A new book that is replete with stories based on interviews with 35 female academics about their misogynistic experiences in a range of research university English departments creates a valuable space in which other women academics can see that they are not alone.
Misogyny in English Departments: Obligation, entitlement, gaslighting by Amy E Robillard is published by Peter Lang. ISBN 9781433199587.
It was tempting to respond to many of the stories that Amy E Robillard, a professor of English at Illinois State University, recounts in Misogyny in English Departments by saying, “Who are the cretinous men who comment on their female colleagues’ dress?” or “Following the much-needed revelations of the #MeToo movement, you’d think ‘enlightened self-interest’ would lead to repeating sexist, homophobic or racist jokes”.
However, one of the important effects of the misogynistic incidents Robillard’s 35 respondents tell her about is to effectively create a map of behaviour that ranges from the deplorable to the illegal.
Given the claims of American right-wingers like Florida’s Republican Governor and Presidential Candidate Ron De Santis, or media personalities like Tucker Carlson, that America’s universities and especially their humanities departments are overrun by woke ideologues, those same departments seem, at first, an unlikely place to find misogynistic men and, in fact, some women.
Following Cornell University Philosophy Professor Kate Manne’s 2017 book, Down Girl: The logic of misogyny, Robillard shows that misogyny should not be understood by focusing on individual actors who, if put on the spot, slough of the complaint by claiming how much they love the women in their lives. Rather, as Manne writes, it is a “system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance”.
This policing function can take many forms quite distanced from unwanted sexual attention or assault – but they are no less effective in protecting male privilege and reinforcing women’s subservient status.
The prevalence of ‘hepeating’
Among the 35 women Robillard interviewed at both public and private research universities, colleges is ‘Molly’, an assistant professor at a university with a large Hispanic population, who was tasked with creating policies for the Writing Project Administrator.
A recalcitrant instructor named ‘George’, who is a large man, pointed his finger at Molly during a meeting they attended with the chair and, in a series of sentences that began with “She”, attacked her, going so far as to say: “I cannot work here as long as she is telling me what to do.” With her chair’s support, Molly filed a Title 5 complaint against George that led to a recommendation that “George be let go”.
Much more common than Molly’s chair, who supported her, are senior officials who allow male professors to demonstrate their assumed privilege while playing off of the fact that the female colleagues are women – who have been socialised to differ. This is the dynamic behind ‘hepeating’.
According to ‘Gwen’, it’s not just that her contributions are often ignored in committees – it’s that later in the meeting male colleagues make the same point and it suddenly becomes important. “Sometimes,” she told Robillard, “I’m sitting there and my face must be . . . what the hell is going on in here?”
‘Alyssa’ has responded to this belittling, which reinforces women’s socialisation to defer to men, by making few contributions. This, she knows, is detrimental to her career since at these committees, “You can make change and also make yourself visible.”
Robillard’s discussion of male graduate students effectively silencing female graduate students came as a shock. My memory is that the women I went to graduate school with at McGill would not have put up with being shunted aside. Then, I began to wonder if my memory failed to account for their experience.
Hepeating, one graduate student told Robillard, was common in graduate seminars. “I’m tired of sitting in classes for the past two years and saying something – in most of my classes – and then twenty minutes later I know that a male graduate student will repeat the same thing.”
‘Diana’, a third-year doctoral student, said that since younger faculty cannot control the men in the seminars, she created a chat group so that the women could share ideas.
Department meetings, Robillard’s respondents tell us, are scenes that seem out of the 1950s: men speaking over women, men showing by their body language that they “accept the role of the knower, of authority of epistemic entitlement”.
‘Susan’ tells of meetings in which male colleagues say, “Oh, such-and-such student was wearing a really low-cut tank top.” Such language does more than show objectification of students. As ‘Lucy’ explained, it shows that in that male professor’s mind, women are to be “silenced, dismissed, talked over, undermined”.