Severe and Pervasive

Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment BY Linda Hirshman. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 pages. $27.

The cover of Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment

The lawyer and philosopher Linda Hirshman is a second-wave, no-BS feminist who thinks like a law professor and writes with journalistic chops. She’s also known for writing as if white women’s middle-class experience were universal. It was little wonder that Hirshman dedicated her 2006 manifesto, Get to Work, to a similarly contentious figure, Betty Friedan. In that book, Hirshman laid out a five-point “strategic plan” for “all women to find and be able to pay for the kinds of satisfying lives that a grown up should want to lead.” In short, she rails against being a stay-at-home mom (as she puts it, “opting-out of the workplace is a trade-off that is almost guaranteed to blow up in your face”). Her arguments ruffled feathers across the political spectrum: Those on the right complained that she demeaned the sanctity of motherhood, while those on the left were irked by Hirshman’s moralizing and classism. She never wavered, and her core conviction, that “the thickest glass ceiling is at home,” remains as true as it ever was.

Hirshman’s book, with its imperative title, might look like a progenitor of Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 hymn to marketplace feminism, Lean In—a take on equality that seems to benefit only well-educated middle-class women. The two books are actually pretty different. After reading Lean In, I began to appreciate Hirshman’s candor: She bluntly writes that it’s impossible for a woman to successfully work full time and raise more than one child, and so advocates a reproductive strike after the firstborn. This is quite a contrast to Scovell and Sandberg’s breezy assurances, and yet, like those authors, Hirshman could have taken more care in thinking about some of the classic criticisms of the second wave. After all, it’s not wise to write pugnacious prescriptions based on one’s own privilege, and not everyone shares the same relationship to domesticity. Despite these blind spots, Get to Work offers pragmatic, useful advice for those of us caught in the career/family bind. More important: It nobly argues that feminism still has the radical potential to change the world.

Mary Beth Edelson, Death of the Patriarchy/Heresies (detail), 1976, gelatin silver prints, crayon, tape, typewriting, and transfer type on printed paper mounted on paper, 27 3⁄8 × 37".
Mary Beth Edelson, Death of the Patriarchy/Heresies (detail), 1976, gelatin silver prints, crayon, tape, typewriting, and transfer type on printed paper mounted on paper, 27 3⁄8 × 37". © Mary Beth Edelson

In her new book, Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment, Hirshman has turned her attention to the histories—legal, political, and cultural—of sexual assault. In thirteen strong chapters, which move chronologically from 1969 to 2018, Hirshman examines major US events in great detail and with a storyteller’s panache. She starts with lawsuits about workplace harassment in the ’70s and works her way through some of the most notorious incidents since then: Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Roger Ailes and Gretchen Carlson, Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. She then moves on to the pioneering journalists whose reporting has been crucial in exposing and examining the covert dynamics of patriarchal abuse, such as Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson’s 1994 book on Thomas, Strange Justice.

Hirshman also widens her scope to consider the violence the nonwhite working class has endured. Early on, she writes about how black women have long dealt with a “massive campaign of harassment” and the “noxious hangover of slavery.” She unpacks several trailblazing legal cases brought forward by black women in the lily-white court system. For instance, she writes compellingly about Paulette Barnes, who is known for initiating the first sexual harassment case in America in 1974 (Barnes v. Train), though the term sexual harassment wasn’t invented yet (it was coined in 1975 by Lin Farley). That case was dismissed, but Barnes’s appeal in 1977 (Barnes v. Costle) won—and it was a monumental victory. The judges overturned the original findings and, by applying the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ruled that firing someone for refusing sex is a form of discrimination.

Reckoning is dedicated to “a virtuous circle of women who are at once activists, writers, lawyers, and teachers.” Catharine MacKinnon is the first name mentioned, and in many ways she’s the patron saint of the book. This makes sense: MacKinnon was one of the first people to argue that you can’t separate sex from context—an important idea in legislation regarding sexual harassment. MacKinnon’s father, George, was a judge in the Barnes appeal, and Hirshman outlines how he may have been influenced by his daughter’s early ideas (which she first articulated in a law school paper). Hirshman mentions MacKinnon nearly one hundred times in the book, beginning with an explanation of the feminist legal scholar’s critical insight that “the civil rights violation” has been central in “treating women as lesser beings” and “treating men as the standard for comparison.” (Or, for that matter, treating anyone wielding power as the standard.) In turn, we see that MacKinnon’s deep focus on how dominance and subordination permeate all levels of existence—from home to work to the streets—affected later antiracist feminist legal scholarship. Hirshman quotes Kimberlé Crenshaw reflecting in 2010 on MacKinnon’s work and noting that it is “fully applicable in the query posed by Black female plaintiffs, namely: Why must Black women be like white women?”

What’s striking throughout Reckoning, along with how history repeats, is, once again, Hirshman’s tone: combative and pragmatic but also rather simplistic. In the preface, she remarks: “This movement, both epic and sui generis, struggled for most of its history to apply the three basic rules for achieving successful social change in the American context: (1) claim the moral high ground, (2) hold regular meetings, and (3) prioritize your own interests.” The practical advice only goes so far. Her next sentence leaves things vague right where they need to be precise: “Women’s situation made it challenging for them to make use of these three reliable techniques.” We’re left to wonder about the different and overlapping degrees of “situation” so helpfully unpacked by Crenshaw’s theories on intersectionality—who gets to “prioritize” and who doesn’t.

The movement against sexual harassment has lagged for a “million reasons,” as Hirshman says: “ambition, fear, economic need, racial vulnerability, psychological vulnerability.” But also because the issue was never really about the morality of equality. Rather, it’s about sex, a realm in which the Left considers morality passé and in which the Right continues to test the limits of just how hypocritical a political party can be. Hirshman notes this is why liberals essentially forgave Clinton in the ’90s and gave men a pass on the issue for so many years, and why Republicans seem fine with having a sexual predator as the commander in chief. Losing the moral high ground on sex is a problem that Hirshman sees everywhere, including in third-wave feminism’s lack of biting back at judges who let Clinton get away with it.

Hirshman knows that making sexual harassment just about sex is a dead end. She rightly cites MacKinnon’s idea that the movement is more about fighting patriarchal power, which is universal but also systemic, purposeful. The powerful obtain sex “for the arousal and affirmation of experiencing their power.” This can be most forcefully expressed by transgressing the body of another person, thus demolishing a principle held over from the Enlightenment: that one’s body is autonomous and morally inviolable. That basic idea underpins our entire legal system—thus making assault, battery, and murder punishable—and yet prosecuting sexual abuse and rape has been notoriously difficult. In the 1970s, feminists came up with ways to challenge this with, as Hirshman notes, “meaningful legal and cultural tools,” such as the first Take Back the Night protests in 1975 and parallel feminist legal theories on rape, in which one’s body is one’s own and fully self-ruling.

When the legal system fails because it cannot see women as sovereign individuals, the foundational idea of rights (and dignity) falls apart. Every day, the open secret underlying sexual harassment—that those in power don’t care to see the less powerful as anything close to human—is blatant across variegated planes of class, race, and sexual orientation. Under Trump, this is increasingly state-supported: We see it in contemporary disciplinary, governmental, and surveillance practices; we see it in practices of mass incarceration; and we see it in the streets, where immigrants and the homeless, where females and queers and people of color, where most marginalized individuals are continuously violated, always in service of profit and power.

I read Reckoning seeking the concrete advice Hirshman offered in Get to Work. But I finished the book wanting more counsel and less storytelling. How do we create laws that change vague workplace harassment policies and mandate HR departments to benefit the staff, not just the employer? How to firm up what exactly constitutes the federal “severe and pervasive” requirement for sexual harassment so that more people can understand when, where, and how long they have to take their claims to court? I also wondered who had been unaccounted for, whose stories weren’t important or newsy enough. I wanted more about those who didn’t speak out publicly. We know that if you call out an abuser, you will likely be “blamed, demeaned, shamed, shunned, and fired,” as Hirshman says. And, I’d add, discredited on your way out the door.

Hirshman claims the right to a harassment-free workplace is out there “like an unexploded land mine.” But what will it take to trigger that device? We want to understand the history of how we got here. Perhaps more crucially, we want plans for how to move forward. And we know more people are speaking up. How do we make those words count?

Lauren O’Neill-Butler is a writer living in New York.