Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

Sticks and Stones and Misogynist Terms and Actions

Sexism still thrives.

Posted Mar 09, 2015

Happy Women's History Month! Every year, those who respect and value women celebrate women's achievements but long for the year when it will no longer be necessary to note the myriad of ways in which the demeaning treatment and even hatred of women hurt women and girls and render the men and boys -- and even women and girls -- who indulge in them so much less human than they could be.

Today, I was thinking about how many people try to silence or deligitimize what women say by branding them with misogynist terms like "melodramatic," "attention-seeking," "manipulative," or "duplicitous." And that reminded me of when I first met June Larkin, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a graduate student in the University of Toronto Applied Psychology program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where I was teaching. Not for long had many people been using the term "sexual harassment," but as our department's September meeting to welcome students approached, I realized that anguished women students had come to me individually and told me about having been sexually harassed by faculty in our department — and fully one-third of the 18 or 20 men on that faculty had been named as the perpetrators. I thought that that reflected a major problem, and I figured that there were some whose harassing and demeaning behavior I had not heard about yet.

The women had not come to me because I held any official position as a sexual harassment officer, since the Institute had no such position then. Just before the departmental meeting, I had checked to see whether our students could make reports to the new such officer at the university's main campus. As I walked down the hall to the welcome meeting, I asked Dr. Jeri Dawn Wine, like me a feminist faculty member, to sit next to me. I remember feeling foolish making that request, wondering why I felt frightened. I had decided that there was an announcement I wanted to make for the sake of the students, but consciously I could not think why I was scared.

After the standard introductions by each faculty member and student, some of them — like June Larkin — new to the department, I said something like: "Many women students have told me about being demeaned by the use of sexist terms or sexually harassed by members of our faculty. Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been shown to happen at least as often, if not more so, to graduate students than to undergraduates. If it happens to you, it happens to others and is not your fault. And it appears as though the sexual harassment office on the main campus is a place where you can file a report or just talk with someone." I sat down and noticed that the pen I held in my right hand was shaking. I couldn't figure out why. I didn't think I had done anything but speak the truth and try to prevent students from blaming themselves and not knowing where to turn if they were harassed.

After the meeting ended, June Larkin, who had spent years as a schoolteacher, approached me and asked if I had been aware that when I made that announcement, many of the men had laughed. I asked which ones, and sure enough, they were those whom the students had identified as harassers. I realized that my fear about making that announcement must have come from my sense of their attitudes toward women...and the safety they felt about displaying them openly. After all, if you had asked me before the meeting how I expected them to act when I said what I planned to say, I probably would have said, "They'll probably try to look innocent or even concerned, as though they think it is too bad that other people do this."

June Larkin was galvanized into action. She put up posters all around the Institute, announcing a meeting to talk about sexual harassment. Amazing things happened even at that first meeting, as women discovered how each of us had been subjected to sexual harassment, whether in words or unwanted and intrusive touching or, for some students, being pressured to have sex with faculty in return for good grades. From the ongoing meetings of the caucus that June helmed came many things. We created  posters modeled on those one sees in restaurants about "What To Do in a Choking Emergency," but ours were called "What To Do in a Sexual Harassment Emergency," because so many women at that first meeting -- women who seemed strong to each other -- had acknowledged that when they were being harassed, they did not know what to do and would freeze. This being in Canada, the caucus got funding from the Ontario Women's Directorate to have the poster produced in French and in English.

When a woman from the support staff timidly ventured in to a meeting, she said, "I didn't tell anyone in my department that I was coming here today, because, you know, they call you a shrew." We reclaimed the word "shrew" by having buttons made up that used the word as an acronym placed vertically at the left, so the words read:






We sold them to raise money to do further education and prevention of sexual harassment. Many people who saw us wearing them would smile in support and/or in the recognition that they were not alone in wanting to resist, and of course harassers worried for a moment that someone knew what they do.

June Larkin wrote her doctoral dissertation, a pioneering study of the many ways that sexual harassment of high school girls impedes their attempts to get an education, and went on to head the University of Toronto Women's Studies Program and to conceive of and create that university's Equity Studies Program.

Who would have thought when she started doing that work a quarter of a century ago that it would still be so sorely needed in 2015?

Further on the subject of misogyny, as a Psychology Today blogger I have seen how predictable it is that some readers will post comments about this essay, saying that people who worry about sexual harassment are too sensitive, humorless, and out to entrap the poor guys who harass them. Watch this site for it. They will be demonstrating why we still need International Women's Day.

But above all, today and throughout this Women's History Month, let us celebrate the progress we have made and find strength in the knowledge of how much work remains for us to do. May women and men who care about women do the work together.

©Copyright 2015 by Paula J. Caplan                             All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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