and men are professionals.  They understand that most professionals prefer not to be stroked, groped, fondled, propositioned, or otherwise harassed or assaulted at work.  They read articles and books about these issues, but mostly they talk to their friends, some of whom are cis-women, some of whom are trans-women, and all of whom do not want to be stroked, groped, fondled, propositioned, harassed, or assaulted.  They all seem to know what these words mean.  They know how to ride in elevators and greet other human beings.  They know how to respect body autonomy, work etiquette, and human decency.

Nevertheless, one topic that still too few people are addressing is the assaulter-in-chief in the White House.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post that treats yet again why Trump must go.)  The more the old guys wax nostalgic about when women put up and shut up, the more the middle-aged guys worry that they might suddenly start masturbating on an elevator, the more we understand how so many people have indulged the assaulter-in-chief for so long, from long before his Russian-rigged run to the present day.  Accusing Trump of loudly admiring or detracting, stroking, groping, fondling, harassing, and assaulting—women and girls—might require people to assess what they themselves have done to others, what they themselves have indulged in others, and/or what they themselves have allowed others to do to them.  None of it is good.

2018 requires rigorous self-evaluation.  Figure out what you’ve done wrong, and then don’t do it again.  You can do this.  You can ride the elevator and just say “hello.”  You can work with women and appreciate their good work.  You can eat meals with people and move through an agenda. You really can.

Trump Must Go (and Take Thomas With Him)

(Meme from social media; Access Hollywood quote)

The assaulter-in-chief continues to be busy, as he ejects Haitians by the tens of thousands from the United States, proposes a tax plan that benefits only him and his cronies, launches more money-making products and schemes from his White House perch, and moves on North Korea to grab its metaphorical pussy and put us all in danger.  In the meantime, we citizens must plan for his impeachment, indictment, and/or imminent invisibility.

The post-Cosby, post-Weinstein, post-Louis C.K., post-Spacey, post-Franken, post-Rose, post-Moore era tells us that there is nothing “post” about any of this.  We are living with and among men who use their power and position to serially harass and assault women (and men and transgender individuals).  As I wrote in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel book (and often have to remind people who write to say, “But, Bill Clinton, but, Bill Clinton…”), I have never viewed sexual harassment and assault as the domain of only Republicans, and I do believe we have to understand politics and entertainment as real workplaces, subject to Title VII and Title IX.

If we have learned nothing else from the #MeToo era, it is that many men use their power and privilege to stalk, bait, hunt, harass, assault, and rape women.  The only saving grace of some Democrats is that they at least don’t also (or at least always) punish women through brutal legislation that denies us our humanity.  Both sides of the aisle swim in hypocrisy.  The Democrats run on being the party strong on women’s rights. See Susan Brison’s article on Al Franken to understand the depth of Franken’s hypocritical stance on women’s rights.  On the other side, the Republicans boast of being the “family values” party.  Ohio state lawmaker Wesley Goodman ran an anti-gay, pro-“family values” campaign, only to resign last week when it was discovered that he has had relationships with men, at least one alleged as non-consensual.  Roy Moore is the symbol of the entrenched Christian-values right that is completely bereft of values, except for crime, greed, and stupefying self-interest.  If these power-laden individuals spent more time thinking about others’ needs, they would be less criminal and more effective legislators and governors.  As it stands, they are assholes and, in some cases, felons.

Franken and Rose both formally stated that they don’t remember the encounters the same way the women did.  Exactly!  This is the problem.  They have approached, groped, and/or assaulted women to remind themselves of their own power.  These very actions remind the women, both in the moment and for years beyond, of their own lack of power in public and private spheres.  There is no way these accounts can or will ever line up—not until the harassing men learn to check their privilege, and likely not even then.  Louis C.K.’s non-apology statement re-enacted the allegations of his pulling out his penis in front of unwilling women and forcing some kind of interaction with it.  The more this individual used the word “dick,” in the very statement that was supposed to demonstrate recognition and contrition, the more he emphasized again that he gets to put his penis wherever he wants to, no matter the willingness or unwillingness of his audience.  These statements and non-apologies serve to attempt to discredit those who have registered the felonies and misdemeanors and to re-harass the already harassed.

Ronan Farrow’s “Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Settlements” (The New Yorker, 11-21-17) very capably lays out the power play inherent in non-disclosure agreements and the enormous disservice these documents do to our society. The documents silence those who have suffered sexual harassment and rape and ensure that serial felons can strike again.  Farrow makes explicit that Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, at the age of 22, was bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement, but that she also insisted on trying other remedies.  In addition, Zelda Perkins appears to have attempted also to impose legal vigilance and restriction on Weinstein, but she was shut down at every turn.  Our legal system is poorly equipped to institute real remedies and operates only for the almighty dollar, thus reinforcing the sheer power and financial and social capital of these serial harassers.

Yes, it is appropriate to go back and understand our nation’s indulgence of Bill Clinton, who, at the very least, was not molesting girls.  Still, two other things are even more urgent: (1) for our nation to revisit the question of Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment and to end his long term as Supreme Court Justice; and (2) for our nation to gather information and testimony from the 16 women who went on the record against Donald Trump, the sitting President of the United States (it’s still hard for me to refer to him using this term), in order to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault.

Let’s put it bluntly: Anita Hill is a hero.  For over 26 years, Hill has shared her profound legal expertise on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation through her writing, teaching, and talks.  All the while, Clarence Thomas has set silently on the most important bench in the land, benefiting from the all-white-male panel’s aggressive dismantling of Hill’s testimony.  Even Joe Biden’s “apology” removes blame from himself and emphasizes Hill’s victimhood, rather than her truth-telling and bravery.  Biden soft-pedals admission of participation in the attack in his use of the passive voice (e.g. “Anita Hill was victimized”).  Until I start hearing first-person singular apologies with real admissions of wrongdoing and a plan for rightdoing, I will reject this ridiculous genre of harassment apologies.  What will it take, all these years later, to reckon with 26 years of Thomas on the bench?

The current events surrounding sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault should make us regret the Clarence Thomas case and address the cases before us now.  We could look back on this era and proudly declare that we cleaned up our act.  The most significant case before us, of course, is that of Donald J. Trump.  *See Amanda Marcotte’s call to investigate Trump, published yesterday in Salon.  I wholeheartedly agree with Marcotte’s recommendation: “There is one solution that hasn’t been, as far as I know, floated yet: The Justice Department could appoint a special counsel to open an investigation into the years of accusations against Trump.”  YES.  Exactly this.  As Marcotte astutely notes, the investigation is warranted and will keep the public’s ever-straying attention on this issue.  Two special investigations (Russia and sexual harassment/assault) are a drop in the bucket for this sitting “president.”

Those of us who live in the United States should share the above meme every day, in every way possible.  We must write to senators and congresspeople to insist on this special investigation.  We have done this for healthcare, travel bans, DACA, and the tax scam, and we need to respect women’s and transgender individuals’ rights enough to advocate for Title VII and Title IX protections to be applied to the groper-in-chief.

While Trump’s “Al Frankenstein” tweet served to slam Franken, it actually worked harder to re-enact the harassment of Leeann Tweeden.  Add this action to the list for the special investigation.

Viejo Verde = Sexual Harasser = Criminal Action

(From Yale Alumni Magazine‘s classified ads, current issue)

In Spanish an old lech or pervert is called a “viejo verde,” or a green old man.  I used to think this was funny because I was so accustomed to normalizing the harassing behaviors of men imposing themselves on women in public and private spaces.  I basically thought, of course there will be old perverts, of course we have to protect ourselves and others from them, of course, of course, of course.  It took me until I was 27 or 28 to take these issues seriously—to understand the ways in which the men who engage in sexual harassment and assault cloak themselves in the “no big deal” protections they have always been afforded—and to stop accepting harassment as a given.

The spate of reporting about Weinstein and so many others over this past month (and, of course, about the assaulter-in-chief ) suggests that we in the United States are at least starting to come to terms with the myriad ways in which we have indulged grown men’s felonies and misdemeanors through our undervaluing of girls’ and women’s humanity (and, in not a few cases, boys’ and transgender individuals’ humanity).  Somehow, we see men as the smart adults who get to run the world, while also constantly surrendering to a boys-will-be-boys narrative that implies that men are just victims of their own animal drives.  I recognize this as both binary and Manichean, but, somehow, men get to have it both ways (treated with seriousness and respect and indulged when they commit actual crimes), and women get to have it in no ways (undercut in professional and personal settings and disbelieved when they state difficult truths).  Go back and read 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for an artful catalog of these unjust social mores, and then come on back to the 21st century to see how little has changed.  Even the Weinstein avalanche doesn’t make up for centuries of not caring, not reporting, not attending to profound, gender-based mistreatment.

This month’s reporting has been over the top, maybe precisely because sexual harassment and assault have been so woefully under-reported for centuries.  I doubt many of us have been able to keep up.  Here are a few references whose content has informed this blog post: Rebecca Traister in The Cut (11-13-17); Roy Moore accused by the fifth woman (The New York Times, 11-13-17); Jessica Valenti in The Guardian writing about Louis CK, Roy Moore, and #MeToo (11-10-17); Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, “Louis C.K. and Hollywood’s Canon of Creeps” (11-12-17); Karen Tumulty on Trump and his accusers (The Washington Post, 10-21-17) and Jia Tolentino on the same (The New Yorker, 11-9-17); Jessica Bennett on the “tsunami” of the Weinstein scandal (The New York Times, 11-5-17); James Hohmann on Roy Moore and the GOP (The Washington Post, 11-10-17); Yamiche Alcindor on sexual harassment in the House and Senate (The New York Times, 11-13-17), also reported on here in The Washington Post (10-27-17); sexual harassment and assault in higher education since Weinstein (The Chronicle of Higher Education; 11-13;17); Laurie Penny’s “The Unforgiving Minute” (Longreads, November, 2017); gender discrimination in the tech industry (The New Yorker, 11-20-17); The New York Timeslisting of men accused of sexual misconduct (11-13-17); today’s reporting about the #WeKnowWhatYouDid campaign at Spelman; in this older article from Forbes, recently making the social media rounds, John Grisham soft-pedals pedophilia (10-16-14).  I could go on, but this sampling certainly demonstrates the pervasiveness of the problem and the variety of reporting angles available to us.

The women (and others) using the #MeToo, #MeAt14, and #WeKnowWhatYouDid hashtags are making the still-important point that most societies across the globe have indulged harassing behaviors, including the felony of sexual assault and rape, for most of their existence.  #MeToo allows us to see the abundance of cases and the pervasiveness of these power plays, while also revealing the detail and texture of each of the individual stories told.  #MeAt14 stories make clear that, just like 14-year-olds of all genders, 14-year-old girls are not yet adults and should not be hunted, fished, baited, or otherwise treated like animals, especially not by adults, whom they might still believe are to be trusted.  #WeKnowWhatYouDid acknowledges that most reporting and adjudication mechanisms still harm victims of sexual harassment and assault and are therefore still far from effective or efficient.

When I was four or five years old and playing in my backyard, a 12-year-old pulled down his pants and asked me, “if I wanted to piss with him.”  This was somewhat frightening, and I told only my oldest brother, who then told my parents.  When they reported the incident to the police, a police officer came to our house and asked me to “show him” what had happened.  This was far more frightening to me than the initial event, which reminds me again that we still have much more work to do to make reporting and adjudication as non-threatening and non-punishing as possible.  When I was 12, my parents took some of us kids to the holiday concert at the school where my dad taught.  As we navigated the crowded bleachers, someone shoved his hand up my skirt and grabbed me between the legs.  I was in absolute shock, I didn’t know which of the coat-and-tie high-school boys had done it, and so I shoved the one on the end into the one next to him, attempting some sort of lame game of dominoes in my surprise, anger, and hurt.  I told no one because I didn’t even know how to articulate what that was.  When I was 13, my basketball coach felt us all up as he showed us techniques for foul shots.  A foul shot, indeed, especially when we actually joked about it in front of our parents, and no one did anything.  I should mention that the person was also a guidance counselor at our middle school.  When I was in college, a friend of a friend wouldn’t leave our apartment, pulled a Louis C.K., and then left.  When I saw him at the friend’s wedding a few years later, I re-experienced the shock I had felt back in college.  In a mega-city in another country, I embarked with friends on the metro, the most crowded metro car I had ever been on.  As I held my purse tight to me with one hand and held the upper bar of the metro car with my other hand, hands were all over my body.  I had nowhere to go.  There was not an inch of open space to move into.  I exited the metro at the very next stop, which was not my intended destination.  My exit from the car was as violating as the ride had been.  Two weeks ago, my daughter and I were at a hotel.  As we took the elevator back up to our room, two drunk men hopped on and leered at my daughter, while I half-backed her into the corner behind me.  She is 12 years old.

The photograph you see above is from Yale Alumni Magazine’s classified advertisements.  This ad invites older men to “find” women 10-30 (+) years their juniors.  For many men, that makes the “women” they are “finding” underage—not women, but girls who should be allowed to develop fully before making their own decisions about their bodies and sexual selves.  What other media corners are selling, trafficking, raping, and assaulting women and thereby reducing our collective humanity?  Why aren’t we calling them out more?  When is enough enough?

There should be no turning back.  We all know these stories. We know these people.  They are committing crimes, and we do not have to let them.  No more making light of the viejo verde, the old perv, the neighborhood lech, the harassing movie producer or comedian, the groping politician, or the raping swim or gymnastics coach.  No more (and no Moore).

Being Cassandra, Being Eeyore



The Greek myth of Cassandra tells us of a girl who has the power of prophecy.  As an adult, Cassandra is propositioned by Apollo, who, when rebuffed by Cassandra, curses her power of prophecy by ensuring she will never again be believed.  The myth recounts that Cassandra was later raped by Ajax, given to Agamemnon as a sex slave (they say “concubine,” but what’s the difference?), and then murdered by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra.  Of course, Greek mythology overflows with stories of power and revenge, and, generally, women do not fare well.

What are the takeaways here?  I can discern a few:

  • Women who tell the truth are dangerous;
  • women who tell the truth are to be punished;
  • Apollo needs you to like him back. If you don’t, he’ll take what he wants anyway; Same goes for Ajax.  Beware the Apollos and Ajaxes of the world;
  • women who are raped will also be punished in additional ways;
  • it ain’t easy being Cassandra;
  • the stories we tell and re-tell reveal a lot about us as a culture. (No duh!);
  • we have work to do.

Cassandra must have been so frustrated and exhausted.  She could anticipate what was going to happen, and she spent her childhood successfully communicating her prophecies. When Apollo cast the spell that would have her never believed, people saw her as an exaggerator and a liar, as “unstable.”

We should note, too, that there are different versions of this myth.  One even blames Cassandra for tricking Apollo into coming onto her, spurning him, and then being cursed by him.  In this version, I imagine Cassandra in the short skirt, showing that it’s all her fault after all. Cassandra is also cast as a victim of her own beauty, another Western narrative thread that blames women for the violence enacted against them.

The #metoo explosion of these past ten days has been harnessed in powerful ways—to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault and to give texture and meaning to the tens of thousands of incidents recounted or partially recounted across social media.  I have seen many of the accounts, warnings, and memes translated into Spanish and Portuguese (and some told anew in these languages) in order to address a broader swath of the globe.  As I have said in the blog posts of the last several weeks, the patterns are predictable.  Any old Cassandra can and does foretell the events.  Somehow, though, the curse of not being believed continues, and oftentimes Cassandra’s character is called more into question than is that of her harassers and rapists.  Participating in the #metoo accounting and recounting requires daring precisely because those who come forward aren’t believed and are punished.  I fiercely hope that this latest wave of #metoo (this time jumpstarted by Alyssa Milano, but ten years ago initiated by activist Tarana Burke) makes a difference, effects change.  Nevertheless, I always have in mind Emma Sulkowicz, the woman who carried her mattress around Columbia University for two and a half years.  The mattress was the truth, and yet its constant weight and presence in public spaces still didn’t convince university officials that more needed to be done.  I firmly believe that people don’t go on this type of difficult, long-term mission without cause.  Let’s believe the women carrying mattresses.  Let’s understand Cassandra.

#metoo has also given men the opportunity to absorb the everyday realities for women of all races and members of the LGBTQIA+ community around them.  Maybe some men have read the threads and then performed an audit of their own behaviors through their lives.  When did they use less than kind language about women and people who identify as LGBTQIA+?  When did they offer someone else’s idea as their own?  When did they speak over women at a meeting?  When did they neglect to hire a woman because it would prove a pain in the ass to have to curb certain workplace behaviors?  When did they press for sex when they knew the insistence was unwelcome?  Did they ever rape someone (remember, this might mean that they had sex with someone without their consent and/or with a definitive “no”)?  Do the audit.  Admit wrongdoing. Understand harm.  Make reparations by thinking through actions and statements, by hiring people unlike you, by learning from those who are unlike you, by expressing sincere kindness and care.  Oh yeah, and by stopping telling women that you have a mother, wife, or daughter, and so you understand the plight.  Also, read this excellent Roxanne Gay opinion piece in The New York Times.

Years ago, a colleague told me he’d better watch what he says around me.  I remember thinking, well, I’ve become that person, but, okay, good.  Maybe he’ll start to watch what he says around others, too, and even come to understand why his statements are offensive and threatening.  I thought, maybe this person is more aware now and will help to create a better environment.  The same goes for me in terms of listening, reading, and understanding more about race-based oppression.  I cannot imagine how absolutely fatiguing it must be for women of color and/or LGBTQIA+ people of color who are constantly dealing with gender oppression and race oppression.

I’ve been wondering how well we teach our students and children to analyze the daily bombardment of messages that is our life.  How much do we all absorb advertisements, television programs, movies, music, and social media messages that represent people of color most often in negative contexts, women most often as acquiescent (pussies will be grabbed) or abnegating (wombs will be filled), and heterosexual white men as the all-powerful?  I would say the onslaught is constant, even for someone like me who purposefully avoids a barrage of sad- and crazy-making oppression.  That’s why Hidden Figures (book and movie) was an actual relief and why I was confounded to like and feel a rush from the movie “Wonder Woman.” At my age, I have read many, many books that are empowering for women (but not enough that are empowering for women of color or for LGBTQIA+ individuals), but watching “Hidden Figures” and “Wonder Woman” provided an unexpected rush, an oh-yeah-I-will-crush-you-with-my-freaking-brainpower-and-strength.  “Crushing,” gaining power over, and winning are not my usual touchstones, but I have to confess that these films reminded me how accustomed I’ve become to observing, over and over again for decades, people of color and women being crushed, violated, underrepresented, or not represented at all.  A little reminder of what power is and how it can be distributed more equitably across people and groups proved useful.

If I could draw, I would constantly be doing one-to-four block cartoons that point out the daily reductions of our humanity.  If I could sing, I would go on YouTube and undo sexist lyrics just to own them.  I’m thinking of Eminem, whose lyrics I refuse to quote, or far more innocent, but still insanely misogynistic, songs that are so catchy and so deeply sexist.  If I were Jessica Williams or Tina Fey, I would crack wise all the time to make my point.  But what I’ve got in my toolkit is a Cassandra awareness with an Eeyore delivery.  I’ve got my books, theories, experiences, warnings, and words, and I use them.  What have you got? In particular, how can you men out there contribute productively to this conversation?  Whatever it is, bring it on, ‘cause we need your talent and creativity to change our cultures’ oppressive ways.

The Gender Shrapnel Blog has featured questions like this for over a year, but I continue to ask:  What does it mean to have others appreciate our full humanity?  Has the current administration politicized even kindness?  How do we describe the world/country/city/town we want to live in?  How do we move closer to this better way of living?  Cassandra is justifiably impatient, and Eeyore rightly shows his gloom.

Dear Colleague
















What is it going to take for a large group of people to believe that women of all races and many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community have been sexually harassed, discriminated against, and assaulted and then made to believe it was their fault?  We didn’t protest vociferously as we heard cases and allegations against Fox News, our current “president,” and Bill Cosby (2005 and again in 2015).  Do white women actors from Hollywood have a certain clout that is waking people up to the pervasiveness of workplace harassment (hostile work environment and quid pro quo), street harassment, and sexual violence?  We have to hope that the visible and audible outrage about the Harvey Weinstein case expressed in traditional media outlets and copiously on social media raise awareness and allow us to make real incursions into social and legal change.

I wrote last week about how unsurprised we should be about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged 30-year campaign of sexual harassment and assault.  The textbook elements of the case include: predatory and criminal behaviors enacted by those higher in the hierarchy on those lower in the hierarchy (power differential); the person harassed is taken aback by the situation and feels threatened, and therefore often doesn’t respond in a way that she might otherwise have done (she is hit by gender and/or race shrapnel); cronies of the higher-up accommodate the illegal behaviors of their colleague and maintain their own power (male networks of power and boys-will-be-boys attitudes); those who have been harassed and/or assaulted and are brave enough to speak out are silenced in any number of ways (threats; tabloids, black lists; lack of employment; etc.); society reinforces negative responses to the women who speak out (can’t take a joke; nags; drags; exaggerators; liars); the boss preys again.

I dare say that this The New York Times piece, which reports on Woody Allen’s BBC interview about the Weinstein case, reveals again how those accused of these serious crimes rarely understand what they did (or continue to do) wrong.  Allen states that he’s grateful for the work Miramax gave him after his own sexual harassment and violence cases, makes clear that no one should be interested in hearing these types of allegations (“You’re not interested in it.  You are interested in making your movie”), and warns of a “witch hunt atmosphere,” which sounds curiously like the “president’s” words about the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian involvement in our most recent presidential election. The New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens applauds Betsy DeVos for ending “a campus witch hunt” in her removal of Obama-era Title IX guidance for colleges and universities.  Who are the witches and who are the hunters here?  In this opinion piece in The New York Times, campus sexual violence researchers Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera insist that “Obama-era policies did not malign men.  What they did was make it easier for victims to come forward.”  The headline asks the poignant question, “Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?”

As I write in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, many people who are harassed have to change their daily paths to avoid the person in power and often have to turn down job opportunities that would require them to have contact with that person, thus permanently changing the course of the careers of the people who have been harassed.  These acts of avoidance occur in every career and on many college and university campuses.  The power systems set in place are replicated in the social lives of the students, thus demonstrating again the continuum through which sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are linked to sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we don’t take issues of harassment and discrimination seriously, then we will not get at the enormous problem of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Sexual harassment in the higher education context is important for many reasons.  Turning a blind eye to it reinforces for young men, women, and people of all genders that young men are supposed to have, exercise, and retain power, both during the college years and beyond.  It sets the tone for the workplace, since we presumably are educating students to be the workers of tomorrow.  The blind-eye habit in higher education also sends a message to students in middle and high schools that boys have the power and girls should shut up.  This doesn’t bode well for their futures in higher education and/or the workplace.  The sexual harassment problem in Hollywood, at Fox News, in the White House, and in so many other industries, simply reproduces itself in other power-dependent settings, like schools.

President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 (now included on the Office of Civil Rights’s website only as “archived information”) sent a direct message to United States colleges and universities that the reduction of sexual assault and sexual violence on higher education campuses was a priority for the Obama administration.  The “significant guidance” included in the letter comes with great detail, and in the second footnote of the document, sexual harassment is directly linked to sexual violence and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is invoked.  In other words, the document recognized the more acute context for people who find themselves at the intersection of gender, race, and/or national origin. These moves, along with the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, reveal the Obama administration’s understanding of the problem and the seriousness with which the administration approached recommendations for adjudication.  I strongly recommend this 19-page document to anyone interested in reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and violence and in understanding links between and among Title IV, VII, and IX law.

Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See this previous post on DeVos and public education.)  DeVos has replaced the “Dear Colleague” guidelines with a Q&A document, which arguably creates a “both sides” false equivalency that had been eased by the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See Jeannie Suk Gersen’s and Christina Hoff Sommers’s support of “both sides” approaches. )  One report cites “confusion over specifics” of the interim guidelines provided by DeVos’s office.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s September 11, 2017, commentary by Scott Schneider analyzes in legal and practical terms “what DeVos got wrong in her speech on the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”  Information and clarifications have come out in drips and drabs (e.g. this updated piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education), thus sowing more confusion and making victims wonder whether it is worthwhile to report traumatic incidents of sexual assault and violence.  A reporter from The Chronicle has chronicled his numerous attempts to get straight answers out of the Education Secretary.

DeVos’s replacement of the Obama-era guidelines (both 2011 [“Dear Colleague”] and 2014 [Q&A format for clarification of “Dear Colleague”]) speaks again to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s idea that the current “president’s” “presidency” (quotation marks around these words are mine) “hinges on the fact of a black president” and “has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own” (these brilliant quotes are from Coates).  Recent college graduate Jamil Smith in this piece in The New York Times states that:  “Instead, my experience taught me that we need to be proactive in preventing sexual assault, and much of that involves something that should be a natural fit for college campuses: education. The workshops I taught to captive audiences of fraternity brothers are a start, but even they weren’t enough. Rape prevention education should be more than an hour, and it should be mandatory for everyone, not just those involved in Greek life. And beyond the legal landscape of sexual assault, men should be disabused of the beliefs that lead to it and should be required to understand its effects on victims.”  The United States could clearly use several thousand more Jamil Smiths, young men who understand structural oppression of women and do something to change it.

DeVos has taken her marching orders from this “president.”  It’s time to dance to an entirely different tune.  Let’s get it right here, on campus, the place guided by lofty mission statements that usually assert that we are all people.

P.S. After this blog post was published, I saw Professor Mikki Brock’s excellent piece on witches and witch hunts in The Washington Post.  Check it out!