A Fearful Asymmetry
By Judith Plaskow.
I learned an important lesson this past summer about the ways in which institutional structures perpetuate a profound power imbalance between sexual harassers and those who are sexually harassed. In August, I received a letter from the AAR Executive Director saying that the board had voted to offer me the Ray L. Hart Service Award in 2021. Reading the letter caused me to laugh aloud because Ray Hart had sexually harassed me in the mid-1970s when I was young woman serving on my first AAR committee.
I remember the circumstances of that harassment very clearly. After the Program Committee meeting had ended for the day, several of us adjourned to orange armchairs in the lobby to have a drink before dinner. I was the only woman on the committee and was quite a bit younger than the next oldest member. I don’t recall whether I was a graduate student or a newly minted Ph.D., but I was very anxious to demonstrate my understanding of the committee’s work and to contribute to it in a meaningful way. I was appointed because I had been co-chair of the Working Group on Women and Religion—the first feminist program unit in the AAR–during its second and third years. I was excited to be able to speak for the Group as it petitioned for Section status, and I hoped to be received myself as a serious academic.
I don’t recall Ray’s exact words: just that he made a series of sexual comments that left me feeling as if I needed a shower. His remarks made it clear that he viewed me only as an attractive young woman and not as an equal member of the committee and a promising scholar. It was a form of harassment that was totally routine at the time and likely is still. I know few women in the academy who have not been subjected to inappropriate sexual comments at some point in their careers.1 Two other members of the committee were present, one of them clearly uncomfortable, but neither said a word. The incident did not derail my career or lead me to consider leaving the academy, but it left me feeling demeaned and under-valued at a time when I was struggling to define myself in my new profession.
When I read the letter from the AAR, I fully intended to accept the award because a) I felt like I had the last laugh, and b) I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to talk publicly about sexual harassment in the academy and the long history of struggle to get the AAR to develop a policy addressing it. As part of the award, I would be interviewed for Religious Studies News, and I planned to discuss the irony of receiving a prize named for someone who had harassed me. My intention to raise the issue was initially affirmed by the Executive Director, who was very distressed when I described the situation. Then she spoke to the AAR’s lawyer.
The lawyer said that I absolutely could not name the perpetrator unless there was a “full investigation.” But what on earth does it mean to “investigate” an incident that occurred with few people present almost fifty years ago? Sadly, the two people I told at the time—my friend Carol Christ and my ex-husband—both died within weeks of my receiving the letter. The colleague on the Program Committee who I’m fairly sure was distressed looking on died three years ago. Today, someone who is harassed might report the incident or at least document it, but I did not even have the language to understand what happened to me until many years later.
There are two lessons that I learn from reflecting back on my experience and from the AAR’s reaction. The first—and this is a point I wanted to highlight in my RSN interview—is the crucial role of bystanders. Had either one of the men looking on said mildly, “cut it out,” or “that’s inappropriate,” or “that makes me uncomfortable,” I imagine that the comments would have stopped and that I would have felt seen and supported. As it happened, I was abandoned by and shamed in front of my colleagues and felt entirely alone. Routine as harassment was and remains, observing it and saying nothing is equally commonplace. Consistent intervention on the part of witnesses is every bit as important in ending harassment as educating harassers themselves. “Upstander” training—learning and practicing a range of possible in-the-moment responses—needs to be an integral part of institutional efforts to address sexual harassment as an ongoing problem.2
Secondly, my being muzzled made me acutely aware of the ways in which the AAR and other social institutions maintain existing power relations by placing an incredible burden of proof on the person who is harassed. What possible motive could I have for making up such a thing all these years after the event, and what was the danger to the AAR that necessitated my keeping silent? The merest possibility that Ray or one of his children might sue the AAR to preserve his sterling reputation was sufficient to guarantee that I could not name the reality that was part of my life and that of so many others in the academy. But what leverage do the thousands of people have who have gone home nursing their wounds, or who have left the academy altogether when they could not bear the piling up of incident after incident? Can they sue for the lost income and lost years, for the money paid to therapists and other healers? What is the recompense for the wounds to the spirit and where is the support for naming them and holding perpetrators accountable?
In the end, I could not accept the award at the cost of my silence. But the larger questions remain: when and how will we rebalance a system that is so profoundly in collusion with those who harass?
Judith Plaskow is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Manhattan College and a Jewish feminist theologian. She has served the AAR in many capacities over the years, including in the presidential line from 1995 to 1998.
- For a discussion of a report on the pervasiveness of harassment in STEM fields, see https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/when-it-comes-to-sexual-harassment-academia-is-fundamentally-broken/. For a review of studies on sexual harassment in academia more generally, see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21568235.2020.1729833.
- For one example of what upstander training might look like, see https://www.talentmgt.com/articles/2020/08/05/from-bystander-to-upstander/.