by Phyllis Chesler
Like most women, I’ve been sexually harassed by my professors, employers, boyfriends, and husbands – and by utter strangers on street corners too. Like others of my generation, I was bred to accept and enjoy it; above all, to keep quiet about it, forget it, and to blame myself if something about these peculiar arrangements bothered me. For years, in isolation, I did so, until movement in the late sixties allowed me to analyze my fate in feminist terms.
I think it’s crucial for us to know what each of us has faced – simply because we’re women; what’s been done, routinely, to destroy our capacity to hope, and to resist.
Like most women, I’ve always had to fend off ‘unwanted advances.’ One pays a price for doing so. As every woman knows, hell hath no fury like a man spurned. Two examples, among thousands: In the late 1960s, after dinner, the head of a department at a prestigious medical school tried to rape me. I was a graduate student and we’d met, at his suggestion (I’m guilty, I confess, 1 went, I ate), to discuss how he could assist me in getting my research funded. In the decidedly non-amorous scuffle that ensued, I broke his ribs, and although I helped him to a nearby hospital (only women actually do things like this), this professor never did mentor my research.
In the early 1970s, another professor arrived to rate my college’s curriculum for a national review board. I admit it, I did it again, I accepted his invitation to a dinner party with Very Famous White Male Intellectuals and their wives. (My equally ambitious heterosexual male counterparts also accepted dinner invitations, without having to face sexual harassment at the hands of their heterosexual mentors). However, I had the audacity not to be impressed by the company this professor kept, and to reject his every subsequent social and sexual advance. He retaliated. He arranged for a scathing review of Women and Madness to be published in Partisan Review. He got a woman to write it – a woman who, years later, apologized to me about it.
These two professors did not see me as their heir, as a future member of their team; nor were they overcome with love for me. They treated me as they did because I was a woman. It was nothing personal. This is what makes it poignant, utterly heartbreaking – the inexorable lead-weight impersonality of prejudice.
These professors were not unusual. Back then (not now, heaven forbid, not now), most men viewed women as pussy: wife-pussy, girlfriend pussy, whore-pussy. This harassment and lack of mentoring didn’t stop me – here I am – but it certainly didn’t help me. And, over a lifetime, it mounts up, it mounts up.
Sexual harassment and rape was so common, so pervasive, so accepted, that it was virtually invisible. The shame, the stench, stuck to the victim or to the whistle-blower. The victimizer never experienced the consequences of his actions, he was never named, and when he was, all ranks closed to protect him and to destroy his accuser. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Great Men (and Token Women) of the Academy neither named nor studied sexual violence; ultimately, their contribution would be to characterize the 1970s grassroots feminist claims as exaggerated and unscientific, as proof of man-hating, unworthy of further discussion. Or funding.
In 1978, Lin Farley published the first full length book on the subject: Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job. Women launched lawsuits, and feminist media published their first stories on the subject. However, in my view, despite some noteworthy exceptions, the most often quoted (white) feminists still had a hard time acknowledging their own powerlessness, their own complicity, in the face of male sexual violence, both on and off the job. Or in their own backyards.
In 1979-1980, I was hired by the United Nations to coordinate an international feminist conference that I’d “pitched” to them. Shortly after I signed my employment contract, my employer, Dr. Davidson Nicol, undersecretary-general of the United Nations and the executive director of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), raped me. Yes (there I go again), I’d had dinner a few times with him too, to discuss my proposal, but that didn’t mean I wanted to fuck him/have an affair/be raped.
I absolutely refused to quit. UNITAR was paying me a great deal of money to do something I passionately wanted to do; I was a single mother, and I needed the money desperately. (“Famous” women still have to work, fame doesn’t equal wealth; this can’t be said too often). I wanted to shepherd this first-of-its-kind conference, and my idea, into being. I’d be damned if I’d let a rapist force me off the field of battle, interfere with my feminist dreams.
No, I didn’t “cry rape,” at least, not out loud. I immediately told some trusted friends and my UN assistants what Nicol had done – and why I was staying on anyway. My friends were outraged, and compassionate. Neither they nor I could “do” anything about it. As a diplomat from Sierra Leone, and a UN official, Nicol had immunity – and I had a conference to create. After Nicol raped me, I made sure I was never alone with him again. Of course, Nicol kept harassing me, but I paid one of my female assistants out of my own pocket to accompany me at all times. I evaded Nicol’s every advance. He retaliated, packed my steering committee with every antifeminist, anti-western, anti-white, antiAmerican, anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist, UN female employee he could find, and there were many to choose from. I endured. My conference endured too.
What was happening to me was not unique. In the mid-1970s, I was having dinner with an Australian-born diplomat when, suddenly, she began to weep. She told me she’d been raped by an Iranian diplomat in Teheran. She had been hired by the Shah’s sister, Princess Ashraf, as one of her chief advisors on a Women’s Institute: “I had no money, I couldn’t get them to give me a salary check, I was actually starving. And then, this. I was so ashamed!” At the time this woman was the highest ranking international feminist civil servant, at least whom I knew. “They’ve raped our Foreign Minister,” I said, “and we have no army to avenge you!”
What was unique, at least to me, was the way in which my own feminist comrades behaved when I tried to confront my rapist. In July 1980, in Oslo, Norway, Nicol, who was intoxicated most of the time, began sexually harassing women at the conference, myself included. “Phyllis, come be with me. You’ve made me wait long enough. You’ve got your conference. I need you. I want you. I will have you.”
I called a midnight meeting, revealed that Nicol had just sexually harassed three women at the conference, and me, and that he’d sexually harassed me before, in New York, where he’d raped me to I cried “rape” as soon as I could, when I thought I’d be heard and get some kind of justice. “Maybe I was wrong not to quit right away/’ i admitted. “This conference has my blood all over it. I’m ready to confront him. Are you? A private confrontation is the only justice I’ll ever get. Nicol has diplomatic immunity. I don’t think I’ll get anywhere trying to sue him through the UN, or through the D.A.’s office in New York, or in his home country, where he tells me he’s a prince of his tribe.” At least ten women were listening intently.
One Nicol-harassed feminist said she couldn’t afford to jeopardize her connection to the UN. “Anyway, that’s how men are. I guess I feel flattered that men still find me attractive, even at my age.” Another of Nicol’s victims was terrified, but willing to confront him. “This has brought back memories of my rape when I was four years old. I don’t know if I have the strength to do this. I’ll try though,” she bravely said. “I’m ready, let’s go,” said the third and youngest woman Nicol had harassed.
A Portuguese diplomat was at the meeting, counting her rosary beads rather frantically. “I always knew something like this could happen.”
“The man’s disgusting,” said a woman from South Africa. “Let’s go talk to him.”
“Okay,” said a woman from Zambia. “But it’s so upsetting.”
Two of the white radical (and lesbian) feminists whom I’d invited took the following approach: With passion, and in tears, A. begged me/us not to confront Nicol. “If (white) feminists were to accuse a black man of rape, it would expose our movement as a racist movement.” White feminists were racists; A.’s concern was, perhaps, with public exposure. The black African women were ready to confront Nicol. (Nicol, by the way, blocked my every move to subsidize and/or invite more than one African-American woman to Oslo; he wanted white blondes, he paid for them, and he got them.)
B., the second white feminist, and an internationally well-known feminist too, was equally persuasive; she smoothly managed to delay our confronting Nicol. “Let’s handle this back in New York, let’s not destroy this conference, the rape happened on American soil, maybe Phyllis can pursue it better there.”
Back in New York, to my amazement, B. ended up collaborating with Nicol. B. wrote the foreword to the conference proceedings in my place, and the UN published it as a book in 1983, without a single line from me. Yes, I had been asked to write the foreword; I said I would. Nicol wrote, and called, several times, to say that the book was “once more a little delayed, no hurry with that foreword of yours.” My feminist “sister,” B., also went on to solicit many of the women I’d found, and invited to Oslo, as contributors to her own international feminist (!) anthology.
When I first saw B.’s foreword, I said I’d sue both B., Nicol, and the UN. Ironically, B. had been sued in the early 1970s by another feminist, allegedly for plagiarism; too late, B. had asked me (!) to intercede on her behalf. This time, in pain, in rage, I was confronting my formerly beloved comrade. I did not understand why she’d done this and I wanted to. I pro- posed a feminist court, a Bet Din (a religious court), a war crimes tribunal.
It was not hard to line up some leading feminists to participate in this feminist Bet Din, but once we got together no one wanted to Take Sides, i.e. to take a stand on the issues. Most wanted to keep their political friendships with both B. and me intact – without getting into the “messy stuff.”
At the meeting, B. was sullen, silent, and made no eye contact with me; from time to time, she said things like, “I don’t remember a lot about that year”; “You’re the one who stopped talking to me”; “I wrote the foreword because Nicol told me you’d refused to do it.”
“But why didn’t you just call me and ask if this was true?” I asked, to which B. said, “Well, I thought you weren’t talking to me.”
C, one of the women I’d invited, said that B. had been systematically “disappearing” her and every other North American feminist’s contribution to global feminism, shutting them out of the information loop. C. wondered whether B. “had also been competing with Phyllis’ plans for an international anthology, but isn’t there room for more than one such anthology anyway?”
I wanted feminist justice, not public scandal or lawsuits. Behind closed doors, I wanted B. to acknowledge that she’d behaved the way women in incestuous families do; I wanted to know why. We’d been friendly, loving, towards each other. What went wrong? What didn’t I understand? Mainly, I wanted B. and our closest feminist comrades to confront Nicol with me. “That rapist should not go to his grave thinking he could divide the likes of us,” I said.
My sisters – and ideologically, they were and still are my sisters – finally agreed to do this, but they never did, and now Nicol is dead. He died late in 1994, 15 years after he raped me, and I can publish his name, but we can never confront him, alive, together. This failure of nerve, this craven feminist collaboration with a rapist, stands; it’s part of the historical record.
Sadly, these same well-known white feminists finally “got it” (at least they publicly said they did) when Anita Hill accused and exposed Clarence Thomas – but that took place eleven years after Nicol raped me.
B. and I never spoke again and from time to time I miss her still. I have no idea what B. ever told our many mutual friends after our Bet Din, or what she now thinks. I only know that for fifteen years I waited for feminists – whom I still cherish – to make good on their promise to confront my rapist with me.
“This can’t have happened to you!” is the response I often get, when I share any of this information. My point: Being a feminist doesn’t change or “protect” a woman from the female condition. If it’s something that happens to women, it happens to feminists too. If it happens to any woman, anywhere, then it can happen to any woman anywhere.
For example, my friend D., who’s also a feminist, turned out to be a severely battered wife. For years, her second husband had been breaking her bones, and her spirit. She didn’t try to escape. She didn’t “tell.” One day, unexpectedly, she asked me to testify for her in court as her expert witness, and she told me everything, more than I could bear to hear, all the grisly, sickening details. How it haunted me, shamed me, that our ideology could not “protect” her – and us – from patriarchal violence.
Perhaps the white feminists who either collaborated with or failed to confront my rapist with me, as I’d asked them to do, as they finally promised to do, were as horrified, as disheartened, as frightened, by our collective vulnerability, as I later was by D.’s Tales of a Battered Wife. How could this happen to one of us! (Ah, did we think our ideology functioned like Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets?)
But, as I always say, “If the Patriarchs don’t get you, the Feminists will.”
Over the years I, and everyone else, have observed some feminists “trash” any feminist who does something – and, at the same time, refuse to confront those heterosexual and lesbian feminists who verbally abuse, badmouth, even physically batter other women, or who exploit and have sex with their patients, students, employees, junior colleagues, groupies. Anselma dell’Olio wrote about “trashing” in 1971 and I quoted her in Women and Madness in 1972; Jo Freeman/Joreen also started writing about this early on. However, naming it didn’t stop it from happening.
I have seen feminists shamelessly submit themselves to, even create cults around, feminists who have money or access to the media, or who are mentally ill. Yes, mentally ill. Codependent madness, slave habits, who knows, but you can’t fashion movement, only stars, out of such craven behavior.
I have observed feminists ostracize the woman who dares cry “foul,” as they themselves do double-entry moral bookkeeping, and refuse to expose, even privately, those feminists who have seething behind-the-scenes contempt for other women, who prefer men, deeply.
Well, I’m biased, I’m a feminist who always does something; and I cry “foul” a lot too. Over the years, as you can imagine, this has gotten me into a great deal of trouble.
Feminists are as misogynistic as everyone else. Sisterhood is an ideal, it’s not yet a reality.
Once, long ago, another well known white feminist demanded that I not write my book on Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, because “some of her best friends were women.” “Are you going to name names?” she asked. “Name names? I might as well publish the phone book, annually,” I said. Not naming names didn’t get us anywhere, did it? Maybe naming names, as a way of demanding some accountability, is as good a way to begin as any other.
I struggled over whether to “name names” here and decided to name my rapist, but not his collaborators, the kapos, those who couldn’t deny themselves the slightest career or friendship opportunities – not even for the sake of their own principles. Their names are legion, they’re feminists and they’re anti-feminists too. Every woman’s got her own list.
It’s a real mind-fuck, though, when a woman publicly preaches one thing, and then, hypocritically, unconsciously, behaves the same way her so-called opponents do. If you say you’re a feminist, try to practice what you preach; but since that’s hard to do, when you fail, why not say so, name it, acknowledge it, apologize profoundly, try again. B.’s crime was not merely the collaboration, or her opportunism; it was her refusal to make amends politically, her refusal to name what she did, her “amnesia,” her 15-year silence. This is what women do to women in patriarchy all the time.
Feminists should learn how not to lie: to themselves, to each other. Some say there are many conflicting “truths.” But what happened to me and to every other woman who’s ever been sexually harassed and raped was not Rashomon; there are no alternative, competing realities here.
How we, as a movement, relate to the truth of male sexual violence toward women matters. As a movement, we must reckon with the ways in which women, feminists included, collude with patriarchy. But girls: the bullshit and the cover-ups have got to go.
The conclusion I draw from these facts is not that “doing feminism” is too hard, or hopeless. My conclusion is that no feminist should think that what’s happened to her is unique, that if only she’d done something differently she’d have been spared, that Somewhere, Over the Rainbow, there are cannier, cleverer, luckier feminists who can do no wrong and can cope with anything.
I don’t know what kind of life I would have lived had there been no modern feminist movement. A lesser life, a more miserable one, I’m sure. I’ll never forget how life gained its fourth dimension, in 1967, when suddenly, the world was bursting with brave, bold, beautiful, adventurous creatures, most of them women. And feminists. How interesting!
Sure, we second-wave feminists had more “fun” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were young and felt invincible. We had no idea that this struggle would take all we had; it’s a lifetime struggle, and it’s much harder than anyone thought. Holding one’s own against patriarchy, just holding one’s own, is not easy. Resisting it – building a resistance movement – takes all we have. And more.
What keeps me going? Feminist honor in action inspires me, mothers me, into doing my best. I get real maternal, I’m at my best, when I can join, support, encourage, witness, feminist thoughts and deeds that are courageous, radical, talented, risky, generous.
No, we haven’t “lost”; feminism is not “on the run.” The party’s over, the velvet gloves are off, on both sides; we’re in the trenches now, fighting for the soul of the world, for its ruling consciousness. I think we’re putting up a hell of a struggle. May we endure, may we live to battle another day, may we acquit ourselves with honor.
Justice dawns – albeit slowly – at the United Nations. In December 1994 the world group settled a 1988 sexual harassment suit in favor of staff member Catherine Claxton, who sued Luis Maria Gomez, a high-ranking U.N. official from Argentina, for assaulting her in his office. Gomez resigned as a result of the charges.
Editor-at-large Phyllis Chester, Ph.D. is the author of seven books, including Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial, and the recently published Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness.