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Patriarchy is bigger than Donald Trump: Plenary by Cynthia Enloe

by | Aug 6, 2018 | The Agenda

The excerpts below have been selected by the BroadAgenda team, and published here with Professor Enloe’s permission. They have been transcribed verbatim, and have not been edited. To view the full speech, please see the video at the end of the article.   

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One of the reasons I gave this speech the title I did – Patriarchy is bigger than Donald Trump – is because I really am concerned about the fact that Donald Trump is such a big character that he might persuade some people to imagine that he invented patriarchy.

But patriarchy is a large political structure, practice and culture. One of the things I’ve learnt since becoming a feminist analyst is that I have to be able to analyse all three of them, and the relationship between them. You have to be curious about how structures operate, you have to be curious about practices – including the most mundane practices, as well as the most formal and ceremonial – and you have to be interested in culture. 

So I thought that it would be interesting to look at the #MeToo movement as international politics. The #MeToo logo, if you will, was created by Tarana Burke, an African-American activist. If you ever use that term, be sure to credit her.

Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke

The #MeToo movement really broke out into the wider consciousness with the outing of the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the co-owner, and co-director of the very large and influential Miramax movie company.

The reporters from The New York Times and the New Yorker, who have since won the Pulitzer, heard rumors that Harvey Weinstein was abusive towards quite a range of women working in the movie industry, and they persuaded their editors to spend time trying to find out if there was any basis for these rumours.

What they found was that in American legal practice, one of the most prominent practices that structures women’s voices and silences, is the non-disclosure clause. This meant that most of the women who had been subject to abuse of various sorts by Harvey Weinstein, were paid off if they brought charges, and then as part of the agreement, they had to sign a non-disclosure clause.

One of the things I’ve learnt is that I have to learn how to study silence

This is the structure in the silence. There are all kinds of ways to create patriarchal silence, and one of the most insidious today is the legal practice of inserting a non-disclosure clause into any agreement that a woman makes against an accused harasser. You must listen for silence, and you must figure out how to study it in a way so that you can reliably tell how silence is used.

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Sexual harassment was first coined in 1979. Before that it was called just ‘watch out for him’ or ‘I’m going to leave this job because I can’t stand what goes on in the office.’ Then activists began to put together a concept that would define, or make visible what otherwise looked random. That was the point of the concept.

A really good concept makes you see the world in ways that shows that there are patterns that you would otherwise miss

 A concept can of course be wrong – not everything that is called a concept automatically shines a light on what you need to make visible – but a really good concept makes you see the world in ways that shows that there are patterns that you would otherwise miss.

Catherine McKinnon, an American feminist scholar who wrote the first legal article in an academic journal defining sexual harassment, noted that it was such a breakthrough for her to understand what was going on in workplaces. Women were leaving their jobs because of sexual harassment. In most countries, if you leave your job voluntarily, you are not eligible for unemployment insurance. If you’re not entitled to unemployment insurance, you either have to endure the abuse with your sense of self-esteem shrinking by the day, or, if it is possible to quit, you’ve taken a big sacrifice of losing your income.

These feminist activists were determined that women who were being driven out of their jobs by workplace sexual harassment should not become even more financially precarious because of the abuse of power of people in their employment space.

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In 1992, a notorious charge of sexual harassment was televised. Clarence Thomas, an African American Supreme Court Justice, was up for a nomination to the Supreme Court, which meant that the Senate judiciary committee was holding hearings on whether he was acceptable for the senate to approve the nomination.

All was going well in the hearings, when a young law professor from Oklahoma submitted, saying “I have had experiences with Clarence Thomas as a supervisor in a government agency that makes me think that he is not appropriate to be on the highest court”.

Her name was Anita Hill. You can still see bumper stickers around in the US which say, ‘Honk if you believe Anita’.

 

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Professor Anita Hill testifies before Congress during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings for Supreme Court. October 11, 1991

What we saw was an all-white, all male judiciary panel of senators facing a young African American law professor and not believing her. The whole portrayal of women’s lack of credibility was on show. And for a lot of people it was a wakeup call. It was so dramatic, it was so clearly visible that an all-white, male panel of senators were determined to undermine the credibility of a woman willing to speak up.

If you’re already disempowered in the political system, do you want to wash your dirty laundry in public, when the public is the dominant community that oppresses you?

These hearings set off a major conversation in the African American community about sexual harassment, but this is relevant for any community in any country. If you’re already disempowered in the political system, do you want to wash your dirty laundry in public, when the public is the dominant community that oppresses you?

 

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So how is this relevant to international politics? With any social movement, how does it – or does it ever – become international, and how can you tell?

Some of you remember Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was the director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Strauss-Kahn was visiting New York, when Ms Diallo, a housekeeper went into his hotel room to clean it.  He came out of the bathroom wearing just a towel, and then tried to assault her. She went to the management of the hotel and made a charge against him, and the hotel management did not dismiss her.

When you stay in a hotel, notice the procedure when hotel staff come and clean your room. You can see that the door is normally open, with a bucket or washcloth or something by the open door. That is political. When you see the door propped open, with the housecleaner inside vacuuming and making the bed, you’re seeing the result of politics, because most managements of hotels do not want us to see the remaking of the beds, the cleaning of the toilets. That doesn’t enhance the appeal of the hotels. When you see those doors open, you’re seeing the political movement of hotel history.

This has at least three levels of international politics. The first level is Dominique Strauss-Kahn who was the director of one of the most powerful international organisations. The second level, or dynamic, is the international hotel industry. And the third, is that Ms Diallo herself was a recent immigrant to the United States with all the precarity that that involves.

To have a feminist analytical approach to international politics means that you have to have skills to analyse practice, structure and culture, but you also have to have the skills, and be curious enough to really focus on the politics going on in the most intimate spaces

But the politics were also very local. And this is one of the things I really want to underscore. To have a feminist analytical approach to international politics means you’ve got to be curious about the most intimate spaces. – a hotel room – and the most mega kinds of spaces – the institutional culture. You have to have skills to analyse practice, structure and culture, but you also have to have the skills, and be curious enough to focus on the politics going on in the most intimate spaces.

Again, the New York Times reporters decided that it would be interesting to go to the IMF offices in Washington and see whether this kind of behavior had resonance with how gender politics and power dynamics worked out inside this very prestigious, bureaucratic organisation.

One of the things they found was that senior women economists thought every morning about the clothes they would put on to go to the office. These very prestigious, very accomplished women were nervous about the length of their skirts, because there was a kind of permissiveness – in 2011 – around senior male economists coming on to sexually harass their senior female colleagues. So they armored up and tried to wear clothes that weren’t provocative. They had to imagine a patriarchal misogyny amongst their coworkers in order to decide what to pull out of the closet every morning.

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This leaves us with a question I don’t have the answer to, and I don’t quite know how to investigate it, but I think we have to investigate it: Is a misogynist workplace culture such that it has an impact on that agency’s output on the international arena? Does a misogynistic institution’s internal culture have any effect on what an agency’s policy makers dismiss, don’t think about, don’t care about, don’t think is anything but trivial? I don’t have the answer.

Be a curious feminist

The #MeToo movement now is taking form in a number of different countries. When you think about the movement, go global, go international. Think in most intimate spaces and big structures. Be a curious feminist.

 

The excerpts above have been selected by the BroadAgenda team, and transcribed verbatim from Professor Enloe’s speech at IPSA. To listen to the full speech, please see the video below. 

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