A Question of Solidarity and Sisterhood

The women’s movement in Scandinavia would benefit from adopting more confrontational methods of protest and resistance.

Illustration: Liana Finck.

The recent conviction of Harvey Weinstein is a milestone for the women’s movement, which gives the impression that justice may be within reach. Yet, if judgments were solely based on what is portrayed in the media or social networks, one might believe that the #MeToo movement is more or less than what it is. There stands the problem of authentic ‘solidarity’ and ‘sisterhood,’ and this can be detected in the aftermath. After all, the institutional fabric which allowed for grotesque abuses of power to occur appears to still be in intact with minimal alterations (e.g. the Swedish Academy, whose complicity with Jean-Claude Arnault, who was convicted of two cases of rape in 2018, resulted in no substantial policy changes for the institution). Viable results are still not within reach.

Following are observations meant to confront the #MeToo movement’s semblance of progress – while aiming to overcome shortcomings. It is crucial to come to terms with the movement’s drawbacks and illusions, for until we do, women are setting themselves up to encounter dead ends and distorted mirrors. When and if an incident occurs, a woman may discover that her legal, professional, and personal support systems are defective.

Contradictions between thought and action stem from the behaviours and attitudes of women, and identity politics frequently dictate how women align themselves. Women in academia are exposed to a different reality than women from other workforces; women who identify solely as women may find it difficult to join forces with trans- or non-binary individuals – even when they share concerns; a straight cisgender woman may not harbour the same perspective as a queer woman, ad infinitum

Furthermore, it can be difficult to relate to women who closely mirror one’s own position due to competition for similar resources (e.g. work, funding, approval). I have witnessed discord between those who either approve or disapprove of the call-out culture’s more demanding approach vs. the #MeToo movement’s inherent focus on empathy and healing; I have met others who believe that anonymity and ridicule impede constructive debate vs. those who view them as effective tools; I have been dismissed by women who are more conventional or privileged; I have been in arguments with Marxists and nihilists. Also, some women maintain a well-crafted façade of pseudo-activism. Publicly, they market themselves as advocates of women’s rights, but when one zooms in on their actions and allegiances, they negate themselves via the tactics they implement to advance their reputation or preserve professional ‘success.’

To illustrate with a real-life scenario: an esteemed woman gallerist advertises herself in support of women’s rights, yet peripherally works with a company owned by a recognised predator. She also allows the artists she represents to collaborate with companies which enforce discriminating business practices because she profits from turning her head. The notion of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” doesn’t only apply to a man pretending to be a feminist, but also to a woman who prospers from playing both sides. There is nothing wrong with turning the lens onto women who are part of this problem. Everyone should be examined; complicity is omnipresent. 

Friction exists among women when only one or a few speak up, while others may remain silent. A woman who speaks up may desire support from others who prefer not to get involved or disassociate (e.g. exclusion, normalising, stonewalling). Still, the quandary remains: what must a woman trade in so as to secure professional advancement? Which freedoms are threatened (or lost) so as to ensure other freedoms? Perhaps a division between women who speak up and those who do not could be correlated to the type of freedom valued: the freedom to (positive liberty) vs. the freedom from (negative liberty).

There is an argument that most women know by heart: we are (supposedly) born into a man’s world. Some women believe that we must navigate our way through it unscathed by working with the patriarchy so as to capitalise while minimising damage. This is an underlying premise of Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘lean-in’ feminism, which some still regard as legitimate. Sandberg introduced the notion that women should push to improve their rights by overcoming passivity and docility in the workplace via more assertive negotiation. Yet, her philosophy doesn’t embody concerns of other women confronting the patriarchy from positions unlike her own. Sandberg’s more compromising approach is not radical, nor does it universally function. She also illustrates that it is women who hold women back – that women should simply try harder. Sandberg’s feminism prioritises individual behaviour, but does not wholly acknowledge structural sexism. The notion of ‘soft power’ may be confused with muffled compromise or subdued appeal because women regularly downplay or forfeit their voice by believing that this is a valid ‘soft power’ strategy to attain a larger goal. Especially since #MeToo, Sandberg’s ideology has been repudiated by those who do not pander to men in power.

Considering the rampant hypocrisy, it’s understandable why many women do not identify as feminists. In Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto (2017),the critic provides relief for those who are disillusioned or appalled by seemingly vapid ‘lifestyle’ feminism. Crispin believes that the current state of mainstream feminism (which she views as flaky, oblivious, and cowardly) impedes any ability to dismantle the patriarchy; instead, she provokes a revolution. In the art world, we may observe a collector sporting her pink pussy hat while most artworks in her collection are by white male artists and were purchased from companies owned by white men with funds earned by her rich white husband. Or we may see a self-identified queer feminist futurist artist accept lofty commissions to create sculptures for a prejudiced company because she follows the age-old tenet that “money is money.”

If women and others fail to grasp the nature and setbacks of identity and micro-politics – if they do not leave their comfort zones to collaborate with those from contrasting positions – this movement appears limited. Signed letters, carefully cultivated seminars, safe spaces, and clandestine dialogue are not enough – especially, if no follow-up occurs. Efforts to increase awareness must lead to change. The question of getting involved or collaborating with those who speak up is nuanced and contextual – as is one’s decision to take a stand, for there are risks for those who expose or confront injustice. Must a woman experience an incident firsthand so as to convince herself to take these matters seriously?

The neoliberal machine influences the creative industry; those who speak up can vouch for this. When a woman boycotts or speaks up, she decides not to work with certain entities and halt collaborations with others working with power abusers. In doing so, she witnesses less politically motivated individuals attempt to replace her role. For instance, many women and allies continue to boycott Artforum due to unresolved harassment accusations against former publisher Knight Landesman and no longer work for the magazine; yet, one may observe other arts professionals replace those who walked away in protest. Artforum’s response (made by Editor-in-Chief David Velasco) to include more “intersectional feminist” content does not override the fact that Landesman remains co-owner and shareholder of the publication. 

Meanwhile, minimal media attention has been devoted to curator Amanda Schmitt’s still ongoing appeal against Landesman, whom she sued for alleged sexual harassment in 2017. It is dispiriting that the website Not Surprised is now inaccessible as an online resource. Suppression and erasure of relevant events and issues comes in many shapes and forms. 

Women who speak up may be accused of being unprofessional, ill-informed, naive, or lacking integrity. This tendency to mark or pigeonhole seems to occur with increased frequency when a woman is the first (or one of the first) to speak up. Anyone who isolates or brands a woman in opposition may diminish her ability to be heard and supported; the patriarchal mechanism tries to “nip it in the bud” before a complaint magnifies. It is easier to blame or disregard a woman if she is accused of subpar behaviour or fabrication. Yet, women may also enforce a misogynistic ‘double standard’ with smears and whispers.

In short, individual women who speak up possess more integrity compared to the women’s movement as a whole, which is inconsistent and contradictory despite the media’s magnification of certain iconic cases which aggrandise its status. When the difficult actions of a few carry the bulk of the movement’s responsibility, while other women safely follow or take credit for a thorny path cleared, solidarity and sisterhood are under the threat of appearing as mythical constructs. By contrast, take the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis sharing its upfront anti-rape protest anthem in response to the beginning of Weinstein’s trial and allegations against Donald Trump, and the French writer Virginie Despentes’s recent scathing public statement and walk-out condemning Roman Polanski’s 2020 César Awards and nominations. These are prime examples of how activists and intellectuals can support those who speak up by turning up the volume. 

Similarly, the Scandinavian women’s movement could benefit from adopting more direct and confrontational methods of protest and resistance circulating in other regions – for the silence is, at times, deafening. Stockholm’s feminist flash mob against sexual violence at Sergel’s Torg is a step in the right direction. Women should aim for a robust movement consisting of a motley chorus of persistent voices; one voice may become exhausted or overwhelmed, pause to breathe and regain strength, but ideally the remaining voices should be heard.