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MAG The Catastrophic Success of MeToo

Issued: 2018-03-06

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THE MAGAZINE: From the March 12 Issue

8:12 AM, Mar 06, 2018 | By Alice B. Lloyd

For anyone counting #MeToo casualties with a wary eye, one of 2018’s first will have stood out. On January 13, in a lengthy exposé published on a website for college-age women, a 23-year-old photographer charged comic Aziz Ansari with the crime of being a bad date. The pseudonymous “Grace” described yielding to his awkward sexual advances and, even though she felt uncomfortable, declining to protest or get up and leave. While women may rightly see a semblance of injustice in his arrogance and her all-too-familiar acquiescence, Grace’s assessment that their date amounted to sexual assault sent the movement into crisis. Had #MeToo, cautious optimists worried, gone too far?

Just as notable, though, was the ensuing intergenerational feminist-journalist feud. When the television anchor Ashleigh Banfield criticized Grace on the air, the reporter who had written her story, Katie Way, hit back by calling Banfield a “second-wave-feminist has-been.” What Way meant was that Banfield was 50 and held the moderate feminist views typical of professional women her age. These qualities put her out of touch with the dominant discourse, which equates male selfishness and insensitivity with sexual assault.

The “first wave” of feminism arose in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when women claimed the rights of full citizenship: property ownership, the right to vote. Organizationally, it was indebted to the literal frontier, where women were indispensable workers, and to the widely popular temperance movement, which hardheaded ladies led.

Betty Friedan birthed the “second wave” in 1963 when she named the American housewife’s nameless malaise. And the feminists who under the second-wave banner rode the rising tide of civil rights, birth control, and elite coeducation into a renewed, liberationist demand for equal status in work and life tended to be practical revolutionaries. They were women who worked and who asked to advance at work according to their abilities.

It was only in October of last year that the Harvey Weinstein stories started to hit, yet it already has the unmistakable feeling of epoch-making history. Predatory men, perched on the ruling rungs of highly visible professions, fell one after the next. They continue to drop. In droves, women they’d harassed, raped, abused, flashed, pinched, and embarrassed—often over decades in power—confessed these long-hidden workplace nightmares and dream-killing disappointments. There’s no stopping it, per the dizzy refrain.

You can call it a “warlock hunt” (as essayist Claire Berlinski did in an incisive critique of #MeToo—an article half a dozen journals turned down); a righteous excision of perverts, power-abusers, and predators; or an unwinnable war for women’s freedom from worrying about sex at work. Whatever you call it, there’s no denying its purpose. What #MeToo’s critics all seem to miss is that the movement now underway represents a practical reorientation of the struggle for women’s equality. At its core is not a partisan argument, but an exceptionally American one: that we’re past due our equal freedom.

An amnesia afflicts the current feminist revival if its proponents think “second wave” is a slur. Hard as it is to see from where Katie Way writes, the career women of the 1960s and ’70s had the same inviolate goals as those of the #MeToo era. Understanding the historical reality of women’s evidently still-unequal status requires we listen to the past to perceive what, after more than a century of struggle, still stands in our way.

* * *

Not too long ago there were, for one thing, far more blatant barriers to entry, Shirley Tilghman reminds me. A microbiologist and former president of Princeton, Tilghman is a frank and thoughtful feminist. In 1993, she argued in a New York Times op-ed for the abolition of tenured professorships, believing that the vaunted tenure track, focused as it is on hard work during a woman’s most viable child-bearing and -rearing years, is fundamentally discriminatory. In 2001, she became Princeton’s first female president—and only the second in the Ivy League. By then she’d already been out on the frontier for years.

In the 1970s, Tilghman was a groundbreaking research scientist. She’d earned her Ph.D. at Temple University, and as a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health, she worked on the team that cloned the first mammalian gene. By the 1980s, she was a researcher at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and a professor of biochemistry at Penn. She was also a single mother to her son and daughter.

Her female colleagues at Fox Chase, several of whom were mothers too, drew strength from each other’s borderline-delusional assurances, she recalls: “We just kind of lived in this slightly made-up environment where we said, ‘There’s no problem here.’ ” Her decision to leave Philadelphia for Princeton in 1986 came down, she says, to the needs of her two young children—the new job meant she could afford a house mere minutes from the elementary school, the pediatrician, and her office.

Tilghman said a mantra-like secular prayer for guilt-free endurance to keep from drowning in the demands of her double life: “There is only one of me, I can only be in one place at one time. I love my work. I love my children,” she’d remind herself. “I’m not going to feel guilty when I’m in one place or the other.” Knowing they were someplace women hadn’t been before, working mothers of her generation had to trick each other into thinking it could actually be done, Tilghman tells me—only half-joking. In so doing, they proved that it could.

Kenyon College political philosopher Pam Jensen recalls endemic self-doubt among her female peers in graduate school at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. Can women be philosophers? They debated in earnest a problem few women today would entertain even under extreme protest. The draft was on then, Jensen reminds me, and men’s lives depended on academic success sufficient to defer their service. Doubts about the morality of a controversial war and its soldiers’ sacrifice created a state of perpetual unrest in which women were not full citizens. On the wartime campus, context was king.

And so it is today, she says. “It’s natural that women students have a great deal more confidence: They will find open doors and support for what they want to achieve.” But to Jensen, the conventional route of postgraduate marriage and motherhood, the sort of life Friedan painted as a prison, relieved the pressure to be brilliant, “to be Plato.” “I had something to go home to, and that was delightful. I think I felt the need to prove my usefulness,” and a second life at home provided purpose to fall back on. Men in the field, presumably, worried less about whether they were “useful.”

“The principle of equality is deeply, deeply embedded in our American souls,” Jensen reminds me, moving to the subject of #MeToo’s civic usefulness. Making the most of it requires we remember: “Rather than being driven by our culture, we should allow our political principles—the ones that argue for the equality of men and women, and the equal education of men and women—to come forth.”

But as Tilghman notes, the question of whether women can succeed in their careers often has a simple, practical set of answers. As president of Princeton, she didn’t move against tenure, but instead started a backup child-care benefit for students and employees, which sent a clear message to working mothers. And she made it a point to hire women—“Not because I had a quota and not because I set out to say, ‘No matter what, this is going to be a woman,’ ”—which sparked a minor scandal. Her unofficial affirmative action policy, critics said, was born from an unfair, politically biased pro-woman agenda. Tilghman sees it differently. Many of the women she promoted have gone on to wider success, including Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning at the State Department and now leads the think tank New America. In reality, the difference in Tilghman’s hiring practice was simpler than some feminist conspiracy: “I could see women leaders more clearly than some of my male colleagues,” she says.

* * *

Women witness each other’s trials and receive their lessons together. Anita Hill’s testimony in the early 1990s told American women “a very familiar story” according to psychologist Leonore Tiefer. Now, with the Weinstein scandal and its unending aftermath, “There’s a sense we’re not going to do it the same way again.” The old story is being revised, and “the consequences are going to be different.”

There’s danger, though, in distraction from collective concerns. Feminist gains come from women’s real experiences and real opportunities. The impractical inventions of activists and theoretical feminists, the stuff of the “third wave,” do not typically touch the lives of working women. Any social movement with individual self-knowledge and self-fulfillment as its collective aims has probably missed the point, says Tiefer, a professor at Columbia who studies human sexuality within its always-complex social context. “Younger women seem to be concerned about themselves as individuals and their lives in ways that I don’t think—and my mother didn’t think,” she observes.

In 1969, Tiefer was a Phi Beta Kappa with a newly minted Ph.D. from Berkeley. Her adviser was Frank Beach, head of the American Psychological Association. “Frank wrote letters hither and thither,” recommending her to top research institutions around the country. But Beach believed, she recalls, “women were not suited to science jobs because they’re going to get married and have babies. He did not want to throw the whole weight of his reputation behind somebody’s application when they were only going to stay in the job two or three years before bailing out.”

But he did strongly recommend Tiefer for a professorship in psychology at Johns Hopkins and, she remembers, “got a letter back, which I have in my filing cabinet, saying, ‘It looks like a great person, but we don’t hire women’—black and white. I remember Frank giving me that letter and both of us saying, ‘That’s really too bad.’ And we kept looking. It’s not like you fall down dead and say, ‘Discrimination!’ I’m not sure I even knew the word.” Colorado State came courting, and “They thought getting a Phi Beta Kappa to a second-rate school was a coup, which it was.”

At CSU, she awoke to the women’s movement. And as an overqualified professor—one every day more acutely aware of what might have been had she been born a man—Tiefer took to revolutionary leadership. “When I read that stuff in 1972, it wasn’t just that I sat up and said, ‘Oh my God, this is true. Why didn’t I know this?’ ” she recalls. It was the new sense of togetherness: “It was all validated by other people’s stories.”

In the living rooms of her female colleagues and friends, she formed the Fort Collins chapter of the National Organization for Women. In one campaign, they petitioned the local paper to desegregate men’s and women’s job listings. Changing the old stories about what women could and couldn’t do, “It became my struggle. I had to do something about this. It was my job.”

For Lynn Povich it actually was her job. She led a 1970 sex-discrimination lawsuit against Newsweek—recounted in her 2012 book, Good Girls Revolt, which became an Amazon-produced TV series in 2016. Forty-six women fact-checkers were wasting their educations and talents in the all-female research pool beyond which there were no opportunities for them at the magazine. Women with their journalistic ambition hardwired—Nora Ephron, for example, and Ellen Goodman and Jane Bryant Quinn—quickly left for publications where they would be promoted. But Povich stayed and plotted. She was determined not just to write the story but to be part of it. They announced their lawsuit the day the magazine ran a cover on the women’s movement under the headline “Women in Revolt.”

“I wouldn’t say we were braver,” Povich counters my comparison to today’s fighters for workplace equality, “No.” But “I do believe you need to know your history to understand where you are and where you’re going. Things are not being invented for the first time. They’re progres-sing from these foundations. And so many young women have said to me that until they saw the series on TV or bought the book they had no idea women of my generation were treated this way or this was what men said or did.”

For Povich, #MeToo manifests the same strength-in-numbers strategy of the complainants from the Newsweek research pool: “If you do it as a group, it’s so much more powerful—and nobody is retaliated against,” she says. “Younger women have said to me they didn’t have, until very recently, a sense of sisterhood or protesting together as a group beyond the web.”

#MeToo has touched her own work in a way, too. Good Girls Revolt was canceled after a single season. But the Amazon Studios executive producer who decided its fate, Roy Price, had to resign in October after being accused of sexual harassment.

* * *

By now, everyone who cares to has read a cached copy of the “S—ty Media Men” list—a Google spreadsheet deleted within days of its creation but still working its way around the web. For a few days, it circulated among the inboxes of women in media, mostly in New York, collecting the names of men whose misdeeds range from the possession of an abrasive personality to multiple alleged rapes. Deserved firings and awkward exposés swiftly followed fevered coverage of the list.

The list’s originator outed herself early in January when a rumor that she’d be named in an essay by feminist skeptic Katie Roiphe whipped around Twitter. The resulting controversy, in which an online activist offered to pay writers to pull their pieces from Harper’s, where Roiphe’s was set to be published, only proved what turned out to be her actual point. “Social media has enabled a more elaborate intolerance of feminist dissenters,” she argued in the piece. Indeed, they have enabled a more elaborate intolerance of everything.

Contrary to her subjects’ suspicions, Roiphe’s piece is far more occupied with the Twitterati than with the creation of a list that bore a sometimes unthinking revenge. “The need to differentiate between smaller offenses and assault is not interesting to a certain breed of Twitter feminist,” Roiphe charged, citing several anonymous interviewees who agree with her line of thinking but wouldn’t say so on the record for fear of the feminist lynch mob. “One of them,” Roiphe tells me, “did say, ‘You’re taking a bullet for the team.’ ”

These anonymous critics of the movement were, quite understandably, afraid of the response their comments would incur. “I’m not on Twitter, so I don’t live in that world, thankfully,” Roiphe adds. “But I do think people are afraid—of the anger, but also of professional repercussions.” The list and its keepers served up a uniquely digital-age destruction.

They didn’t have lists like that back in the day, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson tells me. But, she says, there were lunches. The earlier version of women in media watching out for each other was subtler and non-newsmaking. “I can remember the first day I went to work in the Washington bureau, two women reporters took me out to lunch to tell me everything: who to watch out for, who was a real asshole.”

She knew her place in the chain of women’s history too, she recalls. At a New Year’s Eve party at some point early in the Clinton years—at Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee’s Georgetown townhouse, no less, “very glitterati”—Abramson caught three glamazons of mid-20th-century feminism putting their heads together: Lauren Bacall, Betty Friedan, and Madeleine Albright. These were women whose power and success no man dared constrain.

“They were engaged in what was obviously a fun and lively conversation,” Abramson recalls. “I was thinking they were like a chain, one necessary for the other. Lauren Bacall being this cool, glamorous movie star who wore pants back in the Hollywood golden age. She begat, even though their age difference wasn’t that big, Betty Friedan. And Friedan begat Madeleine Albright”—who was secretary of State at the time. The willful women Bacall played on the big screen suggested a sharp discrepancy between women’s intelligence and personal power and our domestic erasure during the baby boom, Abramson says. And the feminism Friedan spun from the housewives’ empty lives certainly helped precipitate Albright’s appointment. Every president since Gerald Ford has made certain to appoint at least one woman to his cabinet.


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