Keeping Women Safe Is a Radical Act

As I watched Christine Blasey Ford give testimony regarding her experience being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, how he pinned her down and smothered her to the point of fearing for her life, my physical body felt like it was collapsing inward. Smothering, of course, is a characteristic and chilling act of misogynistic violence—of silencing women. Watching, my skin burned. I felt as if I was holding coals in my hands. I was inconsolable, reliving my own trauma. I sank through wave after wave of logical, emotional and physical responses to what that awful display—and her pleasantness and palatability—triggered.

Real heroes—and Ford is indeed a national hero—often cannot shout their conviction and courage. Rather, they much choose outfits, hairstyles, facial appearances, words and emotions to appeal to the thresholds of reasonableness and credibility held by the gatekeepers of power. She was an “attractive, good witness,” as Sen. Orrin Hatch called her.

Many, many women across this nation watched the spectacle of her placid and even recollection of trauma and felt the strain of grief and exhaustion and the acid burn of rage. Those of us women in academic science, with the “Dr.” prefix in front of our names, with our constant performance of reasonableness and tethered sensibility, also absorbed the scene with crushing gravity. It was a mirror into our perfected acts of believability and our docility and deference—and it demonstrated unequivocally how our palatability and supplication do not serve us. We might be pleasing, but we are not safe.

Misogyny operates at all levels of women’s lives. In our political and public life, our professional life, our family life, our intimate and romantic relationships with men (for those of us who have sex with men), and our interior storage of trauma and shame. Watching Ford’s testimony was a strange exercise in unpacking and examining the cost and damage, across so many levels, from misogynistic punishment and patriarchal control. We are Russian nesting dolls of pain. From the highest level of federal politics to the most intimate and personal of individual experiences, we are a catalog of violation. Because, of course, experiences with sexual violence and abuse are not intellectual experiences. They are bodily, traumatic memories.

Academic science has the highest rate of sexual harassment of any field, second only to the military, a finding recently reported by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It is decidedly an environment disinterested in keeping women safe or respecting women. As women scientists, we anticipate these gendered working environments, which are demeaning and disenfranchising, including behaviors such as mocking, stereotyping, patronizing and bullying. Such gendered harassment foments an atmosphere where coercive and violent behavior is possible. And, we see how institutions are structured to punish women and promote men, through for example the absence of maternity leave for women scientists. Or, the lack of punitive costs paid by male academics when they demonstrate harassing, abusive or violent behavior. 

Ford’s believability, as she recounted her experience with trauma, became an instant frame for examining the reported he-said-she-said dynamic of the hearing. Believability—the hallmark of reasonableness. She was the perfect witness to garner moral attention—blond, white, professional, coiffed, demure and helpful. And yet, unreasonably, the premise of a he-said-she-said dynamic in this case is completely false. She did not need to be palatable for a jury, because it wasn’t a trial. Nor was it “hell” as Sen. Lindsey Graham would shout, as he boiled over in himpathic righteousness.

Rather, it was a job interview for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. Ford was there to appear regarding Kavanaugh’s fitness. She testified on her experience being violated and assaulted, in order to initiate a more serious investigation into his character. And so, her role was not to be believable in comparison to him, but rather appeal to committee members as worthy of moral attention. And, as we saw in the hearing, the most credible and personal testimony by a woman, even an academic scientist, is insufficient and unworthy of moral attention.

In many ways, we as women don’t even own our own stories. Why? Because the culture does not care about women’s pain and violation. Very little public attention or value is given to even account for the systemic erasure of women’s pain. Moreover, if this culture does not value woman’s authority over our own bodies, and our right to not be violated or harassed, it definitely does not care about our intellectual, scientific, political, moral or social authority.

As an individual, my anecdotal experiences corroborate the findings of the report. Indeed, I participated in the initial wave, less than a year ago, of public #MeToo disclosures and wrote about my experiences of harassment, rape and institutional negligence. My motivation for coming forward with my experiences was hardly political; it was an act of excruciating public exposure to demonstrate my profound grief and anguish at how women are violated and erased. Because, again, experiences with sexual violence are a form of trauma to the psyche; they aren’t an agenda.

As I have grown through the last year, the #MeTooSTEM movement would follow, culminating in massive public campaigns targeting the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences and the toppling of powerful men’s careers. And yet, we still marinate in a culture where only women show up and staff sexual harassment working groups. Men sit in their offices and publish papers, and we huddle in dark corners to confer and strategize about how to protect our students and trainees. We exist within a culture that believes keeping women safe is a mundane Human Resources task. It’s not. To keep women safe requires a fundamental reorganization of power, value and moral attention in public. This is the table that we are trying to flip.

To be sure, Ford’s testimony and the outcry from white women across the nation demonstrated the racist limitations of the moral attention of white women. It is never enough to keep only white women safe. We have extensive work to do to center and focus on the violence, colonial erasure and misogynoir (a racialized, amplified version of misogyny) targeted on women of color and indigenous women. And, as a white woman, this is exactly where I intend to focus my moral attention. 

The broken nature of our moral attention and the full-blown gendered sociopathy, as described by feminist philosopher Kate Manne, of our political and scientific institutions should give us all cold sweats. It is terrifying. We live in a world where certain pain and violation are worthy of moral attention, whereas other pain is irrelevant. It does not matter how palatably you arrange yourself as a woman, you will only be violated further. Rather, we should divest from the docility we’ve been policed into demonstrating.

As we fight to change the systems around us, we must demand that our male colleagues show up and participate in this cultural moment—or reveal them as complicit. White women, we must demand better of ourselves, so that we do no perpetuate the subjugation and erasure we strive to be free of. Ultimately, it is a revolutionary act to care for and center the suffering of women, especially and specifically women of color and indigenous women. Keeping women safe, listening to women’s pain, and believing women is not about punishing men—it’s about changing the world. Join us.



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