‘Reckoning’ Follows a 50-Year Road to #MeToo
Linda Hirshman, who thanks the actor and activist Alyssa Milano for encouraging her to write “Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment,” isn’t just a chronicler of the movement; she’s an ardent participant in it.
Back in the 1990s, she was one of the few feminists calling for Bill Clinton to resign because of his scandal with Monica Lewinsky. In addition to the obvious imbalance of age and money and power between the president and the intern, Hirshman also said there was an imbalance of “rationality,” with Clinton as deliberate and cunning, and Lewinsky as utterly “delusional.” The history recounted in “Reckoning” is buoyed along by a sense of righteous inevitability. Hirshman takes #MeToo as a sign that American women are finally catching up to what she has known all along — that sex is political, pornography degrading and consent in a patriarchal workplace a farce.
In the 1970s, the fact of sexual mistreatment at work was nothing new, but only when activists gave it a name — “sexual harassment” — could a movement properly begin. Hirshman, whose books include a history of gay rights and a manifesto against stay-at-home motherhood, is a brisk storyteller, covering five decades of history with impressive economy and ease. She traces a line from the first sexual harassment lawsuits through the testimony of Anita Hill to the impeachment of Clinton and the arraignment of Harvey Weinstein.
Writing about Clarence Thomas and his fellow justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as the downfall of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, Hirshman doesn’t seem too surprised by the sexual scandals of conservatives, swiftly dispatching a cluster of them with a razor blade of a parenthetical: “(Gingrich, adultery; Livingston, adultery; Hastert, pedophilia).”
But her sights are largely trained elsewhere. “In the fight for sexual equality,” Hirshman writes, “the emerging conservative movement was not feminism’s primary foe.” More insidious were feminism’s “frenemies,” she says, those liberal men and women who presented themselves as allies while asserting that “America could accommodate both political gender equality and sexual libertinism in one culture.” While men may have done this out of libidinous self-interest, Hirshman implies that women were suckered into it by a pathetic sense of self-preservation — “not wanting to be cast as man-hating prudes by sexy liberal male writers and lawyers, potential mates after all.”
This is a curious rhetorical strategy: Impugn the motives of other women in a book that otherwise showcases the historical necessity of coalition-building and solidarity. Hirshman has written a timely and readable volume on an urgent subject, but her disdain for anyone she deems to be the wrong kind of feminist can be so potent that it’s corrosive.
In one section, she writes about an anti-pornography ordinance drafted in 1983 by the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and the writer Andrea Dworkin. Hirshman derides the ordinance’s feminist critics with glib sarcasm — “Male aggression, subordination, it’s all good” — as if these opponents were motivated by nothing more complicated than a blithe indifference to female suffering. As she herself notes in passing, many critics of the ordinance didn’t like pornography either; they were just more leery of deploying state power to regulate sexuality. After all, it’s not too hard to envision how state power and rigid moralizing might be turned against women.
There are apparently any number of ways to earn Hirshman’s scorn. Gloria Steinem, who supported the anti-pornography movement in the ’70s and ’80s but also came to Clinton’s defense in the 1990s, is weirdly depicted in “Reckoning” as a decadent hedonist compared with a serious, virtuous MacKinnon. “Instead of living the good life in Manhattan media land like Steinem,” Hirshman writes, “MacKinnon was spending the 1970s in gritty New Haven.”
Never mind that MacKinnon was in “gritty New Haven” as a student at the decidedly not-gritty Yale Law School — Hirshman, who has also practiced as a lawyer, has a case to make and scores to settle. The simple argument she insists on returning to — of the inexorable triumph of a noble feminism like hers and MacKinnon’s — doesn’t properly capture the knottier parts of her subject.
Hirshman gestures at some of these complexities, including the trade-offs liberal women have had to confront, especially when it comes to the piggishness of certain male Democrats. What to do with Senator Edward Kennedy, notorious for his boozy, boorish womanizing but also known for his stalwart support of women’s rights? Or Clinton, for that matter, whose administration, Hirshman says, “produced considerable payoffs for feminists”?
But she doesn’t allow complications to linger. She takes what might best be described as an Old Testament view, suggesting that the election of the Republican president George W. Bush, and his subsequent rollback of reproductive rights, amounted to divine retribution for a devil’s bargain. She is breezily confident that, if it hadn’t been for the Lewinsky scandal — or if penitential Democrats had properly atoned by forcing Clinton to leave office — then Al Gore, the party’s candidate in the 2000 presidential election, would have been a “shoo-in.”
Elsewhere, she does better, tabling the specious what-ifs for some actual history. The strongest parts of “Reckoning” are where Hirshman gives credit to the black women in addition to Hill who were central to the movement. Most of the lead plaintiffs in early sexual harassment lawsuits, like Mechelle Vinson and Paulette Barnes, were black women. The original Me Too movement was begun by the activist Tarana Burke, in 2006.
But the essential contributions of these women are quickly folded into Hirshman’s triumphal narrative arc. Black women have talked about how challenging it can be to manage intersecting identities and allegiances in a movement that hasn’t yet resolved its relationship to law enforcement and the carceral state; by contrast, Hirshman’s biggest complaint about law enforcement seems to be that there isn’t enough of it. She namechecks the former Black Panther and current prison abolitionist Angela Davis without actually engaging with her ideas. “Reckoning” glosses over an expansive definition of physical assault without peering too closely at its expansive law-and-order implications.
The word “reckoning,” of course, has a biblical meaning: a day when sinners will be judged for their deeds. But “to reckon” with something can also mean to take it fully into consideration, even — or especially — when certain elements are hard to assimilate. Hirshman has written a lively account of a social revolution that’s still in the making, but anyone seeking a deeper understanding of why the current moment has been such a long time coming may wish that she had done a little more reckoning of her own.
Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.
The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment
By Linda Hirshman
316 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.
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