Henry J. Leir Professor in International Humanitarian Studies
Statement, January 31, 2020
Today the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit’s ruling on my appeal goes public, ending a long legal saga on what is, for me, a disappointing note. The Appeals Court has upheld Judge Leo Sorokin’s ruling in Harvard University’s favor. My Title IX lawsuit alleged gender discrimination in the tenure process, and retaliation for speaking out on behalf of survivors of sexual assault and harassment on the Harvard campus. To the young women — and men — who reached out to me: I believe your painful stories, I am sorry for this outcome, and I hold you all in my thoughts.
Today I am reminded of the gendered politics of credibility. It took 60 women to abrogate Bill Cosby’s denials; some 250 girls and women to bring Larry Nassar to some semblance of justice; and at least 10 women (and several decades) to have Jorge Dominguez banished from Harvard’s campus. I was one woman, but trust there will be others who share my belief that sexual access to students is not part of any professor’s compensation package.
On college campuses nation-wide, senior professors — frequently male — wield tremendous power over their students and junior colleagues: a letter of recommendation; a phone call to a prestigious university press about a particularly promising dissertation; an opportunity to work on a field-based research project to gain valuable skills; the opaque tenure process and the power to determine life-long employment. These gatekeepers operate with virtual impunity, administering silences, humiliation, and career-ending decisions. The black box of tenure, lacking transparency, is precisely how silencing and impunity work to the disadvantage of those who would speak up and unsettle the status quo.
The wrong-doing and abuse of a few is made possible by the silence and complicity of those around them who say nothing, do nothing, to stop systemic gender discrimination and harassment. The call for change can no longer place the narrative burden on the shoulders of those who may have the most to lose: survivors of sexual assault and harassment. I was motivated to action because students reached out to me. When we know that people around us are being systematically harmed, the duty to speak up rests upon all of us. It is the responsibility we have to and for others to use whatever power we may have to stand up and speak out. As the #MeToo movement demonstrates, part of changing gender regimes lies in reallocating the shame from the victim-survivors of sexual violence onto those who should bear the shame for sexual harassment and assault: the perpetrators who have too frequently abused their power with impunity.
Which leads me to the missing women. I frequently open my email to find some variation on the following. A colleague writes, asking for advice and expressing her outrage. She has recently learned that a former student, who had studied for her Master’s Degree under my colleague’s supervision, has been driven out of her PhD program by a sexually harassing professor. What to do but offer the standard package of advice, knowing this young woman will most likely go quietly for fear of retaliation and career-ending retribution if she reports this professor. From the actresses who left the film industry because of Harvey Weinstein, to the musicians/composers/singers run out and ruined by Russell Simmons, to the hostesses/servers/sous-chefs who gritted their teeth and let their rage simmer on low, to the hotel maids who dodged groping guests, to the young women who leave academia to avoid sexually harassing professors whose power over them makes or breaks careers — how can we begin to measure the missing women who leave their careers of choice or the jobs they need because they have been ground down, groped, sexually harassed and driven out? This is about sexual assault and harassment, to be sure. It is about the violation of bodily integrity and personal dignity, with equal certainty. It is also about the loss of employment, career aspirations, dreams and economic security. Today I ask you to consider #TheMissingWomen.
I feel fortunate to be tenured and fulfilled at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. My justice lies in being able to return to writing, teaching and researching full-time, a lengthy and grueling lawsuit behind me. My journey illustrates why women do not come forward; and, this is why we must.
I move forward, thankful to have both my conscience and career intact. Thank you.
This is a case study we have discussed in Gender Theory and Practice. What is the “natural body”? Michael Phelps also slept in an oxygen-enriched sleeping pod to enhance his competitive swimming skills, yet that was accepted as a training tool — not the privilege afforded to a wealthy white male athlete with corporate endorsements. Fast forward to Caster Semenya and a ruling that she must alter her hormones to level the playing field. Take a look at the pictures below, a reminder that black bodies (of all genders, to be sure) were the lascivious objects of the colonial gaze.