Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Fighting the Same Fights as Our Feminist Mothers

Some thoughts on sexual harassment and academic careers

Aug. 14, 2018

By Gila Silverman

When the news broke that a well-known male scholar had been sexually harassing — and sometimes assaulting — female colleagues for decades, I was in the midst of cleaning out my mother's home office. I was packing up her books on Jewish feminism, women in academia and feminist pedagogy; sorting her notes from conferences and work groups on women's connected ways of knowing, gender and moral development, and widowhood and social roles.

She had often talked about how hard it was, especially in the early years of her career, to be taken seriously as a woman with a PhD. She had many stories about the men who ignored her ideas at meetings, and later promoted these same ideas, claiming them as their own. In the early 1970s, she was invited to speak to a group of funeral directors in another state, who were interested in learning more about her research with widows. They later sent a letter to my father, thanking him for "allowing" her to be away from home. In her papers, I found a photo of her with a group of colleagues, sitting around a conference table. She is the only woman, and she is speaking, but most of the men are looking in other directions.

For the last few weeks, I've been immersed in reading the op-eds, emails, Facebook posts and listserv discussions about harassment and gender and power in the Jewish and academic communities. I've been outraged, sad, confused and physically nauseous, as we've learned — yet again and in such detail — about the multitude of ways in which women's bodies, experiences, ideas and careers have been undervalued, abused, dismissed and belittled.

My own experience with this happened few years ago, as I was finishing my PhD and trying to figure out how to position myself professionally and intellectually. I scheduled a series of networking meetings with colleagues and thought leaders in my field. A colleague I had only met once or twice took the time for a long conversation that was helpful and encouraging, full of praise for my work and my political bravery, but then veered sideways into sexual innuendo and offhand comments about extramarital affairs, went back to professional brainstorming and possible jobs and projects, and ended with a hug that was too close and too long for someone I barely knew.

I was grateful for his help, but uncomfortable. I knew that if I described our meeting, many people would have told me that I was misinterpreting ordinary behavior. Later, when I mentioned to friends that I had met with him, they confirmed my discomfort, telling me that he had a reputation for being "creepy" to women, and for verbally bullying female colleagues in public forums.

I never really followed up on our conversation, and I didn't pursue the possible collaboration he had mentioned, though it seemed exciting and might have opened professional doors. I didn't want to work with someone who made me uncomfortable and who had a reputation for treating women as something other than intellectual equals. I moved on.

Careers are built on a combination of skill and talent, education and opportunity, luck and determination, creativity and collaboration; they are not made or broken with a single conversation. But the Pandora's box that was opened recently made me think about what might have happened if that day had gone differently. If I had felt more comfortable with him, would I have chosen to pursue the research projects he had suggested? Would I have made useful connections, had the opportunity to publish in higher-profile journals, been part of conversations I would have liked to be part of? And just as importantly, would I have had something interesting to contribute to those conversations, brought ideas and perspectives that weren't otherwise represented?

I find myself wondering, how many women's ideas have we lost to situations like these? What intellectual contributions have we missed because women's insights were ignored or silenced or co-opted? What community-changing policies were never pursued because women walked away from professional situations that were uncomfortable or unsafe?

Building an academic career is challenging these days. The corporatization of the university, a political climate that under-values (and un-funds) education and research, and the rise in contingent positions have all been well documented. For many of us, there are the added issues of resume gaps that come from caregiving, and the constraints caused by complicated family situations. Now we can also publicly acknowledge what many of us knew in private, that there was another issue influencing our professional decisions. For far too many women, our complex professional calculations and negotiations had to include whether we felt safe with our colleagues, and how much sexual innuendo or unwanted physical contact was a deal-breaker. This is simply unacceptable. It has to change.

I am now back in my own home, unpacking my mother's books and papers and adding them to my own library. As I'm putting away 30 years of books by and about Jewish women, I am struck by how much has changed for women since the 1970s and how much has stayed the same.

I keep coming back to Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff's recent op-ed, "Where are All the Women in Jewish Studies" in the Forward, detailing the glaring exclusion of women from high-profile scholarship in Jewish studies. I have been thinking about Rachel Kadish's beautiful recent novel, "The Weight of Ink," and the lengths her fictional 17th-century female scribe must go to in order to pursue a life of the mind; I find myself questioning if we are really so different from her. I am grateful to the women who are now speaking truth to power, after silently carrying these stories for years. And I am pondering all of the complicated ways in which gender has affected my own professional trajectory.

For now, I can't quite connect the dots between all of these things. I can only sit with my sadness and my anger and my frustration. I can only hope that, because of the actions of so many brave women and good men, things will someday be different.

Gila SilvermanGila Silverman, a 2017 HBI Scholar-in-Residence, is a research associate at The Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University, and a visiting scholar at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies.