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Sadly, Colin Firth’s words on Woody Allen have a power that women’s don’t

A controversial director may be brought down, but only because powerful actors are finally turning on him. How much progress is that?

“I wouldn’t work with him again.” With just six words, Colin Firth generated scores of headlines, as he responded to a Guardian journalist’s query about his views on director Woody Allen.

Allen has been accused of sexual assault by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. The first time the allegation emerged was shortly after the incident was said to have happened in the early 1990s, when she was seven years old, and allegedly told her mother. The second time was in 2014, when Farrow, then 28, made a similar allegation in an open letter. Allen has vehemently denied the claims for decades; following two investigations, no charges were filed against him. 

As of 2018, Dylan Farrow, now an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, has written two open letters to Hollywood celebrities asking them to stop working with and celebrating her father (Ronan Farrow, her brother, was one of the investigative journalists who uncovered the Weinstein scandal in October last year).

As the Times Up movement against sexual harassment swept the Golden Globes, Farrow accused celebrites who turned up wearing black and #TimesUp pins but remained happy to work with Allen of hypocrisy. “I struggle to understand how a woman who believes Woody Allen is ‘empowering to women’ can claim the role as an advocate for women suffering from sexual harassment,” she told Buzzfeed. “I struggle with how a powerful force like Justin Timberlake can claim to be in awe of the strength of women and stand with them at this #MeToo moment and then in the next breath say that working with Woody Allen is a ‘dream come true.’”

“Despite my credible allegations, Woody Allen has been enabled, praised, and supported while I’ve been ignored, disbelieved, and criticised by many in Hollywood,” she added. “#TIMESUP has defined new promises and principles, I only ask that its supporters uphold them.”

After her statement, more prominent figures came forward. During a panel on Times Up, Natalie Portman, who starred in Allen’s 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You, told Oprah Winfrey, “I believe Dylan. I would want to say that: ‘I believe you, Dylan.’” Reese Witherspoon tweeted Farrow, saying “I’m with Natalie. I believe you, Dylan.”

Celebrities who have worked with Allen since Farrow’s allegations first emerged also stepped up: British actress Rebecca Hall donated her fee from Allen’s upcoming film A Rainy Day in New York to the Times Up movement, saying, “I am profoundly sorry. I regret this decision and wouldn’t make the same one today.” Greta Gerwig, also an Oscar contender for her directorial debut Lady Bird, said: “If I had known then what I know now, I would not have acted in the film. I have not worked for him again, and I will not work for him again. Dylan Farrow’s two different pieces made me realize that I increased another woman’s pain, and I was heartbroken by that realisation.” Rachel Brosnahan, the lead actress in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, called her decision to act in a Woody Allen TV series Crisis in Six Scenes “the decision that I have made in my life that is the most inconsistent with everything I stand for and believe in.”

It’s clear that more famous women than powerful men have spoken out against Allen, from Ellen Page to Mira Sorvino. As Ira Madison writes in the Daily Beast, “Where are the other prominent men? […] Why should men fear the question? There’s no consequences for them industry-wise for shameful behavior.”

Some high profile male actors are now speaking up, too. Actor David Krumholtz said on Twitter, “I deeply regret working with Woody Allen on Wonder Wheel. It’s one of my most heartbreaking mistakes. We can no longer let these men represent us in entertainment, politics, or any other realm. They are beneath real men.” Actor Griffin Newman was the first star of A Rainy Day in New York to donate his salary (to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, RAINN), with Hall following in his footsteps. Oscar contender Timothée Chalamet similarly pledged to donate his full salary for the same film, in which he has the lead male role, to Times Up, RAINN and the LGBT Center in New York. “I don’t want to profit from my work on the film,” he said. And now an Oscar winner Colin Firth, a star with considerable box office power, adds his voice to the mix.

For the first time, it feels like the tide might be turning against Woody Allen in Hollywood – a stark contrast to just four years ago, when he was awarded the Cecil B DeMille award for outstanding contribution to entertainment at the Golden Globes. And the succession of statements from different stars over the last few days demonstrates clearly how much influence Hollywood celebrities have in these conversations – as one rebuke leads to another, and another, and forces audiences to reconsider their perception of Woody Allen.

Even if some of this is cynical (one could accuse Gerwig or Chalamet of responding to questions about Allen in the way they think is most likely to generate positive headlines as their Oscar campaigns for Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name continue, though I find it unlikely), it still sends a strong signal that accusations of abuse are being taken seriously. 

Allen has responded to the latest intervention by Farrow by repeating his denial, and alleging that the accusation was planted by Farrow’s mother. “I never molested my daughter – as all investigations concluded a quarter of a century ago."

Powerful men condemning Woody Allen will undoubtedly have an impact on his future career. It does mark a shift in attitudes: until Colin Firth spoke up, the path of least resistance was remaining silent. Still, this moment feels like just another example of how ingrained our social hierarchies of credibility and influence are. Dylan Farrow has made her allegations against Woody Allen for over 25 years, but six words from Colin Firth may have more cultural impact than her decades of committed campaigning. Of course, the latter would be impossible without the former – but if a select group of rich and powerful white men have the ability to dictate who is celebrated and who is condemned, than we’re looking at the same system that allowed Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to flourish from a different angle. While sceptics of feminist movements like Times Up hysterically insist that women can end men’s careers with a click of their fingers and an accusation of sexual assault, that clearly isn’t true – unless an extremely famous man will vouch for you.

There are still hundreds of powerful people that have defended Allen or stayed silent: Steve Carell, Larry David, Alec Baldwin, John Cusack, Jude Law. Women, too: Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Emma Stone – even Selena Gomez, whose own mother said, “I had a long talk with her about not working with him and it didn’t click. She makes all her own decisions. No matter how hard you try to advise.” (Gomez has however reportedly also pledged to donate her salary from an Allen film to charity).

We still have an impossibly long way to go before there is a redistribution of credibility amongst the marginalised, the abused and the oppressed. If men like Colin Firth are ready to listen and echo the voices of women like Dylan Farrow, hopefully we’re making a start – the best use of a rotten system. But the cult of celebrity got us here, and I’m not sure it’s going to get us out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist