International Women’s Day: Instead of honoring the achievements of the past I still have to fight sexual harassment

I might have been naive, those 40 years ago, when I sincerely believed we were fighting a battle we would win, and would stay won.  I figured I would be able to tell my children and grandchildren about those ridiculous times when professors pressed students into having sex with them in exchange for better grades (or not being flunked).  I would explain how women had to fight to be taken seriously as academics and how many of my classmates had been devastated by professors who manipulated or coerced them into sex, as well as by classmates who—in a term we were just inventing—“date raped” them.   

At Yale, a group of us spoke up against the injustice.  We delivered a long report to the Yale Corporation, we talked to senior administrators, we identified the harassers and—when other means had failed —we sued Yale for violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  This was not an easy battle and it led to more harassment against us who stood up.  But it was worth it. As a consequence sexual harassment was defined as sex discrimination and thus in breach of the law that was supposed to guarantee equal opportunity in education.  Yale, resisting all the way, finally established a grievance procedure for victims of violence and harassment, an innovation that has become nearly universal in American universities, and spread to other countries.  But sadly, in 2015, women can still not attend college free from the threat of violence and harassment.

Cyber harassment is a threat to women’s civil rights

As a lawyer, I am still representing plenty of women (and some men) whose rights have been violated at college and at work.  And I see that misogyny remains powerful, and adaptive, taking on new forms empowered by improved technology.  Cyber harassment and revenge porn mean anti-female abuse can reach victims anywhere there is a computer or a mobile device, and be anonymous, and worldwide, and extremely difficult to erase.  The damage caused by these new forms of abuse is often profound, both psychologically and practically, causing women to lose jobs and be unable to get new ones.  While not as many, men can also be victims of these hate crimes, but in most cases the perpetrators are also men.

“Why don’t you just quit Twitter?” is one of the questions cyber harassment victims are often asked.  Well, because Twitter, as other online mediums, is a platform for expression, a platform which people should not be excluded from on grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever other reason the anonymous trolls pick on.

And here, in 2015, I ask myself: Why?

Why have we not managed to eliminate sexual harassment?  How can we still be struggling with this?

The reasons are numerous. Gender socialization is as strong as ever.  We are so obsessed with gender that we start treating boys and girls differently before they are even born.  Despite progress on many fronts, the differences imposed on boys and girls are in many ways worse now than when I grew up in a devout Catholic family where my parents were not even sure my four sisters and I deserved to go to college.  I see with my own daughters the onslaught of pop culture that told them that looking like a retouched supermodel should be their highest calling.  And the internet now puts in the hands of every 11-year-old a feast of pornography, full of women being subjugated, beaten, covered with excrement, penetrated in every orifice—anything but equal to men.  In the sexual assault cases from Ivy League universities, of which I now see all too many, this kind of degradation seems to have infiltrated the expectations of lots of young men, who lack the language, the mental categories, that would permit them to consider women their true equals.  

Standing up for justice

Around International Women’s Day, we once again remind ourselves of where we have come from, and where we still have to go.  We stand up against all forms of violence against women, home and abroad.  From genital mutilation in Kenya to campus rapes in the U.S., we agree that this won’t be tolerated.

For myself, just turned 60, I look forward in the next year to more challenges in using the law creatively so that, one fight at a time, we can make life better for women (and men).  I will continue to represent people in the U.S. and the U.K. whose rights have been violated, who have been fired from jobs or denied bonuses or shunted into second-rate work because they are women; who have been harassed at work or at school, online or offline; who have been raped or sexually abused.  I will continue to seek to enforce Title IX at U.S. universities.  I will lobby for changes to the law (including a federal law against revenge pornography), and I will speak up against violence wherever I have the chance of being heard.  In other words, I will try to do my part.  I feel just as charged up as I did at Yale 35 years back.

Dear reader, young or old, I ask you—please stand up and do your part, wherever you are, and in whatever way you can contribute to the fight.  Make yourself heard, at meetings, on the street or by the water cooler; lobby your legislator; support local and global NGOs that are making this world a better place for women and girls.  Above all, don’t give up.  We all matter.