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Rebecca Solnit and the renewed battle against sexual harassment

At a time when women are refusing to be silenced, the US writer is a powerful voice.

For someone who makes their living from words, Rebecca Solnit is unusually interested in silence. The second essay in her new collection, The Mother of All Questions, calls it “the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard”. Silence can be taken as consent; silence can conceal shame; “silence is what allows people to suffer without recourse, what allows hypocrisies and lies to grow and flourish, crimes to go unpunished”. 

The silence of victims is particularly telling. When we meet in the lobby of a London hotel, it’s a fortnight after the New York Times published a revelatory story accusing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of harassing multiple actresses over more than two decades. Allegations against others, such as actor Kevin Spacey, theatre director Max Stafford-Clark and superstar US journalists Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin and Matt Taibbi, followed. Then the scandal spread to Westminster, leading to the resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and the suspension of Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins.  

Solnit sees these stories as “seismic events, where the plate of feminism moves further”. It reminds her of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991, a landmark moment in American feminism, when a young lawyer accused her boss, prospective Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment. The backlash against Hill was fierce – and Thomas still made it to a seat on the supreme court – but the case led to new laws around harassment.

“I often think that she struck Clarence Thomas dumb in some way,” says Solnit. “He’s barely spoken since… And it educated people. All those of us who had been sexually harassed didn’t need to be educated about it, but we needed space in which to have our stories of abuse taken seriously.”

This is the missing half of our current conversation on harassment: think of all the potential lost, the talent wasted, the opportunities stolen by a few powerful predators. “I’ve really been insisting on that,” says Solnit. “Let’s not talk about how sad it is that X’s career is getting smacked down… someone like Weinstein actively worked to destroy women’s voices, agency, confidence, careers.”

Solnit mentions a recent article by the feminist writer Rebecca Traister, which outlined how journalists now revealed as sexual harassers were instrumental in creating the dominant image of Hillary Clinton: cold, sexless, overly ambitious. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘We had no idea how much they hated women.’ And Clinton is her own peculiar lightning rod, but there was a way you got attacked if you praised her, that people really went underground.”

On the left, support for insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders sometimes tipped into harassment and belittlement of Clinton supporters: “You have these white men of the left who are convinced that neoliberalism is the worst thing in the world, even as white supremacy and fascism play out,” she says. “It’s privilege. You can have disdain for what the Democratic Party does if you don’t need voting rights, you don’t need reproductive rights.”

One legacy of the Hill case was giving women (and men) a new vocabulary. I tell Solnit that a friend has just finished reviewing Sylvia Plath’s letters, and was struck by how even a writer as accomplished as Plath struggled to name her experiences. From the 1970s to the 1990s, second wave feminism gave women a framework through which to understand their oppression: coercive control, domestic violence, marital rape.

“There’s a quote in my book Wanderlust from Sylvia Plath about her desire to move freely through the world, and to sleep out under the stars, but she can’t because of her gender,” says the writer. “This year I’ve started to think about Plath, and who would she have been in a world where she had more scope, where her marriage wasn’t such a determination of her destiny… where she had slept under the stars.”

Solnit has taken full advantage of this expansion of women’s freedom. The title of her book comes from her exasperation with journalists and critics who still see childlessness as a pitiable state. After the subject came up in a lecture about Virginia Woolf, she moved the conversation on, concluding: “After all, many people make babies; only one made To The Lighthouse and Three Guineas, and we were discussing Woolf because of the latter.” 

Solnit gives a list of the reasons she hasn’t had children, from being “good at birth control” to being raised by “unhappy, unkind people” and having no wish to replicate that environment. Instead, the 56-year-old has travelled, loved and written – more than a dozen books so far. 

She was a quiet success until a 2008 essay of hers went viral. Entitled “Men Explain Things to Me”, it was a story of delicious schadenfreude: after she mentioned Eadweard Muybridge at a party, a pompous man insisted that she must read a recently published book on the Victorian inventor, his “eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”. As the man struggled to remember further details – it turned out that he had only read a review – Solnit tried to interrupt and explain that she didn’t need to read the book. She had written it.

The anecdote led to a new word – “mansplaining” – and introduced her crisp prose to a generation of young feminists. At a time when women are refusing to be silenced, Rebecca Solnit is a powerful voice.

“The Mother of All Questions” (Granta) is out now

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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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