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He Told Me It was Inevitable that “He Would Have His Way with Me”

 The stunning account of sexual harassment disclosed by the past president of the Southern Historical Association. 

Related Link Do Historians Have a Sexual Harassment Problem? By Rick Shenkman 

HNN Editor Long before Gretchen Carlson made public her charges of misconduct by Roger Ailes, and a fleet of women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein of his crimes Catherine Clinton, the Denman Endowed Chair of American History at the University of Texas in San Antonio, determined to use her presidential address to the Southern Historical Association as a means of initiating a conversation on the topic of sexual harassment within the historical profession. 

In her extraordinary talk, excerpted below, Professor Clinton reported that predators continue to roam the halls of history departments and seek prey at conferences, much to her horror. Fresh evidence of this keeps piling up.  A recent news story highlighted a female undergraduate invited by her male history professor to “dinner, drinks and movies? My wife will be away…#lonely.” During a recent panel at the American Historical Association members of the audience recounted convention horror stories, being harassed at campus interviews. (Some observed that women are not the only victims of harassment.) 

The response to Professor Clinton's address prompted her to organize The Cassandra Project, an initiative dedicated to investigating guidelines for the prevention of harassment and to demand accountability regarding sexual harassment on campuses throughout the South. This non-profit organization will be aligned with the Southern Association for Women Historians, which will be hosting a workshop on the project at its Eleventh Triennial  conference to be  held at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa June 7-10, 2018.

Professor Clinton's remarks were delivered on November 3, 2016 at the organization’s annual meeting in St. Pete’s Beach, Florida (five days before the U.S. presidential election). Her address appeared in 2017 and is accessible online through Project MUSE.

My path to this podium has been a long and winding road: as I have often joked with friends, my academic career might provide a cautionary tale, that you could“publish and perish.” What I rarely could do was hold my tongue; I began my career as a Cassandra and continue a scold.

Cassandra was allegedly seduced by Apollo with the gift of prophecy, but when she refused him her body, he cast a spell: no one would believe any of her warnings. She became a kind of exile as a madwoman. Cassandra has always been to me the patron saint of those fighting sexual harassment, an issue I will return to later....

I hate to bring a sour note to my chorus of praising change and celebrating our meetings. But my role as Cassandra remains. I applaud the convivial atmosphere our conference inspires, but this atmosphere has not always been comfortable for all. There are poisonous elements.

I speak to you today about a problem we must address within southern history, on the campuses where we teach, the corridors where we work, the conferences where we gather, the communities within which we live and work.

And I speak to you not as a “rape survivor,” because this term strikes a wrong chord for me, but as one of the millions of Americans—particularly women—who have been threatened, violated, or assaulted during their lifetimes. Many of us have lived not only to tell the tale but also to spread the word.

I was raped at the age of twenty-two—falling within the most typical statistical age group for reported rapes (eighteen to twenty-four), and up against the overwhelming problem of underreporting. I was lucky in many ways, although I assure you I did not feel at all lucky at the time. My home was broken into in the middle of the night, and I was beaten violently during my resistance, then held at knifepoint while I was violated repeatedly. But after a short hospitalization and a move far away from the site of my hostage and torture, I recovered from my physical injuries.

Luckily, I was raped as an adult, and did not suffer the horrors of molestation and incest that haunt many of our brothers and sisters, and that have been, to my great sadness, issues for far too many students I have taught over the years, who have confided intense feelings of shame and depression. Luckily, my “stranger rape” was something the authorities could not easily dismiss—which is all too common for many who report sexual assault. Medical exams and interrogations can create terrible flashbacks, which frighten many victims from informing authorities about their assaults.

Thus when I began my teaching career, I could appreciate the sense of fear and anger that followed such violation, and the need to put it all behind. I could counsel the student who came into my office to apologize for not getting her paper in on time—she had been raped over the weekend, hadn’t been able to tell anyone, and didn’t know how she was going to make it through the semester. I could use my personal experience to steer her toward a process of recovery.

I share all of this because it is vital for us as academics, as scholars, as humanists, to confront the ugly consequences of our indifference. Rape is not an epidemic that breaks out in rising and falling numbers: rape is endemic in our society. I fully realize that my bringing this up will make some of you uncomfortable, and for that I am sorry. But we all know that things that go unspoken often become a source of shame. And yet, our collective failure to have open conversations is exactly what allows rape culture to thrive.[1]

We live in an era where rape is regularly blamed on victims and sexual violence is normalized. I realize that this is not particular to southern history, but I suggest, throughout the body of my scholarly work, that southern culture creates a patriarchy whereby domination is intended to subdue if not stamp out the other, through intimidation and violence, against bids for any sexual orientation, gender, and racial equality. These systems are interlocking and entangled. As the Grimké sisters warned their audience, the slave may be free and we may not be free, but we may not be free unless the slave is freed.

Although many of you (now) may be awakened by the introduction of this topic, you may also be wondering why I introduce such a personal topic. The personal remains political because the culture of domination—with rape as a mere extension of prevailing norms—fosters pernicious sexual harassment, harassment I have endured and intend to help eradicate by continuing to speak out.[2]

My experiences inspired my investigations of sexual violence against black women during Reconstruction and helped pave the way for me to encourage younger scholars who study rape, and to promote validation of their historical inquiry. While my rape remained secret, rape in the history of the South seemed cloaked, veiled, not invisible but unspeakable. Reprisals abounded. Slowly scholarly interrogations evolved.

In 1975 Susan Brownmiller’s book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape began a national conversation among feminist scholars, which raised consciousness about rape, and resistance. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s and Jean Fagan Yellin’s work proved pathbreaking for southern scholars working on rape and southern culture.[3] The links between scholarship and activism were forged in “Take Back the Night” campaigns and the formation of women’s studies curricula, on campus and with community outreach.

My linkage of American rape culture and casual attitudes toward sexual harassment, particularly within the SHA, may seem a stretch. Yet it is no historical accident these issues are linked, for me.

In the spring of 1975, while waiting for news from my graduate school applications, I took night classes back at Harvard, while living and working in Cambridge. During that period I was propositioned very directly by a faculty member, with whom I had never taken a course as an undergraduate. I had no idea that he simply picked his potential targets from his classroom, would ask to meet outside class to talk about “work,” and then, over coffee, propose a return to his apartment where we might talk more comfortably.[4] Students were loath to report his behavior as he was a minority faculty member, and most victims of harassment did not want to be dragged into this kind of imbroglio. (My solution was to drop the course, to avoid further contact—somewhat difficult as we would later be colleagues when I joined the Afro-American studies department faculty in 1990.)

But in 1975, at the age of twenty-three, I went to Princeton and attended my first SHA. A painful memory of that meeting was being lured to a hotel room with the promise of being shown an essay (the proverbial “etchings” of sexist lore), whereupon I was literally jumped by a distinguished southern historian who thought he might pin me down on a bed, push his tongue down my throat, and conquer my resistance to his sexual overtures. I was rescued by a third party, but the tale doesn’t end there: four years later, I was on the job market and had put this episode behind me (as I thought he had, as we had encountered one another at professional gatherings since with no reference to this hotel room episode). When he suggested we meet to discuss my candidacy for a tenure-track position at his university, I was hesitant but eager to secure this plum job. Within a few moments of our meeting, he bluntly invited me to “take a steambath” with him (he had booked at a hotel nearby, not at the SHA headquarters, where “steambaths” were not an option), and said he was only willing to talk if I accepted his invitation. I had to turn on my heel, and flee. Much shaken, I consulted with several senior women about what to do. No surprise that I was advised to do nothing.

Finding myself on the job market several years later in 1987 in New Orleans, out of nowhere, apropos of nothing, a rival male scholar (also on the job market) suggested, while standing in a circle of male historians at the book exhibit, that I should just go with him up to his hotel room and “get it over with,” as it was inevitable that “he would have his way with me.” I was dumbfounded, and upbraided him, but what alarmed me most was none of the other men called him on this behavior. When I phoned a male mentor who knew this character, he tried to smooth over the incident, remarking my rival might have been joking, or might have been drunk (at eleven o’clock in the morning!), and suggested I ignore him. But later that day I was told by a “friend” that this historian had told a luncheon table full of the most eminent southern historians of the Civil War that I was unable to secure a job because I had a reputation for sleeping with married historians, and departments were afraid to hire me. Setting aside that such trash talk was totally false, I was aghast. But again, I felt there was nothing I could do to derail such sexist slander.

However, following an evening reception, when my conference roommate reported to me that this individual had been harassing a young woman graduate student (harassers apparently have morning, noon, and night schedules), I decided that it was time to introduce a dose of reality—for he who was treating the SHA as his personal “gentleman’s club.” I also vowed that it was no longer appropriate to simply brush off being slimed in public, to allow these predators to go unchecked. In my own case, I consulted a lawyer who wrote a letter on my behalf; I received a written apology from this offensive scholar.

But I also began to campaign strategically, and while serving as president of the Southern Association for Women Historians in 1997–1998, I addressed the issue of sexual harassment and found the response mixed. A workshop at our triennial meeting in Charleston in 1997 indicated that the issue remained complex and problematic for women faculty at southern institutions.

Sexual harassment continues to be an elusive and explosive topic within professional circles and, frankly, one with which academics have a particular problem. When I brought the topic up at an SHA Executive Council meeting in 1998, I found myself the focus of ad feminem and embarrassing ridicule. Nevertheless, the organization adopted a sexual harassment policy.[5]

Campaigns of harassment remain alive and well, despite policy initiatives within the organization; but numbers cannot convey the sheer scope of the problem. Still, too many incidents were reported when the SHA Committee on Women sent out a survey to members and published the results in 2004. Egregious examples of harassment including a student being impregnated by a predatory faculty member and then being forced to leave graduate school may have disappeared, yet vigilance remains a requirement.[6] Younger women report to me that subtler forms of gender discrimination have replaced such audacious harassment. Our organization needs to do more to raise awareness about these issues, to force us to be more careful with our thoughts, words, and particularly deeds.

I would never want any of us to lose the sense of frolic and renewal our annual meetings might instill, but I hope that we can be more sensitive to these issues and not allow the worst devils within our nature to prevail. I encourage southern historians to gather and enjoy a raucous good time, find friendship—or even the start of something more than friendship—seek mentors and book contracts, advise peers, and find allies. Best of all, drown sorrows and dampen flare-ups with an apology or a toast.

The key to a good SHA evening might be to carry on as if a surveillance camera were in place, and imagine you could turn off the filming when an awake and unimpaired individual chimed in with consent. We must all stay en garde against predators, and I am hoping the SHA has become a less welcoming hunting ground than it once was.

I am counting on you to make sure that after each meeting we can say that no reputations were damaged and psyches diminished. It would be nice if this could be extended to the professional, but realistically, gladiators will be gladiators; however, on the personal, let’s free Cassandra from her spell. We can practice best behavior, for the sake of our SHA family—for our sons and especially our daughters, who will carry the spirit of our organization forward. Cassandras will be watching, and they will no longer be cast out for prophecies.

[1] With deep appreciation to Sandy Treadway, Jim Downs, and especially Steve Berry for their comments on this essay as a whole, but particularly this section on rape and sexual harassment.

[2] Sexual harassment has been in the headlines in 2016—and will continue to reverberate within media—most particularly as media organizations have been the focus of some of the most egregious patterns of abuse, with Roger Ailes and the Fox News Network in the United States and Jimmy Saville and the BBC scandals in Great Britain. During September and October, and into the days before the 2016 presidential election, the topic of sexual assault and sexual harassment became an extremely emotional public discussion. All of this followed my sending out a copy of my address to a handful of friends in advance for some scholarly feedback. With appreciation for all the advice, I found this whole episode most exhilarating, as well as exhausting.

[3] Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York, 1975); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (New York, 1979); Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge, Mass., 1987).

[4] I knew better than to fall in the apartment trap, as I had been lured to a professor’s apartment as an undergraduate when invited to a group dinner with the professor: the rest of the group had (gasp, surprise) not shown up, and I had naively gone alone to this predator’s lair. I stumbled through the evening, but had to finally leave when I refused his request that I relieve him of his erection. I switched out of the course and the department after this particular episode.

[5] These guidelines were part of my campaign to dismantle what my woman friend had lamented in 1987 about the SHA’s reputation and image. See “SHA Sexual Harassment Policy,” November 11, 1998, in “Historical News and Notices,” Journal of Southern History, 65 (February 1999), 209–10.

[6] Greene, Harris, and McMillen, “Report of the SHA Committee on Women,” 876–84. I was particularly sympathetic to the woman who wrote that “a male colleague at a hotel bar loudly introduced her to his ‘cronies’ as the ‘best damn lay in the profession,’” and was even more heartened when she added, “‘HE certainly had no basis to know . . . .’” Ibid., 876.

Source:  Clinton, C. "The Southern Social Network." Journal of Southern History, vol. 83 no. 1, 2017, pp. 7-36. Project MUSE doi:10.1353/soh.2017.0000