I want to add just a few comments to the many that have followed the superbly detailed reporting of the multiple harassment and sexual assault accusations made against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. The women who have come forward and shared their personal accounts have done a great service and deserve our gratitude. They have made vivid the extreme gender imbalance in the workplace, in which women are routinely subjected to risks and degradations that have been for too long either accepted or swept under the rug.
The first observation is that–unlike the cases involving Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and Donald Trump–there have been no choruses of people accusing these women of lying to gain publicity or cash settlements. That is evidence of progress in how such allegations are treated.
Second, as a teacher of literature, I am reminded of the power of narrative. These painfully detailed accounts reveal the blatant abuse of power and the ridiculously difficult situations into which women working with Weinstein were put. They carry so much more force than the generalized things that “everyone knew” about Weinstein: that he was a bully with a terrible temper, that he “hit on” young women, that people feared him. The women’s stories are more palpable and relatable than statistics or sealed settlements with non-disclosure agreements. It is in the actual details that we see Weinstein’s sick obsessions and the debilitating effect they had on women trying to protect their personal integrity and avoid jeopardizing their careers.
Women found in these accounts moments that resonated with their own experiences, as witnessed by the powerful “Me, Too” campaign. Men—well, perhaps we learned something. I think so.
Third, it reminded me of the task that women’s colleges engage in: the daily affirming of female experience and solidarity and identifying sexism and oppression, particularly when those conditions are baked into our accepted social and economic structures. We cite with pride that now more than half of college students and graduates are women. But it would be a mistake to read that as somehow concluding the mission of women’s colleges. Women remain dramatically underrepresented in business and political leadership positions, and one reason for that is the cultural normalization of sexual harassment and intimidation.
Though men can be subject to workplace harassment, women are much more likely to live under that constant shadow, and it is easy to imagine how it complicates the struggle to succeed professionally. Accepting an invitation to a working dinner with a supervisor becomes a fraught situation rather than a simple opportunity to show your dedication to the job. Business travel has to be navigated with extra care to maintain professionalism.
Our students enter the world of work already taking the narratives of women seriously and understanding the importance of working for social change. And that is true of the graduates of our co-ed campus as well.
It’s a cliché to say there is much more work to be done. What is not clichéd are the brave and moving stories shared by these women that show us exactly why that cliché is true.