Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Disillusioned Young Feminist

A recently minted college graduate, from Stanford no less, Lila Thulin spent her academic years absorbing the feminist party line. Watching the current wave of sexual harassment and sexual assault charges, she is beginning to become disillusioned about what she was taught. Could it be that feminists were selling a fantasy, a fiction? Could it be that feminists had lied to her?

Thulin doesn’t exactly say that feminists have lied. But she does dramatize her disillusionment… promises made and promises unkept.

She writes:

Before I entered the workplace, I’d worn my certainty about the accomplishments of second-wave feminism like a bulletproof jacket. Now the reality of the working world I was confronting bore little resemblance to the one I’d been promised by all the cheerleading feminism I’d encountered on campus. By the time I graduated, it was common practice to read aloud a definition of consent before gaining entry to an all-campus party, and calling for more stringent Title IX policy was a familiar activist rallying cry. Sparkly “Of course I’m a feminist” decals adorned laptops and water bottles, loudly and proudly declaring our convictions. We changed the wording on the neon tank tops worn by roaming sober monitors at a wacky, raucous kiss-a-stranger school tradition from “Kiss me, I’m sober” to “Ask to kiss me, I’m sober” to avoid even the insinuation that nonconsensual mouth-mashing was OK. But amidst all this talk of how to stamp out sexual assault and harassment on campus, all our smash-the-patriarchy conviction, I don’t remember having a single conversation that projected these questions onto my hypothetical future workplace.

Be clear about what she is saying. Given the cultural climate at Stanford it seems to have been nearly impossible not to be a feminist. She was not free to choose whether or not to buy the party line.

Feminists told her that they had accomplished great things. They told her that they were fighting against sexual assault, on campus and in the workplace. They told her that they were fighting against the patriarchy. They might also have told her that increased awareness and a grand public conversation about sexual harassment would solve the problem of sexism in the workplace. They probably did not tell her that heightened awareness of sexual harassment is more likely to produce more sexual harassment. And they probably did not tell her that if young women enter the workplace with the idea that they are going to advance the feminist cause and overthrow the patriarchy, this attitude, or the presumption of same, will not advance their careers.

Reading the stories of workplace sexual assault Thulin feels unmoored. She did not expect this.She was not told how to deal with it. This wonderful new world that feminists have worked so hard to create now looked like a shark tank. Thulin started feeling like chum:

I had prepared to face sexism, but I didn’t expect sexual harassment to lurk in progressive offices in the light of day; I hadn’t envisioned myself as prey and was loath to contemplate current or future co-workers as would-be predators.

Feminism, Thulin began to realize, was selling a fairy tale:

I read and wrote and added tally marks representing women who’d been treated simply as female bodies, as the triumphant story of shattered glass ceilings I’d been told came to seem like an aspirational fairytale.

Forty years of fighting sexual harassment and things seem, if anything to have gotten worse. All that talk about strong, empowered women, all those beliefs about how if you keep saying that women are strong and empowered they will naturally become strong and empowered... has run afoul of a fact that everyone who is not a feminist has always known: men are stronger and more powerful.

She looks back at the situation in 1975:

Swap out names, and the words of this 1975 New York Times article could be published verbatim today:

“Sexual harassment of women in their place of employment is extremely widespread. It is literally epidemic,” said Lin Farley, director of the women’s section of the Human Affairs Program at Cornell University.

But though we can recognize sexual harassment as wholly unacceptable, we still haven’t purged it from the workplace. That’s progress toward parity at a glacial rate. It’s been pretty crushing to realize how little seems to have changed.

Feminism was lying, not because its aspirations were noble but because it did not prepare her to face reality. And that reality includes the fact that fifty years of feminism has perhaps made the situation worse:

Feminism told me I was an empowered professional woman, part of the vanguard that would finally get to storm boardrooms and director’s chairs. Now I am struggling to reconcile this image of myself with the idea that some man soon might see me not as an equal but as a sexual plaything conveniently housed in a nearby cubicle.

Now she finds herself thinking of how she can avoid harassment, without running afoul of the feminist party line:

Yet I’ve also read enough feminist cultural analysis to know that taking precautionary steps to prevent my own harassment feels like buying into the myth of victim-blaming, and the last thing I want to do is perpetuate the idea that sexual harassment happens because a woman wasn’t careful enough. And how can I be empowered if I’m acting out of fear? Besides, being perpetually on-guard also seems unfair, a blanket smear of all the well-intentioned men who do understand power and privilege and treat their female co-workers with respect. It’s hard not to feel stumped.

Or disillusioned.


Christopher B said...

The truth is that powerful 'male feminists' were basically given a free pass to behave as they wished by the Matriarchy, a situation that was formally recognized in 1998. This girl's claim to not understand this is at best acceptance of the Matriarchy's propaganda, at worst willful blindness to things she's probably already seen going on.

Jack Fisher said...

I don't know what "Matriarchy" or "Patriarchy" means here. I know that sexual predation is a choice that some males make and some women in power look the other way and allow -- meaning teach -- their more vulnerable sisters to put up with.

Sam L. said...

Feminists LIED to her? Disillusionment hurts. Also, the campus is NOT like the real world.

Ares Olympus said...

I find it hard to identify this woman's problems. At least everything she apparently talks about is in her own mind. She expresses no actual experiences so of course its fear all the way down. There's no answer until you experience something specific and consider your options.

I never saw any sexual harassment in my office, and the closest I saw was a company wide meeting on sexual harassment maybe 8 years ago, after one anonymous woman complained about some off-color joke. The men largely sat through the lecture patiently, while it was the women engineers who felt compelled to speak up and ask what was the offending joke so we could assess (which was refused), and they firmly said they've never experienced anything but respect in our offices and they'd prefer if we could all just get back to work.

I do recall one woman privately calling another woman a "fat cow". The first woman was pregnant and standing on a chair trying to adjust the ventilation on the ceiling, and the second (somewhat overweight) woman apparently felt afraid for the precarious decision. Maybe I should have spoke up against the name-calling, but I figured she was just harmlessly venting.

Ares Olympus said...

I see the original article is on Slate, and her concluding paragraph shows a core landslide of this entire #MeToo meme. It is because Donald Trump was elected president, a shameless self-confessed and proud sexual predator, and he now sets the standards of behavior for our nation as our leader (shh, quiet about Bill). So while Trump is yet unreachable, the mob must keep finding high status substitutes (who are apparently all around us) so to keep the righteous rage burning.
I would like to believe that this is a watershed moment, that the downfall of so many powerful men will curb others, that we will have franker conversations about what needs to change. But the past year has made me cynical. I voted in my first presidential election hoping for a feminist victory; instead, a serial harasser won.

Anonymous said...

Let's see...they're having a battle FOR power. Yet they want to be EQUAL.

Does anyone see a long term problem?

War, all the way down, perhaps??

trigger warning said...

"I voted in my first presidential election hoping for a feminist victory,.."

All your base are belong to us.

James said...

She's slowly learning you can't beat the arithmetic (reality).

Christopher B said...

Further proof that liberalism results from an irony deficiency is that none of them can see that #metoo would never have happened with Bill Clinton's chief enabler in the White House.