Me too: on sexual harassment and assault

I was going to write a blog post about capitalism, social systems, and truths, but that will have to wait. I realized there is another blog post that needs to be written first, one that needs to be written now.

Yesterday morning when I checked my Facebook newsfeed, a couple of my friends had posted this:

“Me too.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”

It’s a social media campaign that has come about after the Harvey Weinstein allegations hit the news to raise awareness about how common sexual harassment and assault really are.

I looked at the post in my newsfeed and thought, yes, this is important. I should post that too, because I have also, after all, been sexually harassed on numerous occasions in different situations since I hit my teens. Then I continued scrolling, and stopped, scrolled back up again to the post and then back down again and then back up and then I thought I really need to be involved in this campaign. This is such an important topic to raise awareness about, especially since we don’t usually talk about it.

Yet I found myself scrolling up and down, back and forth, wanting to and not wanting to at the same time and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. Finally I just did it; I copy-pasted the text and created a status update.

During the next couple of hours I started to notice my newsfeed filling up with the same text. Female friends, relatives, and colleagues were sharing it too – countless friends, relatives, and colleagues. And it is an incredibly important issue, but that’s not really why I felt compelled to write a blog post about it. No, the sense of urgency I suddenly felt actually came from the way sharing this post made me feel. I felt a bit uncomfortable about it all day. I had this uneasy feeling inside, and after exploring that for a bit I realized that part of what I was feeling was shame.

I am a researcher and a social scientist. I research gender issues, among other things. I write and talk about inequalities, gender discrimination, identity, and sexuality. I am acutely aware of these issues. I study fears and reactions, and analyze reasons behind actions. I know that being the victim of sexual harassment or assault is not shameful and I know that the victim has done nothing wrong. Still, sharing the fact that I too have experienced sexual harassment or assault feels a bit shameful. It feels too personal; like it is something I should keep to myself.

I am willing to bet that every single woman I know has experienced some sort of sexual harassment or abuse during their lifetimes. I know that I am not alone and still it is difficult to talk about.

But many people don’t understand just how hard it really is. I was reading the comments section under an article about Harvey Weinstein the other day, and there was one comment in particular that caught my eye. It was a person who was genuinely wondering why the women haven’t spoken up before. Why did they put up with it? The answer is that it is really hard to speak up. These women were worried about their careers. They were scared of what Weinstein would do to them. They didn’t want to get stigmatized… I could go on, but the point is that the climate in our society is such that sexual harassment and assault are incredibly difficult to talk about.

I grew up acutely aware that I was at risk and needed to be cautious simply because I was girl. I remember when I was pre-teen, my friends and I heard rumors of girls we knew who had been raped, and we knew it could happen to us too because we were girls and that’s the way it was. And I tell you, walking around with the knowledge that you might get abused is scary and it affects your very fabric of being. To this day, I don’t feel completely at ease walking around after dark, even in my own safe neighborhood. I think this is something that is hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t experienced that fear.

So this is my way of saying, yes, this is important, and yes, we need to talk about it. If you have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, speak out if you can because we need to know that we are not alone, and all of us need to understand what a huge issue this really is.

#MeToo

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The F-word

I got back from the Gender, Work and Organization Conference about a week ago, where I heard a presenter refer to feminism as the F-word. And in all honesty, even though this is the 21st century, that is probably what a lot of people still think of it as – a bad word. Still, feminism has enjoyed something of a revival lately thanks to people like Caitlin Moran and Sheryl Sandberg, who have made it sort of cool to be a feminist. This is, according to another speaker at the conference, apparently especially true among male politicians, although it ironically turns out that claiming to be a feminist tends to work against you if you are a female politician.

So we can safely say that feminism continues to be very controversial, even though the form of feminism that has been gaining popularity today really is quite moderate. The feminism we see today is a far cry from the radical feminism of the 60’s and 70’s. Radical feminists may have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but let’s also acknowledge what they and their contemporaries have done for equality. Without them, women today just wouldn’t have much of the opportunities they have.

But because it is so moderate, contemporary feminism worries many of the so-called old school feminists. This became clear during the conference and I have to say I do understand them. The thing is, we have something today that Linda Hirshman in her article ‘Homeward Bound’ has termed choice feminism. The rhetoric of choice is strong in contemporary society and choice feminism resonates well with that. It represents the belief that women can choose how they want to live their lives and whether or not they want to take advantage of their hard-earned rights to work and participate in the public sphere on equal terms as men. Since the assumption is that gender equality already has pretty much been achieved (which it hasn’t, trust me on this) women can choose to embrace traditionalist gender roles and still be considered feminists because they choose to do so. However choice is complicated. What we may think as free choice can actually be a lot of things. For example, generations of cultural conditioning regarding what is considered admirable and desirable for men and women, which informs our decisions without us even being aware of it.

So the reason older generations of feminists are worried, is that choices like this risk undoing much of the gender equality that we have fought so hard to achieve. In other words, many believe that the feminism of today is doing more harm than good in the name of free choice. While it may help the individual woman in her struggle to maintain coherence in her life and combine all the different parts that are important to her, it doesn’t do much for womankind as a whole, which is exactly what the gender equality warriors of the 60’s and 70’s were concerned with.

As Maria Laurino, author of Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom, writes, “Early feminist leaders were firebrands and iconoclasts who paved the road for changes that benefited the lives of women with more moderate views and temperaments. And today […] feminism – we hear time and time again – is about giving women choices. But outside the fight to protect a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, that definition renders feminism virtually meaningless and politically toothless.”

I think that sums it up pretty well.

Well, I came back from the conference thinking about this, and when I came through the door, my daughter greeted me with a book* in her hand. She had just finished reading it and she seemed excited. She told me I have to read it; it was a book written for teens on questions of gender and power. And my thoughts went back to the women at the conference who are worried about the generation of moderate feminists who risk taking a step backward. Maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to worry so much. After all, there is a new generation of people – girls and boys – who seem to be both self-aware and very well-informed regarding everything from gender equality to environmental issues and animal rights. I’m very intrigued by this new generation and I can’t wait to see how things will evolve as they grow into their roles as the future leaders of the world. And yes, I’m definitely going to read that book.

 

*) A Swedish book: Tänk (tvärt) om! : tjejer, killar och makt by Anna Norlin

What is success anyway?

I’m reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business at the moment. You might remember Anne-Marie Slaughter; she was the one who wrote that famous article in The Atlantic titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. The title of her book refers to the feminist revolution, which she argues isn’t finished yet. And I do agree, there is still work to do. Despite so much progress having been made for women, gender equality still hasn’t been achieved. I mean I come from Finland and Finland is considered to be one of the most gender equal nations in the EU (and in the world for that matter) although it is also one of the most gender segregated. However, although Finland is one of the most gender equal countries, there are about 25% women in top management positions and about 27% on corporate boards. The question is, is that gender equality?

I’m actually working on a paper at the moment with a set of interviews of gender equality workers in Finnish organizations. These workers have lead projects in their organizations to make them more gender equal. What I’m finding is that there is a lot of gender fatigue in Finnish organizations today. People don’t really want to talk about gender equality anymore; they think it’s a non-issue. The result is complete disinterest in whatever it is these gender equality workers have to say. No outright resistance; they’re not rude and people generally know what’s politically correct. No, it’s just total indifference, which is worse in a way. I mean if resistance comes in the form of indifference, it’s really hard to fight. You don’t really know what you’re up against. And not only that; it kind of makes the gender equality workers and what they do invisible and that’s just awful.

One of the reasons behind the gender fatigue we see in Finland is that people think that since things are so much better for women in Finland than in many other countries in the world, we need to just give it up and be happy for what we have. Well, I find it hard to argue with people who say that, it’s hard to make them see. But the fact of the matter is that if we say we shouldn’t keep striving for gender equality because we have it so much better compared to others, it’s like saying that we shouldn’t bother about high quality education in schools because in our country children at least get to go to school. Ok, so I’m not sure that was a very good comparison, but you catch my drift.

But back to Unfinished Business. One of Slaughter’s main arguments in her book is that we will never achieve complete gender equality until we start valuing care work. It is women who continue to do the brunt of care work in society – both in countries like Finland and elsewhere. And as long as women continue to be the main carers in society, this will come in the way of having a career on the same terms as men who don’t have as difficult a time juggling work with having a family. As long as this is the case, women will just not be able to have it all.

But if we start to value care work, Slaughter argues, if we start to value also other things than paid work and objective and traditional definitions of success, only then will men also take on other responsibilities and roles in greater numbers. This, in turn, will make it possible for all – both men and women – to care for a family (which is important!) and to have a career without feeling like they’re on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

When Slaughter had her crisis and quit her high status, sought-after, dream job in foreign policy to go back to her university position, she says “I was forced to confront what was important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want.” And that’s the thing. That’s what women who opt out do. They start questioning the objective definitions of success, and they create their own subjective definitions instead. They realize that maybe the high status, high salary, corner office and company car really aren’t what will make them happy. Like one woman in Lisa Belkin’s column ‘The Opt-Out Revolution’ said, the raises and promotions may have meant a successful career, but they didn’t necessarily mean a successful life.

So maybe that’s what we should all do. Maybe we need to think about what success is for us. I mean what it really is, not what we think it should be or what others say it is. What exactly is it that makes your life successful?

Julia and me, Part 2 (and some thoughts on being a (bad) feminist)

The other day I was having lunch with a colleague and we were talking about how torn we both sometimes feel between having to be a good feminist and just wanting to be there for our children, without having to overthink whether or not we’re setting a good example. In many ways I do think I am a good role model for my children. I work with something I am passionately interested in and I regularly lose myself in this work, which admittedly often frustrates them. I hope I’m teaching them by example to dream big and work hard.

Like many women who have opted out and in, I also organize my work so that I can be there for my children when they need me, which feels both important and meaningful. For example, I work out of my home office several days a week and I have a lot to say about when and where I work, so I really am around when important things happen in their lives. One thing that I am especially proud of and that makes me very happy is that my children tell me that they can really talk to me about anything, and I believe one reason they feel that way is that I am actually around when they need to talk.

But also like many women who opt out and in, one of the results and perhaps downsides of organizing my life to better accommodate my care responsibilities, is that, as a result, I can take even more responsibility for childcare and household chores than I would if I had a job that kept me out of the house all day every day. So while women like me are able to better combine different areas of life, it really doesn’t do much for gender equality in the home sphere, nor in the work place to be honest. At least not in the short run. And being the gender scholar that I am, this bugs me a little.

Well, as my colleague and I were talking about this, we came to the conclusion that yes, it’s good to be a good feminist and set a good example, but we (women) also just need to give ourselves a break sometimes. Strange as it may sound, we are actually only human.

So I felt especially comforted when I stumbled across a book by Roxanne Gay called Bad Feminist. Gay is an academic and a feminist, but she calls herself a bad feminist because she just can’t seem to live up to the somewhat unrealistic expectations she argues many feminists place on women. She writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choice.” So in order to be a good feminist and a good example to other feminists, we have to always make the right decisions, always have the right opinions, and never slip up and God forbid do or say anything unfeminist. Well, we do. We slip up all the time. According to Gay, feminism should be about supporting equality in whatever way we can and do, and it is better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. And to be honest, like many other women I am often too hard on myself, so I feel pretty grateful towards anyone who gives me a break and permission to be human.

One feminist who I really admire is Julia Kristeva. As I’ve mentioned before, I became acquainted with her work while working on my doctoral thesis, and there was something about her take on issues like feminism and feminine identity that really appealed to me. Her approach to womanhood differs from that of many other feminist theorists, who, in turn, have accused her of being an essentialist (believing in traditional concepts and ideals) and just unfeminist in general. And she is neither. One reason she is seen as something of a threat to the feminist movement is that she has introduced the body to the feminist debate, and argues that motherhood is, in fact, “at the crossroads of biology and meaning”. The reason this doesn’t appeal to many other feminists is that they worry that bringing the body and motherhood into the debate could easily be misconstrued and used to argue that a woman’s calling is to have and care for children and that her rightful place is in the home. I want to be perfectly clear here and say that neither Kristeva nor I believe that. On the contrary, Kristeva recognizes that not all women even want to be mothers. But to be fair, I can also understand what it is feminists are afraid of.

But being a mother and having given birth to two children, I can certainly appreciate Kristeva’s thoughts. Although I am a strong believer in that we are shaped and conditioned by socially constructed societal norms and expectations (i.e. we are taught to believe that women are the ones who are best equipped physically and emotionally to care for children, which really isn’t true, men are just as good given half the chance), social construction still doesn’t seem to quite adequately explain the entire mothering experience. Giving birth and becoming a mother is a powerful physical and biological experience. And there is a bond between mother and child that goes beyond gendered expectations and norms.

So maybe, like Roxanne Gay, I am also a bad feminist. Or maybe, just maybe, being a bad (read: human) feminist is what makes me a good one?

Who’s afraid of feminism?

I sometimes teach the feminist theory class of a doctoral course at the business school where I work, and it’s a class I really like to teach. When the students come in, they usually look a bit apprehensive and reserved. Most of them know very little about feminist theory when they come, but they are of course highly familiar with the debate in society on feminism and whether or not feminism is about man hating, bra burning women who want to take over the world from men. And let’s face it, I think despite so many feminists out there insisting that feminism is about making the world a better place for both men and women, this other, rather extreme and unfortunate view of feminism seems to be the one that is more widespread. So the students come to class wondering what exactly we are going to talk about for three hours.

The reason I like to teach this class is of course not the students’ apprehension, but because I was one of them six years ago, with the same reservations, and I remember exactly what that was like. So I tackle that head on and have a very open and frank, but also nuanced and enjoyable, conversation with them, and spend three hours showing them what feminism really is, how diverse it is as a theoretical perspective, and how groundbreaking and influential feminist theory has been to the way we understand and do research in the social sciences. And I hope, and like to think, that they leave after three hours with a completely new perspective on what feminism is.

Because of the skewed image people have of feminism, there are many women out there who insist they are not feminists. Or that they would be, but they just don’t like what feminism stands for. In fact, I once saw a televised discussion between Elisabeth Rehn, the first female Minister of Defense in Finland and internationally acclaimed human rights rapporteur among other things; and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Both women have done tremendous and inspiring things for women globally, but both women agreed in this TV program that neither were feminists. I was shocked. But I guess like so many other women, they probably just didn’t want to be associated with much of what they thought feminism stands for.

However, if we look to feminist theory, radical feminism, that had its time of glory in the 70’s, really isn’t all that popular or established anymore in feminist circles. There are so many different perspectives within the frame of feminism, for example liberal feminism, which is really quite moderate; eco-feminism, which is more spiritual than political; and black feminism, which in addition to sexism, focuses on class oppression and racism. Lately something called choice feminism has been quite debated, and focuses on freedom of choice (which can be a bit problematic, but I’ll save that for another blog post). The point is, radical feminism is only one perspective, but it is of course also the one perspective that is the most visible.

But to be honest, moderation doesn’t generally lead to change. You know, if feminists back in the day had said, “it would be nice if women were also allowed to vote”, we would probably still not have the right to vote. Sometimes you need to be a bit radical to make people listen and to make things happen. So although I am personally probably too moderate for my own good – ‘everything in moderation’, although a good motto in many situations, isn’t going to start any revolutions – I do admire what radical and other feminists have achieved. I am thankful for the work they have done, the fruits of which I enjoy every single day of my life.

So when I hear people say, “I would be a feminist, but feminism is so much about [insert whatever you personally think feminism is too much about] at the moment” it makes me frustrated. Because it isn’t true. There are so many different feminists and feminisms out there, so many different debates going on, and all they are trying to do, whether radical or moderate, outspoken or not, is simply work towards a situation where all people, both men and women, can be treated equally and be provided with equal rights to work, care for children, follow their dreams, opt out, opt in, whatever it is they need and want to do. They just go about it in different ways. So create your own version of feminism, and let’s all be feminists, because to me feminism is about being a mensch. It’s about creating a better world, and doing it in whatever way we know how.

Julia and me (and some thoughts on men, women, and the complexity of being)

My husband asked me the other day when I’m going to write about Julia Kristeva’s work on my blog. The reason he asked is because Kristeva received quite a prominent place in my thesis, and while I was writing my thesis there was a period when basically all I talked about was Kristeva. I was working on my thesis in Adelaide, and every morning for about a week or so, I would go out to the empty, green rugby oval close to our apartment and sit on the bleachers and read Kristeva. I found her work interesting, but also challenging, so I would read what other people wrote about her work as well in order to get my head around what it was she was saying. This may sound a bit crazy, but those bleachers are forever going to be the place where Julia and I got acquainted. So to answer my husband’s question, it’s now.

The reason I got interested in Kristeva in the first place was because she does extensive work on the maternal, which is an important issue in my research. But that isn’t what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about something I saw in my Facebook newsfeed the other day, the kind of thing that many of us see every now and then, I’m sure, but which just gets me every time.

Okay here it is: “Trying to understand women is like trying to smell the number 9.”

I mean really, are we still doing this? Aren’t jokes and wisecracks about how complicated and impossible to understand women are old already? I know people who make jokes about this are just trying to be funny, and don’t really mean anything by it, but what they are unintentionally doing, is keeping alive the idea that women aren’t really to be taken seriously. By dismissing women as complicated, difficult, irrational, and hard to understand, even in jest, women are effectively kept in the position of Other, that is someone who is so different or difficult that they don’t really need to be reckoned with. I’m going to say it, these jokes are sexist.

But at the same time I think, come on guys, don’t sell yourselves short! Men aren’t any less complicated or hard to understand than women. Men are just as complex, and filled with fears, hopes, and dreams as anyone else. Anything less wouldn’t be human. Anything less would be boring. Think about it, do you really want to be thought of as one-dimensional, and on top of that, pretty much exactly the same as the next guy: simple, uncomplicated, and uninteresting?

And this is where Kristeva comes in. Kristeva is, by the way, not only a social theorist but also a psychoanalyst, linguist, and feminist to name a few, and has done a vast amount of work within these fields, so this post will in no way do her justice. But she does say something about sex and gender that I think is relevant to the point I’m trying to make. While people generally get categorized by sex or gender (i.e. you are a man or a woman, or you behave or feel like a man or a woman), Kristeva holds that although masculine is often associated with men and feminine associated with women, the feminine is not a category specific to either sex. The feminine belongs to both men and women. The reason, according to Kristeva, is that both men and women come from the maternal body (boys as well as girls are born from, raised by, loved by, and interact with women) and unfortunately taboos and silencing effectively separates men from this dimension of social life. So if it wasn’t for all the social practices, gender norms, and other constructs out there, men’s and women’s behaviors really might not be that different.

This became complicated and difficult to explain in just a few lines. I think I’m going to have to dedicate a whole other blog post to Kristeva at some point, as she really has some compelling, important, and unconventional things to say about the maternal, feminism, and society as a whole. But for now, like many before me, I’m going to ask, so men are from Mars and women from Venus? Please. How one-dimensional isn’t that? I’d say we are all much more diverse and interesting. If we’re going to talk about outer space, then men are from any number of planets in the Solar System and beyond, as are women. But as book titles go, I guess that just doesn’t sound very catchy, does it.

Longing for the authentic

I’m reading a novel at the moment about a housewife in the 1950’s and I’m struck by the quiet and the sheer boredom that hits me on every page as she tries to keep busy in her empty apartment, thinking up new household chores just to pass the hours until her husband and kids come home from work and school. As I turn the pages I feel quite happy that I’m not her; that I don’t have to deal with the insecurity of not being independent, and the lack of confidence that comes from having nothing that’s my own.

I’ve been told that I sometimes make it sound like I think things have taken a turn for the worse, that they were better in the good old days, especially for mothers. Well, some things are worse than back in the day – global warming for one. But a lot of things are better, and I would certainly not want to go back in time. As a woman, I really like being able to vote, having a career, and being able to autonomously make decisions about my life. I like that my husband and I share household chores.

And things aren’t only better for women. Modern medicine and inventions like the vaccine have increased life expectancy; people live longer and living standards are higher. No, I certainly wouldn’t want to go back in time. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical of life as we know it today.

In the Nordic countries at least, the past few years have witnessed some sort of retro-housewife trend, where the 50’s housewife is romanticized. I’ll paint you a picture: the perfect house, the perfect wife, pretty cupcakes… I’ve been told it has become a question of status to be able to pick one’s kids up early from daycare (although it’s of course mothers who do this, not fathers.). This is certainly not what feminists had in mind when they struggled for decades to give women the same rights and opportunities as men to pursue a career and to have a life beyond the private sphere of the home.

And I do love cupcakes, don’t get me wrong. But this trend is a bit ironic, because I don’t think any of us, if we think about, really want to go back to the 1950’s. However, I do think a lot of people experience a longing for something else – for a simpler life. There is something about contemporary society that is completely different from anything we have ever experienced before. Yes, we have had globalization and travel since ancient times. We have had media and consumption. But it is the sheer speed and intensity of life and work today that makes living in the 21st century different. Way of life in contemporary society has a deep effect on us, on our identities, and on how we make sense of everything.

According to David Boyle, author of Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, there is a longing for the authentic and the “unspun”. Downshifting trends and the increased demand for natural, organic, simple, and sustainable products suggest exactly this: that we are simply getting sick of “the fake, the virtual, the spun and the mass-produced.” Now that I can certainly relate to.

Speaking of feminism, one of my favorite quotes of all time is one by Caitlin Moran from her book How to Be a Woman:

“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”