Real feminists don’t expect all women to be exceptional

Free and equal means free to do good and evil.
Free and equal means free to do good and evil.
Image: Reuters/Gabriela Bhaskar
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Power is the great equalizer. It can corrupt anyone. Yet we expect powerful women to be somehow different from and better than men.

In that sense, accusations of women harassing men, which disrupt this notion, serve an important function. For a culture inundated by #MeToo tales of powerful male harassers, they provide some overdue balance.

That makes the conversation around a recent case involving New York University literature and philosophy professor Avital Ronell and her former PhD advisee Nimrod Reitman, a critical one. The complaint against Ronell, filed in New York state court on Aug. 16 (pdf), outlines a three-and-a-half-year relationship that appears to be anything but professional. Reitman alleges his PhD adviser pressured him physically and mentally into compromising situations during the course of his degree, and threatened his future career prospects when he tried to resist.

The New York Times presents the Ronell matter as a challenge to the feminist movement: what should it do when one of its own is accused? This assumes we expect powerful women to be all good, less subject to the heady effects of elevated status than men.

In fact, what the situation challenges is an aspect of the #MeToo movement that has unfortunately served to subconsciously reinforce sexism while claiming to advance feminism. The story of the older female professor and her younger male student upends the dominant narrative, one this culture is all too comfortable with, in which women are always the weak party, victims. It shows power can be problematic, and gender is not itself the issue, though men more often occupy positions of strength.

It is fitting then for a scholar whose listed areas of interest and research include feminism to become a symbol of this dark side of equality. Ronell acknowledges the intrigue. “My sense is that I am caught in a tsunami of primal rage and implausible distortion,” she tells Quartz. “Yet I have clearly become scapegoated in culturally interesting and overdetermined ways.”

Harassment and discrimination claims

An investigation by NYU concluded that Ronell sexually harassed Reitman but dismissed sexual assault, stalking, and retaliation charges. The professor has been suspended for a year. Reitman’s lawsuit, meanwhile, argues that the university discriminated against him by not taking his complaints as seriously as it would if he were a woman accusing a male professor.

Ronell says she must be “prudent” in view of the pending lawsuit and can’t give her full take on what happened. But she does want to comment. The professor’s argument is that people misunderstand her communication style in emails to Reitman, which were the basis of her suspension for harassment in the NYU investigation. She says she used “rhetorical excesses” typical of gay and queer adults (she identifies as queer and Reitman is gay) and tells Quartz that the NYU investigative panel inferred physical contact from what are, in fact, linguistic flourishes. “This leap from language usage to what rhetoricians call ‘reference’ (from word to deed) continues to surprise and dismay me,” she says. 

It’s a mistake to take her language seriously, Ronell contends, which is a somewhat strange claim for a professor of literature to make. She is a renowned deconstructionist. Breaking language down, and analyzing all that it might do apart from what it expressly says, is her business. Ronell studied with the groundbreaking postmodernist Jacques Derrida, whose concept of “deconstruction” explored language as a system for obscuring meaning and not just a tool for conveying information.

Still, that’s her position. Ronell’s attorney, Mary Dorman, sent a letter to the New York Times, which wasn’t printed but that Ronell shared with Quartz, which argues that her accuser, too, was prone to rhetorical excesses. It alleges that Reitman addressed his professor with equally overblown phrases, like “Mon Avital, beloved and special one”;  “Sending you infinite love, kisses and devotion.” The attorney writes, “Indeed, even after his graduation in October 2015, Reitman repeatedly begged Ronell to move to Florence with him, to help revise his thesis into a book.”

In his filing, Reitman, who doesn’t disclose his “rhetorical excesses,” argues that he had no choice. He says he couldn’t escape Ronell’s clutches and didn’t dare try for fear of ruining his chances of employment in a narrow academic field where she was a star and he a mere newcomer reliant on her recommendations. Ronell’s attorney argues that he “doggedly” pursued the professor despite claiming harassment, and made no move to switch advisers. 

In sum, it’s a typical he-said, she-said harassment case, in many ways. That’s too bad for humanity but not necessarily terrible for the evolution of feminism.

A poignant lesson

Reitman cites the #MeToo movement as an inspiration and a “great source of strength in speaking truth to power,” in a statement provided to Quartz by a spokesperson.

Indeed, the response to accusations against Ronell initially resembled those arising from #MeToo accusers of powerful men. Before the NYU investigation concluded, notable feminist colleagues of Ronell denied it was possible for such an admired scholar to have committed the harms and maligned the accuser. The hypocrisy they evidenced was an important lesson in insider politics—in the upper echelons of any profession, it seems, men and women accused of abuse will be defended by colleagues who claim to know better in other contexts. As Masha Gessen argues in the New Yorker, Ronell’s case illuminates the problem of imbalanced power dynamics at least as much as it does sexual harassment.

Some academics have since backtracked, and Ronell has been publicly rebuked, including by some of her former graduate students. In a cutting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education published on Aug. 30, Andrea Long Chu, one of Ronell’s former teaching assistants, says she believes Ronell’s accuser based on the professor’s behavior generally.

Chu argues that Ronell shouldn’t be considered a feminist. “Personally, Avital may be a feminist, in the Taylor Swift sense of a woman who doesn’t like being oppressed, but professionally, she is not a feminist scholar, any more than every person who believes that humans descended from apes is an evolutionary anthropologist.” 

Culturally, however, the charges against Ronell force us to contend with simplistic thinking about gender and power. If she used her position to manipulate Reitman as he says, and if she persistently denies the accusations as so many men have denied their female accusers, then she’s proof that women aren’t necessarily different from men. It’s just that until recently, their contexts have often been, and so some might not have thought power would have the same effect on both genders.

Expecting female power to paint a pretty picture, resulting in a kindler and gentler world, is itself sexist. If women are free and equal, then women are equally free to do good and evil and pay the consequences for their actions.