What We’re Reading: “Reckoning” by Linda Hirshman, About the Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment

The latest addition to our feminist shelf takes a historical look at how sexual harassment has intersected with the legal system over the last 50 years – any why that’s critical for understanding the gender equality movement of today

linda hirshman | podcast | workplace
Photo: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com

Having just celebrated the 29th anniversary of Anita Hill’s historic testimony last weekend (here and here), there’s been lots of conversation about sexual harassment and how far we’ve come around the Girls Are Awesome office lately…

…which reminded me of a podcast I’d listened to way back in January. Twice, actually, because it covered the last 50 years of the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace, and there was just so much to get my head around. It was an episode of Why Is This Happening with Chris Hayes, featuring his interview with author and scholar Linda Hirshman about her book, “Reckoning”. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. For me, the history buff / bookworm / feminism nerd, their hour-long conversation can only be described as a brainsmoothie. In the best way.

I wasn’t more than ten minutes into my most recent re-listen of the episode mentioned above that the book was on its way from my online shopping cart to my bookcase. Those of us who are committed to gender equality and know that we need to have a comprehensive understanding of where we’ve been and how it’s impacted (and continues to impact) where we are, in order to know how best to proceed – and works like “Reckoning”, which bring us the bird’s eye view over decades of progress, are a powerful resource in this regard. And, not for nothing, but as the waves of the #MeToo movement continue to roll in, we as feminists need to be all good n’ brushed up on our theory in order to properly contextualize these events and advocate for womxn. So, in that way too, “Reckoning” is a great place to start.

linda hirshman | podcast | workplace

Hirshman begins by taking the reader back to the late 1960’s in America, where the second wave of feminism (aka, women entering the workforce in droves) and the sexual liberation movement (aka, sex no longer being strictly confined to monogamy, and sexual access to women no longer being confined to the home) collided to create a unique series of historically significant events – a consequence of which was the rise of sexual harassment in the workplace. She takes us through a series of landmark court cases brought by courageous, pioneering women who, bit by bit, helped to move the legislative needle towards a safer workplace environment for women and victims of sexual harassment and assault, as well as stronger accountability for the perpetrators of it.

For those of us who love our feminist icons, the inclusion of so much Catharine MacKinnon in this text is a total gift. As a writer, theorist and often controversial feminist thinker, MacKinnon’s contributions are impossible to remove from the legislative history of sexual harassment – something we’re all grateful for, whether we knew it or not. So much of what we understand about sexual harassment, including the crucial legal clarification that it is a violation of a woman’s civil rights, is a result of MacKinnon’s tireless efforts. Hirshman definitely gives MacKinnon her flowers for this, and breaks a great deal of her scholarship down so the rest of us can easily digest and share about it when necessary… Which is, frankly, a bit too frequent these days, with everything going on in the world.

Other important topics that are covered in (helpful) detail: the moral question posed by consent; the sexual caste system born from gendered power dynamics in the workplace; the disparity in sexual bargaining between men and women; the implications of Anita Hill’s testimony; the Clinton impeachment following his encounters with Monica Lewinsky; the warriors of the #MeToo movement, and how we can use the tools in our arsenal to meet this moment.

I’ll be continuing to dig into “Reckoning” and unpacking all of the history and theory in it, but didn’t want to wait until the last page before passing the recommendation along to all of you. Definitely get your hands on a copy, and grab one for your favorite feminist friend as well – you won’t regret it. And, in the meantime, give a listen to Linda Hirshman’s interview with Chris Hayes here while you’re keeping up the good fight for a more equal future along with us.


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