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.)

Weinstein and Company

(Table of Contents of a 1990 publication by Elizabeth Bouchard, Everything You Need to Know about Sexual Harassment)

When I was in college, over 30 years ago, a woman from my dorm was raped at a fraternity party.  One year when I was a resident assistant in a dorm, a woman on my hall was in the shower, getting ready for Sunday morning church, and saw a man entering the shower stall through the bottom.  On another day that year, women on the hall upstairs reported that a man had entered their bedroom and climbed into bed with them.  He was eventually caught when attempting to do the same thing in another residence hall.  My third or fourth year—I can’t remember now because these predatory behaviors are so common that accounts of them start to blend together—women students were told to be careful of studying in the stacks in the library because a man was walking through the stacks, holding scissors, and snipping ponytails.  I can’t know whether the creepy perpetrator knew Alexander Pope’s poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” but I can say that making light of these actions is both common and foolish.  Since the college years, many friends have recounted dozens of other stories like these, all from one college in one college town.  I imagine some of you are reading this first paragraph and recalling similar stories from your own college years and well beyond.

As a college professor, I have been made aware of more cases of sexual assault and violence than I ever anticipated I would.  As I have said many times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here) and throughout the Gender Shrapnel book, sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are on a continuum with sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we are not reducing incidents of the former, there is no way we are reducing incidents of the latter.  The blind-eye phenomenon, practiced by so many in our communities, serves only to protect the powerful and create more opportunities for violence against women (and men, an issue that we need to address more frequently, especially in “fraternal” contexts, such as the military, sports, and Greek fraternity organizations).

I’m entering the Weinstein fray a little late because times are busy, none of this is surprising, and here we are again.  (*See previous posts on Fox News, Bill Cosby, needing better remedies for sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation, rape, and campus sexual assault.)  As I said in the Bill Cosby post, patterns tell us something.  Testimonial elements of one felony line up with testimonial elements of other felonies perpetrated by the same person.  These details matter.  These stories matter.  And I’m hoping that criminal justice experts and/or sociologists can teach us to extrapolate from the stories we know to understand how many stories there may be that we don’t know.  Patterns tell us a lot, and there are many dotted lines between incidents on which we might imagine more felonies happening.  The Guardian provides this 10-11-2017 account of all the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein “so far,” implying that we will hear more allegations of more felonies.  According to The Guardian piece and to the 10-10-2017 account in The New Yorker, Weinstein’s alleged patterns reveal, over a 25-30-year span, a deliberate pattern: finding young women (usually actors or aspiring actors); convincing them to take a meeting with him, the unbelievably powerful movie mogul; dismissing staff members present at the first part of these meetings, often held in hotel suites; asking the women repeatedly to have sex with him or give him a massage; overriding the women’s “no’s” or hesitations by appearing naked and beginning the massage process himself; forcing his penis into women’s mouths and/or masturbating in front of them.

Multiple reports tell us that women who attempted to report the incidents (we could call them “crimes,” for example) were offered non-disclosure statements and money and/or were eliminated from Hollywood movie rosters and dragged through tabloids.  When in 1997 Weinstein’s company settled out of court with actor Rose McGowan, authors of the legal document insist that the settlement’s purpose was to “avoid litigation and buy peace” (The New York Times, 10-5-2017).  Peace for whom, we might ask.  Peace for Weinstein, his all-male board, the so-called “honeypots” who arranged the meetings, and all the men who act like Weinstein or think they should get to act like Weinstein.  This is not peace for McGowan or for the many women since 1997 who allege having been harassed and/or raped by Weinstein, and the many women since then who perhaps haven’t yet come forward.  Our money-run legal system traffics in violence and silence, silence and violence, and we are going to have to generate legal remedies that do not encourage perpetrators to continue their patterns, plain as day.

In this piece by The New York Times Editorial Board, the authors emphasize women’s silence (“Mr. Weinstein controlled many avenues to advancement in his industry and could kill the career of any woman who didn’t hush up”), but they don’t address men’s silence in this piece.  Where was Bob Weinstein on this?  What about all the men on the Weinstein board?  How about all the male actors who turned a blind eye?   The indulgence, abetting, and blind eyes over all these years communicated to everyone in the movie industry (and every other industry, since examples of the powerful getting away with felony after felony are abundant) that this culture was just fine, that power wins every time, that being exposed to sexual assault and violence are part and parcel of “climbing the ladder.”  The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg makes the point in this way: “Placing a particular burden on women, rather than, say, on the Weinstein Company’s all-male board, to have done something about him suggests this isn’t really about feminist credentials at all: it’s about making women, rather than men, responsible for male misbehavior” (10-10-17). (*Alexandra Petri’s hilarious take on the Weinstein case is also worth the read.)

The New York Times has spent the last week bending over backwards to perform a bizarre liberal mea culpa (see the aforementioned piece by the Editorial Board and this ridiculously juvenile piece by Ross Douthat) surrounding the Weinstein case.  Oh, Democrats, don’t be silent.  Oh, Democrats, renounce the money given you.  Hold on here, NYT.  Slow the hell down.  The preachiness is almost unbearable, given the newspaper’s role in harassing Hillary Clinton over e-mail protocols practiced abundantly both before and after her time in Washington.  Parsing the issue of sexual harassment and assault along party lines and expressing outrage or surprise when men who support the Democratic Party engage in these behaviors is disingenuous and tiresome.  We have elected men from the Democratic Party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  We have elected men from the Republican party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  I would venture to say that the situation is worse when your “president” has bragged about harassing behaviors and half of the nation has turned a blind eye to it.  We have all seen and can all discern these predatory, felonious patterns, but some choose to say nothing, and some choose to vote for these felons.

When The New York Times decided to publish the Douthat op-ed, which I can only call offensive tripe, they allowed Douthat to diminish Weinstein’s alleged criminal actions to words such as “piggishness” and “vice.”  Douthat also employs the euphemism “caddishness.” The newspaper allowed him to reinforce gender binaries in antiquated ways (e.g. the line about the Republic of Gilead, which not only ignores the fact that men are also victims of rape and extreme violence, but also subtly suggests that we should at least move towards the gender dystopia of the Atwood novel of the Moss television series).  Douthat also claims (here and in last week’s op-ed) Hugh Hefner as a liberal icon, but I think he might hear quite differently from liberals and progressives who have actually worked on gender and race issues.  Douthat tells us, “Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement.  Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason.  If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.”  Welcome to the 19th century, people, where women weren’t even allowed to wear the short skirts that apparently caused the violence against them and their own downfalls.  This line also reads like a threat, something like, “Learn from your promiscuity, liberal Hollywood women, or return to Gilead.”  The New York Times’s liberal auto-flagellation reinforces age-old postures that blame women for the crimes, the felonies, of men.  Stop the bullshit.

An urgent question: To whom are we turning a blind eye right now?  Why are we letting them get away with this?  Who has the courage to speak up and out?

And a reminder.  I wrote the following text in the September 19th blog post of last year, and I fear I’ll be copying and pasting it again at this time next year:


Let’s think for a moment about the common denominators at the core of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation:

  • Hierarchy with powerful, high-salaried white men at the top [e.g. Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch]
  • Reinforcement of white, male privilege through the hiring and retention of more people who look the same, thus making people of color and women a rarity [Just look at the Fox News administrative team and line-up of anchors]
  • Institutional leaders who practice sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are not only protected by other organizational leaders [e.g. Bill Shine, Diane Brandi], including general counsel, but are also imitated by men below them in the hierarchy [e.g. Bill O’Reilly, who has also been the subject of complaints of sexual harassment]
  • Establishment of a workplace environment that gives power to men and takes it from women.  Examples of this include giving more and higher quality airtime to men, regulating women’s appearance in highly scripted ways, and repeatedly airing sexist broadcasts as if they were news [Check out this series of clips of Fox News’ rampant misogyny]
  • “Boys-will-be-boys” indulgence of men’s illegal behavior [See that series of clips I just mentioned!]
  • Punishment of and retaliation against those lower in the hierarchy who make people aware of the illegal acts [Fox News firings of those who came forward about sexual harassment]
  • Silencing news of the illegal behaviors, through intimidation or pay-off
  • Condoning these behaviors through high-level protection afforded the wrongdoers.  The wrongdoers stay, and those who complain of the wrongdoing must go.
  • This cycle repeats itself.

While the law (see also Chapter 6 of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace) distinguishes between quid pro quo (usually involving requests for sexual favors) and hostile work environment (HWE) harassment and discrimination, often where there is one form of harassment, the other is lurking as well.  There are multiple ways for the higher-ups in an organization to create a dehumanizing culture in which the lower-downs are not accorded respect for the work they do, are paid too little for the jobs they do, are silenced for taking a stand, and/or are removed because they challenge the hierarchy.  It is reported that Fox News employees, with Ailes at the helm, used both quid pro quo and HWE to foment a culture of harassment and dehumanization for decades.  This is textbook, people, and there is absolutely nothing shocking about it.  (Bryce Covert makes a similar point in this New York Times opinion piece.)