Columbia Women Write 'New York Times Magazine' Essays on Sexual Harassment

December 26, 2017

A cadre of Columbia women penned essays about being female in the workplace for the New York Times Magazine.


Called The Reckoning: Women and Power in the Workplace, the interactive package featured faculty and alumni who consider sexual harassment and abuse in different contexts. Some share their own personal stories about what they confronted in different work environments.


Ruth Franklin CC ’95 writes about an experience she had with an older reporter who became her mentor when she was interning at a newspaper during her senior year in high school. When she accompanied the reporter on assignments, he became physically aggressive, and she says the relationship eventually “curdled” as she pulled away.


“At the time, I would have sworn that what was happening between me and this reporter was consensual,” she writes. “Now, more than 25 years later, I understand more clearly how incompletely the idea of consent conveys the complexity of such a dynamic.”


Heidi Julavits '96, Writing faculty member and Director of Undergraduate Creative Writing, writes about answering her young daughter’s questions around sexual harassment. “My daughter and I talked about power; was power to blame? Was power an unavoidably corrupting force? But to claim that power always corrupts risked excusing the individual offenders,” Julavits writes. “We finally settled on one useful point for future thinking and action: For the first time during my lifetime, and also by implication, during hers, victims were proving more powerful than the power that created them.”


Parul Seghal '10 delves into what it means for women to relive shame, and how that contrasts with the less-than-contrite statements from the powerful men who have been accused, from Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. “These statements of the men seem especially shabby when compared with the majestic testimonies of the women who have come forward,” Seghal notes. “In their interviews, essays and op-eds, they relive moments of terror and humiliation and shame, even as they are forced to establish their credibility and, in some cases, account for their silence over the years. Intense introspection marks these statements.”


And journalist and novelist Zoë Heller, a former adjunct faculty member, writes a nuanced piece about the subjectivity inherent in certain interactions between male and female coworkers, and she suggests that women should not presuppose their own diminished agency and authority in the workplace. “The danger with this a priori assumption of women’s diminished agency is that it ends up exaggerating female vulnerability,” she argues. “It casts women as fundamentally fragile beings, whose sexual assent, like that of minors, cannot be trusted to indicate true consent.”


“It’s fine to demand that men stop being brutes, but it helps if there is some consensus on what qualifies as brutishness,” Heller adds.


The essays can be read in full in the New York Times Magazine