Two women walk into a crowded elevator at a large academic conference…
This is not the first line of a joke. Rather, it is the beginning of a troubling ordeal that sheds light on everyday sexism in academia as well as the growing backlash against decades of feminist and social justice activism, which predate the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
When I walked into the crowded elevator at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco at the annual conference of the International Studies Association (ISA) in early April 2018, I had no idea that I would find myself at the epicentre of a highly publicised international incident. One of the only two women in the elevator populated mostly by middle-age white men, all attending the conference, I stood next to the buttons and therefore offered to press them for the passengers who could not reach. As people asked for their floor numbers, one person called out ‘ladies lingerie’. Several men in the elevator laughed. I exchanged glances with the young woman standing next to me, who I had not met prior to the incident, and made a mental note to myself to remember the name tag of the man who made the comment: Dr. Richard Ned Lebow. As he exited the elevator, the woman standing next to me, also a conference attendee, turned to me and another young man who remained in the elevator, remarking that we should have said something, and we all parted ways. As is often the case in such situations, one is not always as quick to respond as one wishes. In this particular instance, the time between when the comment was uttered and the person exiting was less than a minute.
In retrospect, I don’t regret not confronting Lebow in the elevator, not only because his pattern of behaviour since suggests that he would not have responded graciously. Rather, my initial reaction to that remark was not merely personal. I was offended because, to me, Lebow’s comment is a symptom of deeper systemic problems and a persistent culture of white and male privilege that still characterises the ISA. Those who have suggested that I should have approached Lebow personally, in the elevator or afterwards, instead of filing an official complaint overlook the broader context of this incident and its long-term implications. If such a comment was shared by a student in a class I teach, I would have certainly turned it into a ‘teachable moment’, explaining why some would find it offensive. But challenging an established academic about a racist, sexist or homophobic remark or about inappropriate behaviour with systemic roots should never be solely the burden of the person who was offended. The expectation that such matters be resolved amicably among colleagues overlooks systemic inequalities and power differentials in academia—especially in fields like International Relations—which are still dominated by white men from the Global North. Confronting a man like Lebow could have serious ramifications for a person’s career, especially if that person is a woman and/or a member of another under-represented group. This is why institutions must adopt policies to ensure that people behave respectfully.
As a longstanding member of the International Studies Association (ISA), I followed the process spelled out in the Code of Conduct and filed an official complaint, indicating that I and the only other woman in the elevator felt strongly that a comment with sexual innuendo was both unprofessional and inappropriate in a public setting, especially at an academic conference. After being notified of the complaint against him, Lebow contacted me via email with a message that was both dismissive and patronising in tone. Among other things, he referred to my complaint as ‘frivolous’ and urged me to focus on ‘real offenses, not those that are imagined or marginal’. To his utter surprise and dismay, a committee of his peers found that his comment in the elevator and the content of his subsequent email to me were both violations of the ISA’s Code of Conduct. He was given two weeks to issue an unequivocal apology to me with a copy to the ISA. Instead of complying with the decision, Lebow reached out to the media. Lebow’s lack of respect for the confidential process and decision to involve the media, which led to a release of confidential documents, has great ramifications beyond this particular case. By portraying himself as the victim of both my complaint and the ISA’s decision, he fuelled a vicious backlash targeting me, the ISA and anyone who has expressed support for my position and for the ISA’s decision on the matter, including women journalists who have sought to provide impartial analysis of the incident.
Lebow’s media strategy changed along the way. The various arguments he used in reaching out to reporters informed several media frames, which in turn triggered specific attacks. Initially, the queries I received from journalists accused me of ‘political correctness’, and suggested that my age and cultural background may have prevented me from understanding the ‘joke’. The political correctness argument was fairly predictable. After all, for years, the term ‘politically correct’ has been used as the blanket excuse by those who refuse to rethink and change their public pronouncement of racist, sexist and homophobic rhetoric and practices. From inappropriate jokes in public spaces to unwanted sexual advances and assault, men like Lebow have grown accustomed to the power and privilege that their status commands. As a result, they respond with outrage and claim victim status when they are being held accountable, even if the sanction is as minor as a request for an apology.
Sadly, both The Washington Post and The Atlantic articles endorsed uncritically Lebow’s victim narrative that he had suffered a grave injustice, detrimental to his career and reputation. Most media accounts neglected to note the systemic attack on my personal and professional integrity resulting from Lebow’s actions. It is not clear what made this an international incident worthy of such attention: the fact that I dared file a complaint or that the ISA found an established scholar in violation of its Code of Conduct. It is most likely a combination of both. In filing the complaint in the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which have been slow to gain traction in academic settings, this case has become a precedent. While reporters for The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed attempted to situate the incident in a broader context—that of persistent patriarchy, everyday sexism and decade-long inappropriate behaviour of men in academia—most media outlets chose to focus on the incident as an example of feminists overreacting due to an inability to understand the ‘cultural context’ of Lebow’s ‘joke’.
In his initial unsolicited email to me, Lebow justified his elevator comment: ‘It may be that you interpreted my remark out of context. In my youth—the 1940s and 1950s—lifts were not automatic and had operators. In department stores they would ask customers for their floors but also call out what could be purchased on each floor. It became a standard gag line to say “hardware” or “ladies lingerie” if someone else asked you for your floor in another lift’. Journalists, pundits and angry men with access to social media concluded that I didn’t appreciate Lebow’s comment due to my inability to grasp important cultural references in US and British cultures, most likely because I didn’t grow up in these countries and/or am too young to remember elevator operators. As a male colleague pointed out, Lebow’s explanation begs the question, why didn’t he say ‘hardware’ instead of ‘ladies lingerie’?
Most journalists ignored my statements, indicating that I was well aware of the cultural context as well as of the popular British sitcom Are you Being Served? It did not matter how many times I stressed that it was not the comment itself nor the person making it but the workplace/professional context of the incident that made the reference to ‘ladies lingerie’ inappropriate; people, mostly men, were outraged, personally and as representatives of a culture, that I was offended. They, therefore, felt entitled to lash out against me, mansplaining the ‘harmless joke’ and its largely cherished cultural context of rampant misogyny and homophobia. As a result, I was not only cast by some US and British journalists as a humourless, vindictive feminist but also accused of ageism because I targeted an innocent 76-year-old man who shared an innocent cultural reference. The xenophobes, anti-Semites and white supremacists were quick to react with a fix. Several email and voicemail messages suggested that I should leave the US or at least get cancer and die. These type of comments increased significantly after Fox News and the British tabloids picked up the story .
What most media outlets failed to consider is that in 2018, it is no longer acceptable to make comments with sexual, racist, homophobic or ableist references in public spaces. Incidentally, I recalled that the other woman standing next to me in the elevator, a newly minted PhD who is at least twenty years my junior, did not only state that we should have said something, but also used the phrase, ‘it is no longer ok to use this language!’. As someone who has dedicated three decades to working alongside feminists to expose and confront sexism and other forms of discrimination and exclusion within the ISA, the comment resonated with me. Indeed, my decision to file a complaint was informed by a different cultural context than Lebow’s; it made clear that no one, regardless of their cultural background or professional accomplishments, is beyond accountability. What passed as an ‘innocent joke’ in the past should no longer be tolerated in a professional setting. This is not a result of ‘political correctness’ or lack of cultural sensitivity but rather a sign of the changing times. Entitled white men can no longer get away with saying in a public space at an academic conference what they would in a bar, a locker room or an exclusively-male boardroom. To work alongside others, in professional environments that are no longer as homogeneous as they used to be, we all have to change our behaviour, think before we speak and consider apologising when we offend someone. Codes of conduct are there neither to censor nor police speech but rather to help organisations and institutions adopt to the changing times by safeguarding mutual respect.
The most common public reaction to my complaint about the inappropriate comment in the elevator has been that it was a minor issue and therefore we should not have taken offense. Furthermore, the argument continues, by calling attention to an ‘innocent’ comment about ‘ladies’s lingerie’ we undermine ‘real’ problems facing women. As this position gained currency, including among self-proclaimed feminists, a colleague forwarded to me a recent piece by Emma Pitman titled ‘Misogyny is a human pyramid’. Pitman insists that
we must resist the temptation to view misogyny as a spectrum. This is the wrong way to measure harm; it gives way to a complacency that says, “it’s just a joke, it’s not like I actually touched her”. Misogyny isn’t a sliding scale of harm where jokes are situated at the low end and rape at the other. Rather, it functions like a human pyramid, where minor acts support the major by providing, at best, a foundation of blithe indifference, and at worst an atmosphere of amusement at the denigration of women.
This perspective is echoed in a recent Ted Talk titled A Woman’s Fury Holds a Lifetime of Wisdom, delivered by actor and activist Tracee Ellis Ross. Ross tells the story of a friend who was furious after she was pushed out of the way by a man in a post office. There is no doubt that the same people who trivialised and minimised the elevator incident would also view the post-office incident as innocuous, even though the woman who experienced it felt furious. The fury Ross examines has been experienced and shared by generations of women. Her conclusion resonates with me. I filed the complaint because I was furious and because I agree with Ross that ‘the innocuous makes space for the horrific and women have to live with the effects of both and everything in between’. These acts of aggression, big or small, should no longer be tolerated, especially in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. The aggressive public response I received when my complaint was characterised as an overreaction was a clear manifestation of the current anti-feminist backlash.
The phenomenon of backlash is not new in social and political life. Feminists have been dealing with backlash in various forms, long before the concept of backlash gained prominence. Susan Faludi’s bestselling book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, published in 1991, provided meticulous documentation of a systematic media campaign to blame feminism and feminists for social, political and economic problems in 1980s United States. According to Faludi, backlash as a phenomenon is a historical trend, generally recurring when it appears that women have made substantial gains in their efforts to obtain equal rights. Indeed, in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, examples of backlash are surfacing globally, aided by mainstream media outlets and fuelled by men’s groups active on social media. From Twitter to Reddit, white men are once again blaming feminists for society’s problems and forming online communities like Incel to organise collectively. The Twitter campaign against me gained prominence when well-known anti-feminist figures like Christina Hoff Sommers, who has 237,000 followers on Twitter, re-tweeted The Chronicle of Higher Education article about the case. Sommers added the following comment: ‘No jokes, please. We are fainting-couch feminists’. Her tweet was retweeted 110 times and generated 241 comments, all anti-feminist in tone. Sommers, who was among the leading forces fuelling the 1980s backlash that is the subject of Faludi’s book, has continued to play a prominent role in campaigns to undermine feminist movements, including #MeToo. Her arguments have been echoed by other women, such as Laura Kipnis and Katie Roiphe, who have built their careers on feminist-bashing. In recent years, the backlash against feminists has been supported by established conservative entities like FIRE and College Fix. In this context, an anonymous tweet explains the backlash targeting me: ‘Bad faith tattling to authorities merits the torrent of abuse … as a public backlash to stop frivolous complaining from becoming the norm. Kind of like metoo in reverse’.
I can say with certainty that holding on to the old feminist slogan ‘The Personal Is Political’ has made a huge difference in my coping with the massive attacks on me in the media, social media, and over email and voicemail. Friends suggested that I simply delete the hostile emails or even ask my campus IT to give me a different email address. I chose to read the messages before saving them into a folder for further analysis. The day after Fox News covered the story, prompting over one-hundred emails to my university email account, my daughter called from college. Exhausted and emotionally drained, I described the content of the messages to her, and together we came up with the term ‘intersectional bigotry’ to make sense of the content and volume of response. Indeed, those who attacked me covered all their bases: from crude misogyny, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia to ableist, homophobic and transphobic comments. The vast majority of the messages came from self-identified men, even when they used fake email accounts. Perhaps patriarchy works as a superglue that holds other systems of oppression in place.
In her most recent book, The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy, Cynthia Enloe urges us to rethink and re-engage patriarchy beyond the prevailing view that it is ‘a rather heavy-handed term that a generation ago Second Wave feminists painted on their protest signs’ (p. 15). Instead, Enloe suggests that
patriarchy is as current as Brexit, Donald Trump, and nationalist political parties. It is as au courant as Twitter, hedge funds, and weaponized drones. Patriarchy is not old-fashioned; it as hip as football millionaires and Silicon Valley startups. The fact that patriarchy is a term that so many people shy away from using is one of the things that enables it to survive. (ibid.)
In an email conversation about this ordeal, Cynthia Enloe used the term ‘gladiators for patriarchy’ to describe Lebow’s actions following my complaint and the men who have joined his army. A few women who joined the attacks blamed me for ‘unleashing this beast’, or ‘poking the bear’ by filing the complaint. This accusation reminded me of a scene from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where the handmaids are forced to respond to the question of ‘whose fault?’ with ‘my fault’ in public ceremonies. With the return of patriarchy, women—in the dystopian novel, which has informed a current TV series—are blamed for all social problems and political violence from rape to the public executions of ‘gender traitors’. If someone were to ask me today ‘whose fault?’ in reference to the elevator incident, my reply would surprise some: I blame the persistence of patriarchy, not Lebow. To come to terms with what it means to be a feminist who ‘walks the talk and talks the walk’ amidst political backlash, one must avoid the trap of thinking about the elevator incident and its aftermath as simply an interpersonal matter.
At the height of the attacks on me, a colleague and close friend at my institution asked me with slight hesitation if I have any regrets for filing the complaint now that I have been on the receiving end of personal and professional hostility. My answer was and continues to be firmly negative: I would have followed the same course of action if that incident happened today. Because I am not new to dealing with retaliation and backlash as a result of speaking up, I survived this ordeal. The unwavering support I received from Merrimack College, my academic home, made a huge difference in my coping. The President, his Chief of Staff, the Provost and numerous administrators and colleagues have been generous with advice, expressions of concern and ongoing support. Because of my institution’s response, I trust that I will be able to mitigate the long-term damage this incident has caused to my career and academic reputation.
Sadly, the support I received from my institution is rare in higher education. All too often, institutions treat the scholar under attack as the problem. Facing a backlash like this as an adjunct and/or untenured faculty member without institutional support could be detrimental to the career of a scholar whose position in the academy is more precarious than mine. As a result, I hesitate too about the advice I would give to others who find themselves in situations similar to the one I encountered in the elevator. It is alarming that I have been accused of ruining Lebow’s career when he was the one who chose to turn an internal matter into an international incident! The message is clear: speaking up is often risky! Until we have policies that protect the identity of the person filing a complaint, it is not safe for people to report harassment or inappropriate behavior. The vicious sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic attacks against me and those who support me suggest that a Code of Conduct is not enough to address systemic oppression and inequalities. As a movement, we need to be prepared to confront the backlash designed to defend intersectional bigotry and the systems that uphold it. Perhaps we need feminist warriors, skilled at confronting, nonviolently of course, those who appoint themselves gladiators for patriarchy. Above all, we need to have each other’s backs and build support systems that sustain our fierce efforts to confront everyday sexism and other forms of oppression and discrimination, away from the media’s limelight and big marches.
Simona Sharon is a feminist scholar, researcher and public intellectual. She is currently Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Institute at Merrimack College. Sharoni is the author of Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995) and co-editor of the Handbook of Gender and War (Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishers, 2016). Her forthcoming books include Gender and the Struggles for Justice in Palestine and Israel (Syracuse University Press) and De-Militarizing Masculinities in the Age of Empire (Rowan & Littlefield). Additionally, Sharoni is the author of over 60 scholarly publications.