The passing of an old order?

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Reading Rebecca Solnit’s essay on silence in her latest book has been interesting at a time when women in the US and the UK are speaking up about sexual violence and harassment.

Here, the clubby nature of privileged men is laid bare as politicians known to engage in ‘inappropriate behaviour’ are faced with the prospect that they can’t continue in that way. This was present in the way four male panellists guffawed as they made light of women’s claims about sexual harassment on Have I Got News For You. Jo Brand who was hosting the show spoke out as ‘the only representative of the female gender’, making the point that harassment doesn’t have to be “high level” for women to “feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons”. To cheers and applause she continued:

And actually for women, if you’re constantly being harassed even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.

Attempts to minimise the allegations of sexual assault in Westminster are, as the columnist Suzanne Moore outlines, already underway. They form part of a long narrative of both women’s right to speak out and their credibility when they do so being challenged. The experience of Anita Hill in America 26 years ago when, as a young Yale Law School graduate, she testified that Clarence Thomas was unsuitable for confirmation to the Supreme Court, revealed just how difficult the issue of “believability” can make things for women. Hill’s claims about Thomas, her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to prominence in the USA.

As Jane Moyer, author of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, writes in The New Yorker:

Hill’s credibility was attacked, her character smeared, and her sworn testimony dismissed as an unresolvable “he said, she said” conflict. After Thomas described the process as a “high-tech lynching”—despite the fact that both he and Hill are African-American—the Senate confirmed him.

Moyer goes on to write that Hill believes that

sexual-harassment cases live and die on the basis of “believability,” and that, in order for the accusers to prevail, “they have to fit a narrative” that the public will buy.

Film producer Harvey Weinstein’s exposure has proved to be a watershed moment, she continues, because until now, very few women have had the standing of his accusers.

Weinstein’s sexual-harassment scandal is unlike almost every other in recent memory because many of his accusers are celebrities, with status, fame, and success commensurate with his own. Sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and it has taken women of extraordinary power to overcome the disadvantage that most accusers face.

Here in the UK, where many of the claims currently have been made by more junior staff about senior politicians, we seem to be in an all too familiar pattern of responses by those with power towards women who speak out. The expressions of the panellists on Have I Got News For You after Brand challenged them indicated something of what is at stake when women do speak; there was embarrassment, a level of humiliation, disdain and indignation.

Women who have spoken up – and by doing so expose men in any way – know that doing so can give rise to a storm of responses of varying degrees. But also that the act of speaking out of itself can provoke anger – it’s what many women encounter online or at other times they venture into the public sphere and speak about subjects considered by men to be their preserve.

Women, Solnit writes, are meant to be friendly, nice, and keep to ‘feminine’ topics. If they don’t, they make things uncomfortable, and that is something that is prohibited. Jo Brand’s quip “Sorry, I thought I was on Question Time for a minute” seemed to be an acknowledgement of the discomfort that her comments caused. But it also challenges the assumption implicit in Charles Moore’s recent column headlined This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us. It would be easy to dismiss Moore’s claims as anachronistic, but they are an admission that what’s taking place in Westminster is about power. That’s why the opinions of these men matters, in the same way that the predatory sexual behaviour of politicians does, because these are the ones, who despite Moore’s claims otherwise, wield power.

At a time when the order they preside over is being challenged, we see, as Hill did, that there is a whole arsenal that can be used against women who break cover and speak out. But if women can hold their nerve, perhaps we can catch what feels like a significant undertow, and ride it towards something new that isn’t simply about establishing the boundaries of appropriate behaviour for the privileged. Challenging such behaviour matters. But there is a creative challenge as well: How do we shape an alternative way of being, one that isn’t built on the shutting down of any voices, that celebrates and engages them all?