As the United States celebrates the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote, let’s remember the bad-ass women who fought for this right–literally fought, like with jui-jitsu and stuff. And so we thank Dr. Wendy L. Rouse, author of the groundbreaking historical book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, for this guest blog post.
Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu and Suffragist Self-Defense
The year 2020 marks the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States, which declared that a citizen could not be denied the right to vote based on sex. As the anniversary approaches and historians begin to reexamine the traditional narrative of women’s suffrage history, new details emerge revealing just how contentious the campaign for the vote really was.
You already know that suffragists petitioned, lobbied, rallied, marched, and picketed. You also already know that militant suffragists endured arrest, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feeding. But did you know that radical suffragists took up boxing and jiu-jitsu to physically prepare for the political battle for the vote?
Suffragists were fighting for much more than the vote. They hoped the vote would empower women to break away from the confinement of the domestic sphere, eliminate gender-based discrimination in education and employment, and protect them against violence. But women were told that they did not need the vote because their brothers, fathers, and husbands would protect them. Suffragists, however, challenged this myth of the natural protector, citing cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault to arguing to the contrary that men were frequently the perpetrators of violence against women and children.
Women’s experiences advocating for the vote, both in the United States and across the Atlantic in Great Britain, only further seemed to prove their point. The British suffragists of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) experienced brutal incidents of violence in their encounters with anti-suffrage men and the police. They organized deputations and marches demanding their right to be heard. Nicknamed “suffragettes” by a mocking press, WSPU members adopted the name as a badge of pride. The suffragettes faced unruly mobs of men who heckled and assaulted them on the streets. Rather than coming to their aid, police officers assaulted and arrested the women. Bloodied and bruised in violent clashes with anti-suffrage mobs and the police, suffragists were affirmed in their conclusion that they could not rely on men to protect them.
In this violent context, self-defense training took on explicit political meaning. In 1909, jiu-jitsu expert Edith Garrud began teaching a course that she called “ju-jutsu for suffragette self-defence.” Garrud also specially trained a group of suffragette women to serve as the “bodyguard” for WSPU leaders. But after discovering that detectives were spying on them, the bodyguard was eventually forced to train in secret, hiding from the police, and changing their meeting locations to avoid discovery. By 1913, the WSPU leaders were recommending that all suffragists train in self-defense. Sylvia Pankhurst, addressing a suffragist meeting insisted: “We have not yet made ourselves a match for the police, and we have got to do it. The police know jiu-jitsu. I advise you to learn jiu-jitsu.”
“Ju-Jutsu for Suffragette Self-Defence.” Women’s Franchise 2, no. 53 (July 1, 1909): 667.
“If You Want to Earn Some Time, Throw a Policeman!” Sketch. July 6, 1910, 425.
British suffragettes and their radical tactics inspired American suffragists. Several American women traveled to the United Kingdom to join the WSPU and participate in the protests. Zelie Emerson, a young woman from Michigan, was inspired to join the cause after hearing Sylvia Pankhurst speak about the WSPU in Chicago. Emerson experienced multiple violent confrontations with the London police. On two separate occasions, the police fractured her skull with their batons. Emerson protested her arrest and imprisonment at Holloway through hunger, thirst, and sleep strikes. Upon her release from jail, Emerson helped organize Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End People’s Army which drilled in “the use of clubs, fists, and jiu-jitsu” explicitly to protect suffragettes against the brutality of anti-suffragists and the police.
“Suffragists Take up Jiu-Jitsu.” San Francisco Examiner. May 2, 1909, 44.
Suffragists in the United States never organized a bodyguard or a People’s Army. Instead, the militant tactics of the WSPU sparked intense debate among American suffragists. Most mainstream American suffrage organizations insisted that such militancy was unnecessary in the American political landscape and refused to publicly endorse such tactics. Individual suffragists, however, recognized the value of women’s self-defense training in this context. Sofia Loebinger, a leader of a suffragist group in New York, expressed admiration for the actions of the English suffragettes who practiced jiu-jitsu insisting that: “Strong situations need strong women.” She admitted that although it might not assist American women directly in achieving the right to vote: “boxing would be a good thing for women if only to teach them to concentrate their minds on one thing at a time. The ballot, for instance.” Recognizing the transformative potential of physical training in strengthening women for their political fight, Loebinger hoped that American suffragists would design self-defense courses modeled after the British example.
Although suffragists in the United States experienced much less physical violence than the British suffragettes, their personal experiences with harassment and assault challenged them to reconsider their views about women’s right to use force when necessary. American suffragists who took to the streets to demand their rights endured verbal, physical, and sexual assault from anti-suffrage men and the police. The 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. ended in chaos as spectators pushed their way into the streets, blocking the path of the floats and marchers. Anti-suffrage men hurled insults at the shouting that the women should have “stayed at home where they belonged.” Women and children endured sexual harassment from observers who made lewd comments to them as they marched by. Marchers reported being pushed grabbed, pinched, tripped, and shoved by male spectators. Over one hundred suffragists were sent to the hospital to seek medical treatment for their injuries. A Congressional investigating committee appointed to investigate the incident, chastised the police for failing to stop the violence and egging on the assailants.
Greeley-Smith, Nixola. “Suffragettes Will Cultivate Muscles and Fight Like Amazons for Her Ballot.” Evening World (New York, NY). April 11, 1911, 3.
Shortly thereafter, local suffrage organizations and women’s clubs began organizing private boxing and jiu-jitsu classes for their members. These classes were mostly held in secret to avoid attracting negative attention. In March 1913, two weeks after the violent Washington D.C. suffrage parade, a group of suffragists in St. Louis determined to study boxing to better protect themselves in their fight for women’s rights. They hired a prize-fighter to instruct them and began quietly training at a local gymnasium owned and operated by a German immigrant woman named Louise Bodecker. A local reporter broke the story describing boxing as the latest fad among suffragists. The boxing instructor confirmed the existence of the class but refused to provide any more detail. The fighting suffragists likewise declined to be interviewed and chose to keep their identities anonymous.
Suffragists in Badger, Washington, were similarly motivated by recent incidents of violence against suffragists to take up lessons in boxing. A boxing academy “for suffragettes only” opened sometime in the summer of 1913. A visitor to the boxing club noted the ferocity of the women’s abilities, commenting, “The suffragettes take as kindly and naturally to the art of self-defense as a duck does to water.” The use of the term “suffragettes” in referring to these American women suggests that the author clearly associated these suffragists and their actions with the radical suffragettes of Britain.
“Boxing Lessons Now Fad of Suffragists,” Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas), March 20, 1913, 3.
Women’s self-defense courses became increasingly more common in the United States as women recognized the political implications of their physical empowerment. In 1917, suffragist Louise Le Noir Thomas reflecting on the trend of women’s self-defense classes attributed it to the larger “feminist rebellion” that was occurring in women’s lives as a result of the suffrage fight. She insisted that women would no longer “be called the ‘weaker sex.’” By training in self-defense a woman was boldly declaring that it was “not unwomanly to protect herself.”
Thomas, Louise Le Noir. “How a Woman Can Protect Herself,” Ogden Standard (Ogden, UT). Magazine Section. April 14, 1917, 1.
Suffragists like Thomas believed that a woman who studied self-defense represented the ideal modern New Woman: both politically and physically empowered. Suffragists understood that winning the vote was an essential first step to their quest for liberation. They also increasingly recognized that women’s political oppression was directly linked to their physical subjugation. Radical suffragists who advocated boxing and jiu-jitsu insisted that a woman has the right and ability to defend herself and self-defense therefore became an important symbol of a woman’s total liberation.
Wendy Rouse is an Associate Professor of History at San Jose State University. Her research examines the history of women and children in the Progressive Era. Her most recent book, Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement, explores links the history of women’s self-defense with the campaign for the vote in the early twentieth century.
An Open Letter to Our Many Friends in the Blogosphere (but not including the guys who keep sending us dick pics):
- Must be between 200 and 1,000 words in length
- Contributor must be academic (sorry, we love non-academics and self-defense practitioners but the point of our blog is the scholarship on self-defense)
- Must be rooted in, or about, the scholarship on self-defense applied to a current issue
- Must not violate copyright
- Must not be published elsewhere, although we are OK with simultaneous posts (e.g., published here and published on your own blog on same date)
- Humor and creativity are encouraged!
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How to submit: Send submissions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We promise to get back to you within 30 days.
We can’t wait to hear from you!
Jill & Martha, aka SJFB 1.0
Ask any feminist if men have power because they are bigger and stronger than women and you’ll get an answer that things are far more complex than this, gender is socially constructed and institutionally maintained, and that sex inequality determines how we see our biology rather than our biology being the cause of the inequality.
And yet, when we start talking about training women to fight off sexual assailants, feminists are often the first to object. We have witnessed multiple instances of this objection and we have offered multiple possible explanations for it. Here’s one more, rooted in a style of handling power.
The feminist literature is full of discussions of power as dominating or controlling another person. A subset of the feminist literature discusses power as a form of empowerment (eg., finding your power, empowering yourself to exert more control over yourself or your circumstances). This view frames power positively as competence. For instance, ecofeminist Starhawk frames power as a positive energy that “emerges from within.”
Those with institutional authority and privilege can exert their will using power as a physical or economic force. This is primary power. This is the power women talk about seeing/feeling/fearing when a man pulls his pants off. There’s a thinly veiled threat that rape or murder could be next. There are other ways to exert one’s will, of course. Nietzsche calls this secondary power. This is the power that someone lower on the food chain has to exert their will in certain circumstances, such as when a woman student comes on to a male professor with the office door closed only to say he harassed her, knowing that his untenured butt would get fired.
If women are more comfortable using secondary power, then our advocacy of physical and verbal resistance just smacks too much of primary power for feminists’ taste. These same feminists often prove themselves to be very comfortable with secondary power plays– for example, encouraging women to file Title IX complaints, investigating people, etc, etc. These are all ways feminists are completely comfortable seeing men go down. If I were a man, I’d much prefer to have had the temporary pain of my testicles twisted than to have lost my job or chance to finish my education.
If we take the claim, made by many in the gay rights and feminist movements over the years, that sexuality ought to be democratized, then we must rethink some of the popular positions on issues like dating, hooking up, and resistance to sexual assault. We must demand not simply respectability but responsibility. As R.W. Connell noted in an essay back in 1995, while the AIDS epidemic spawned a kind of collective responsibility in sexual practice in the gay community, this project of responsibility was not adopted in the heterosexual community. As a way to illustrate how conventional, hegemonic heterosexuality can absorb some aspects of feminist radicalism without really changing the power structure, Connell points out the 1975 best selling book, The Total Woman, by Evangelical Christian Marabel Morgan. Morgan advised women to employ the pro-sex ethos of the time–for example, by wearing make-up and sexy outfits–to please husbands under whose total authority they lived. As Connell put it, “The wife becomes an erotic doormat.”
If we want to democratize heterosexual relations, it will take more than just pole dancing at parties and being willing to hookup in one-night stands, often while drinking and drugging. It will take a willingness to set boundaries, deciding what you are OK and not OK with, and fighting back–in the moment–when/if you have to. Otherwise, college women on the hookup scene today are a contemporary version of the Total Woman–using eroticism to reinforce men’s power and control rather than to contest it.
Dear Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN):
Hello! First, we hope it’s ok that we call you RAINN. Second, happy 25th birthday! In keeping with the third wave of the feminist movement, we’ve all been emphasizing the importance of women’s being free from coercive defilement–whether that is by family members, dates, acquaintances, coworkers, intimate partners, exes, or strangers. It’s hard to believe we’ve all been at this for so long.
We were so pleased when we saw that you have an entire page on your website devoted to “Steps You Can Take to Prevent Sexual Assault.” For we here at See Jane Fight Back have been reviewing the scholarship that shows how self-defense–training in it and/or doing it when threatened–is tremendously empowering for many women, changes the scripts of our rape culture, and helps prevent sexual assault.
So imagine our disappointment, RAINN, when we realized that you say nothing about women resisting sexual assault (which is, after all, a key step they can take to prevent it). Turns out you only talk about how someone can help prevent the assault of someone else, as a bystander. This is not even data-driven advice.
While we hate to rain on your 25th birthday parade, we are deeply concerned that you are providing information informed more by some ideology about how it’s men’s job to change, not women’s, and that it would be victim-blame-y to share with anyone the research that verbal and physical resistance (self-defense) works to thwart assaults in individual situations and at a norms-changing societal level. (By the way, we do not think advocating self-defense is victim-blame-y.)
Your page for college students on preventing sexual assault also omits any mention of physical and verbal resistance, even though on this page you do risk blaming victims by telling them to be sure they have their smart phones set in certain ways to avoid attack, to have people they can contact at the ready, to have cash on hand, and also to keep their drinks covered so no one can drug it. Obviously, we should be teaching men not to drug our drinks, too, but we agree with you that it makes good sense to alert women of the things they can do given that, currently, there are people drugging drinks. For this same reason, we believe in telling women they can yell, kick, poke, push, and punch.
Sadly, RAINN, you tell women a variety of protective measures they can engage in but never tell women they can, and have a legal right to, resist an attacker verbally or physically. They can, and they do.
RAINN, please consider what the CDC has said about data-driven prevention advice and programs. You are robbing women of the information that could truly empower them and prevent assaults. And you’re old enough to know better.
Martha & Jill
Among the many pop-feminist, girl-power-esque books out last year, The Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett, reviewed in the New York Times (lucky Jessica), tells women how to fight the power, with the help of your girl gang. Only without fighting.
Fighting, being mean, and anger are actually popular on the bookshelves in the pop feminism aisle. Here are some of the titles you’ll find:
—Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford
—Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister
—Mastering Your Mean Girl by Melissa Ambrosini
Clearly, there is something appealing about the idea of empowerment, being powerful, resisting sexism, and fighting. These seem to define feminist empowerment today. The only problem is that none of these books is actually about learning how to fight.
The feminist taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Why is teaching women to fight, resist, and master meanness metaphorically, without including self-defense, a problem? Because, as we have emphasized, knowing you can fight physically is instrumental in knowing you have the right and the skills to fight metaphorically.
Looking for an empowerment self-defense course? These links might help:
Wishing you all an empowered and impactful holiday season and New Year,
Martha and Jill
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as we knew, and which we were shocked to discover that Donald Trump knew, but that may have been because it was mentioned by one of his the 15 or more women who have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Nonetheless, it has certainly contributed to raising awareness, including the scores of tweets in response to his proclamation. Those tweets ranged from snarky comments to video clips of his accusers to video clips of his own admission – nay, bragging – about committing sexual assault.
As college professors, we are accustomed to acknowledging issues on various months, and we do so happily, in a number of ways: hosting speakers, promoting events, distributing information, wearing buttons with slogans. Awareness is critical, and getting the message out in as many ways as possible is always a good thing. We’ve even worn jeans to support gay rights. Gay Blue Jeans Day is brilliant because everyone wears jeans and of course, part of the point of Gay Blue Jeans Day is to show that being gay is as normal and everyday as blue jeans.
But now, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, we’ve got to wear teal in support of SAAM this Tuesday, April 3. Teal? It was hard enough to find a font in teal, let alone an article of clothing.
Mind you, most professors have no sense of style. Worn-out shoes, broken fly zippers, and saggy old sport coats are commonplace in the halls of academe. Not that all academics wear pants and sport coats. Indeed, we’ve been to entire (politically conscientious, perfume-free) academic conferences where women were dressed in muumuus or clothing from Chico’s. And so as somewhat fashion-challenged college professors (although “fashioned-challenged” only applies to one of the authors of this blog, and we’re not saying who, but it’s not Martha), like many professors we often struggle with what to wear, relying on black and neutrals which always seem to match and don’t require changing shoes until the seasons require it. For SAAM, we used to be good – we’ve got a few variations on “no” t-shirts (one favorite says, “‘No’ is a full sentence.”), and the best part is that the t-shirts go with jeans.
So how about rethinking this teal plan? Something that middle-aged feminists and professors can more easily accomplish? We’re pretty sure we wore teal mascara back in the mid-80s, but that’s another issue, and fortunately, no photographic evidence seems to exist to back up that claim. It’s not that we think we look bad in teal (in fact, see our favorite hilarious list of what women over 30 should wear — don’t worry, it includes teal, and saffron, and ochre, and magenta, and…).
It’s just that it’s unclear what wearing teal actually accomplishes, in an era of activism where it’s awfully hard to keep track, and where, sadly, there are multiple issues requiring active resistance. We applaud, and thank, the young (and older) people who are speaking up so vociferously against sexual violence, racial violence, and gun violence, to name only a few. That’s work, and that’s hard, and it’s making a difference. We support these intersecting movements–ROY G BIV. Wearing a color, even a difficult one like teal, makes it too easy to simply post our outfit of the day on social media, and do no more. So wear what you like, including purple with a red hat, but wear it while marching, writing letters to politicians, advocating for self-defense training, and fighting back. Activism never goes out of fashion. And while Sexual Assault Awareness Month says wearing teal today shows that “everyone has a role to play in ending sexual violence, and showing your support for survivors by wearing teal is one way you can embrace your voice for change,” we hope that people will discover many more roles to play in ending sexual violence–before it even occurs.
In their article “Stop Raising Awareness Already!” in the Spring 2017 Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand argue that organizations all too frequently attempt to raise awareness about their issue, as if awareness automatically translates into action for change. Instead, they argue, organizations must communicate more strategically with their public audiences, giving people concrete calls to action.
Christiano and Neimand explain that there are four specific risks to doing awareness campaigns the wrong way. Done improperly, awareness campaigns can: (1) lead to no action; (2) reach the wrong audience; (3) create harm; and (4) generate a backlash.
As an example of how well-intentioned campaigns can result in no action, the authors cite the CDC’s very witty “Zombie Apocalypse” campaign, which went viral but led to no measurable increase in people’s actually taking the recommended steps for disaster preparation. As an example of a creative and popular campaign that may have actually created harm, the authors cite the “Dumb Ways to Die” music video, which was created to encourage safety and decrease the deaths around trains in Australia. Sadly, the sweet-sounding song and cartoon video make death seem less horrifying and, importantly, did not take into account the research that shows that such imagery can actually increase suicide among those already contemplating it. As the authors put it, “Unfortunately, it is uncommon for practitioners to conduct a review of academic literature as part of the early stages of any effort. . . . The gulf between scholarship that could help practitioners avoid harm, reduce risk, or increase the effectiveness of their efforts and practice is common and wide.”
This is all particularly interesting to us since we created See Jane Fight Back because we were tired of the uphill battle it had been raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of women’s self-defense training. We have not felt particularly successful in getting women’s self-defense training to be an accepted part of the rape prevention discourse.
So let’s consider awareness campaigns for sexual assault prevention. These often lead to no action (other than after-the-fact reporting) or they create harm when, by not mentioning the research showing how effective active resistance can be, they rob women of the knowledge and skills to thwart an attacker and position women as damsels in distress who must rely on men’s good intentions. And the backlash is rampant, such as when Nina Sanchez, who won the Miss USA title in 2014, advocated self-defense training for girls and women as a rape prevention strategy.
When we look at the sexual assault prevention campaigns, it is obvious that those campaigns have not conducted a review of the academic literature. We have been a broken record, trying to tell people about the scholarship showing how effective self-defense is. Which leads us to examine our own campaign.
How effective is our campaign to advocate self-defense? To do well, it must move people to learn the empowering tactics of verbal and physical resistance to sexual assault and/or move policy makers to provide such training.
According to Christiano and Neimand, a successful public interest communications campaign contains four elements: (1) targeting your audience as narrowly as possible; (2) creating compelling messages with clear calls to action; (3) developing a theory of change; and (4) using the right messenger.
So here are our questions:
Have we targeted our audience properly? Do we have an audience, or instead, audiences? Women and girls are a diverse group – to target our audience narrowly, as Christiano and Neimand suggest, we may need different messages, theories, and messengers.
What about the message–if we came up with a compelling message with a clear call to action, what would it be? Having a clear call to action is no guarantee of success, as we learned from the CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse campaign, which made it crystal clear that you ought to make an emergency kit. But having a clear call is one of the four necessary elements of a successful public interest communication campaign.
What about our theory of change–do we need to rethink that? We’ve been thinking that as more women feel that pleasurable sensation of empowerment as they develop an efficacious relationship with their own potential for setting boundaries, they will be more likely to set boundaries and men, recognizing that more and more women in their midst are setting strong limits, will be less likely to see women as easy targets to prey on. The data suggest this is true, but perhaps, with the goal of raising awareness, this isn’t the theory that compels women and girls to embrace self-defense.
And finally, we are thinking that the self-defense advocacy movement needs the “right messenger”– perhaps a cool woman to whom girls and young women would listen. Lady Gaga? Beyonce? Pink? Laverne Cox? Serena Williams? Who do you think our messenger should be?
These are the questions we must answer if we want the research on self-defense to wind up making a real difference to prevent sexual assault. Tell us what you think in the comments section!
Leave it to feminist academics to make a lesson out of a Zumba class, that popular form of group exercise for the decidedly hyperkinetic. Some well-meaning feminist-leaning people have already questioned our participating in Zumba and other forms of female-dominated Jane-Fonda-esque aerobic activities to be a sign of our having patriarchal body image problems and self-loathing, so perhaps turning Zumba into a feminist lesson (and blog post) might make up for any misperceptions along those lines.
Two fun pop songs played in Zumba classes these days are Meghan Trainor’s “No” and Trainor’s duet with LunchMoney Lewis “I Love Me.”
In the song “No” Trainor advises women to recognize their right to say no, offering multiple ways to do so:
“All my ladies listen up/If that boy ain’t giving up/Lick your lips and swing your hips/Girl all you gotta say is/My name is no/My sign is no/My number is no/You need to let it go/You need to let it go/Need to let it go.”
Of course we self-defense advocates know and celebrate this sentiment. But it’s the words LunchMoney Lewis sings in “I Love Me” that drive home a perhaps equally important and complementary lesson for men, so that they can take no for an answer. In his part, LunchMoney Lewis sings:
“Oh hey-ey-ey, I love me/Hey, hey, hey, I love me/’Cause I’m sexy and it ain’t my fault/I ain’t waitin’ on nobody’s call/You don’t want me, baby that’s your loss/I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine, baby.”
Men need to follow the example of LunchMoney Lewis and develop their own self-love, self-care, and sense of centeredness. For having all of those things makes taking no for an answer, and respecting another person’s boundaries, a non-issue. Of course, it’s possible to take no for an answer and respect someone’s boundaries anyway (like, because it’s the law and all), but what a wonderful place from which to listen and respect. As LunchMoney Lewis so clearly says, being rejected might not be fun, but it’s FINE.
And, as for being a feminist who goes to Zumba, well, I love me.
In a Dec. 12 New York Time Magazine piece called “The Conversation”, Emily Bazelon interviews several notable feminist academics and journalists on workplace sexual harassment. Laura Kipnis, author of a recent book critiquing Title IX overreach on college campuses, is one of those in the conversation. Kipnis points out that feminists have struggled to gain what she calls “civic equality” (access to full participation in politics, the workplace, and other public spheres) as well as to gain bodily autonomy (such as reproductive freedom and freedom from interpersonal violence). Both of these revolutions are unfinished, as the sexual harassment of working women brings to light.
Of course, one’s lack of bodily autonomy impedes one’s civic equality. And as feminist legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon pointed out in her landmark 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, sexual harassment is a pervasive problem keeping women from both economic and sexual self-determination. By the way, it’s interesting that MacKinnon is not one of those interviewed or referenced in these recent conversations. She has been stereotyped as anti-male and anti-sex, and yet her work was crucial in making sexual harassment a legally actionable form of sex discrimination in the workplace. In short, at some level anyway, we are all MacKinnon feminists now.
In the NYT Magazine interviews, Kipnis is the only one in the group to ask the question about how women respond to this kind of sexual aggression. When Bazelon asks who should be responsible for change, Anita Hill answers: “There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment. You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture.” Danyel Smith, Soledad O’Brien, Lynn Povich, and Amanda Hess all chime in that we must change men or the culture. Kipnis asks, with the innocence born of the utter sensibility of the question and the trepidation that stems from knowing full well that feminists have embraced a victim politics and she’s sure to get hammered, “Do we have to choose? Can’t it be all three?” After all, it’s not as if changing women is not also changing the culture–and vice versa. Of course, we would argue, empowerment self-defense training does not “fix” women who are “broken”. Kipnis mentions that she wants to embrace the kind of assertiveness training that was once a popular and acceptable part of the feminist movement.
In suggesting this, Laura Kipnis faces what we’ve been facing for years in our advocacy of women’s verbal and physical resistance to men’s sexual aggression: the reality that for many feminists, self-defense is verboten. The taboo on self-defense denies years of data that show how effective, empowering, and culture-changing women’s practice of verbal and physical self-defense is. (We have written about this here, here, here, and here.)
Ironically, the outright refusal to embrace the embodied tactics that resist one’s oppression embraces and essentializes the very feminine comportment and victim mindset that themselves constitute the lived realities of a sexist culture. In response to Anita Hill’s remark that “if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix women,” Kipnis simply, but insightfully, comes back with, “Good luck.” Suggesting that we make men change is not only unrealistic but demands and solidifies a Victorian ideal of male chivalry. This is not equitable, nor is it pro-sex, nor is it chock full of girl power. Indeed, it is an attitude that goes against all other ideas popular among feminists today.
Amanda Hess goes so far as to say that women cannot challenge their sexual harassers, proclaiming: “I think that freezing and trying to slip away when something upsetting happens to you is a human response. I think it’s also a very human response sometimes for people who are witnessing some sort of harassment, even men. I don’t think we can necessarily teach that response away.” In short, Hess wants men to change–and no doubt rejects the arguments that, thanks to evolution, our male coworkers are just cavemen in suits–but wants to underscore the fact that women, biologically, cannot change their responses to sexual harassment. Women are engaged in a “human response” that we can’t “teach away.” (Try telling Hess her male colleague’s ogling the gorgeous young woman who arrived at work wearing a bodycon dress, stiletto heels, and no bra is just a “human response.”)
Wanting to challenge sexual harassment in the workplace without training women how to challenge it flies in the face of sexual harassment law itself. After all, unless it’s the quid-pro-quo type of sex harassment (e.g., “perform this sexual act if you want the promotion/don’t want to get fired”), the law itself demands that the victim first let the perpetrator know that his verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature is unwelcome. The condition-of-work type of sex harassment presumes that people are differently sensitive to jokes, touching, and asks for drinks, and that people have different views of what conduct is sexual in nature. Thus the victim must first say something either through her supervisor or established written complaint channels, or directly to the perpetrator, such as, “I’m not comfortable with your sexual jokes; do not tell them to me anymore”, or “I don’t want you to touch me”, or “I do not want to see the porn on your computer; do not show me that again.” If a guy continues to subject his colleague to these working conditions after he is told to stop, and such action unreasonably interferes with her work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, then it is sexual harassment. (Note: gendered terms used to make the argument easier to follow. OF COURSE some harassers are women, some victims are men, etc.)
We still need to challenge gender inequality in intimate relationships, in the workplace, and in civic life. And, to appropriate Emma Goldman, if I can’t defend myself I don’t want to be part of your unfinished revolution.