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Harvard lawyer Diane Rosenfeld: Only female alliances will stop rape culture

By Leah Fessler
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The world may have turned its attention to rampant sexual harassment and assault in 2017, but activists on college campuses have waged this battle for decades. Their work has not only foretold today’s Me Too movement but has also laid the foundation for cultural changes necessary to curb workplace harassment.

Harvard-trained lawyer Diane Rosenfeld is at the heart of this movement. Her work focuses on a single question: How do we create a culture of sexual respect on, and beyond, college campuses?

As a Harvard Law School lecturer and director of Harvard Law’s gender violence program, Rosenfeld has devoted her career to pioneering sexual-harassment policy and training future lawyers on how to use Title IX, the part of the Civil Rights Act aimed at preventing gender discrimination in federally funded education.

“Women need to protect and believe one another, knowing that if one of us is vulnerable, then we all are.”

“For a school to have a policy on campus sex assault that complies with Title IX, they need three things, in my opinion, and now as a matter of federal law: mandatory preventative education; strong support systems for survivors; and prompt and equitable investigation and adjudication of the cases of sexual assault,” Rosenfeld explains in The Hunting Ground, the seminal 2015 film exposing the campus sexual-assault epidemic. Her three-pillar approach to sexual assault proved fundamental to president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden’s groundbreaking Title IX campus-compliance guidelines, which the current Trump administration recently scrapped.

Given that Title IX was directly formulated from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act—the federal law prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex—American employers now concerned with sexual harassment have an invaluable resource in Rosenfeld’s work. ”I’m very hopeful right now, because we’re at this moment that is unprecedented in history, and schools are really starting to understand their obligations under Title IX,” she says in The Hunting Ground. ”If you can address [rape] at school, if you can prevent it at college, then you can really affect the whole rest of society.”

In an interview with Quartz, Rosenfeld spoke about strong female alliances, how teaching breathed new life into her career, and the wonders of “smooth aggressiveness.”


1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
“Strong female-female alliances are the only thing that will stop male sexual coercion.”

My big idea is that strong female-female alliances are the only thing that will stop male sexual coercion. This is a moment in which the truth of this idea is evident as never before. Patriarchy is built on an unspoken agreement among men of non-intervention in sexual violence. It divides women against one another in a fight for male protection. We are raised to believe we need male protection and that they will protect us if we are good. But it is most often males from whom we need this protection, and the level of sexual abuse demonstrates a complete failure of the law and society to protect women and children. Women need to protect and believe one another, knowing that if one of us is vulnerable, then we all are.


2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?

In college, I had an internship at the Department of Justice in the civil-rights division, which was the job of my dreams. Squire Padgett, the senior trial attorney, told me when I was leaving the internship that I would always get what I wanted because of two words—“smooth aggressiveness.” I knock on all doors, ready to walk in when one opens. My optimism and belief that people can be compassionate helps me stay the course for the long haul.



3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?

Restructuring hierarchies to encourage participation by employees who are affirmatively valued for their work.


4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?

From the beginning of my career, I had the confidence to pursue work to which I was strongly committed. I knew I would have a dynamic career that would change to align with my intellectual interests over time, and I was blessed to come from a loving family of lawyers (including my mother!) and judges who gave me a unique sense of confidence in my ability to use law to effect change to make the world a better place. In Judaism, it’s called tikkun olam: the duty to repair the world.


5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in US v. Morrison striking down the civil right to be free from gender-motivated violence, I was despondent. I had served as the senior counsel to the Violence Against Women Office (now the Office on Violence Against Women) at the Department of Justice during that period and was deeply invested in the transformative potential of this important civil right. That day, coincidentally, I was offered my first teaching position at Harvard for the upcoming academic year. That’s how I turned it around. It was a message from the universe. Teaching has provided me the opportunity to develop progressive legal policy with input from my amazing students.


6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?

I’ve been blessed with incredible mentors through the years. Jane DiRenzo Pigott taught me the importance of women networking, mentoring, and providing third-party endorsements for one another. We have to lift each other up! I teach my students the importance of asking for mentorship, raising their hands, and supporting one another to strengthen the whole.


7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

My uncle Arky used to say to me, “Do it, Diane!” whenever I did something that made him proud. I took it to mean that I could do “it,” whatever “it” was! To believe in positive possibilities is a great piece of advice.


8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…

Value them professionally, and stop being threatened by them outpacing you. Success at work is not a zero-sum game—any organization, private company, public university, or government does better in an environment where everyone can thrive. Understand how when you sexualize your co-workers in any way, it is demeaning, not flattering. May sex no longer be something men can use to dominate and suppress women, at the workplace or anywhere else.

Bonus Questions:

The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that strong female alliances have the power to change the world for the better.

I wish people would stop telling me… that taking sexual assault seriously at schools deprives accused men of their rights.

Everyone should own… a Portuguese water dog.

This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.

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