People keep asking me what I think of Naomi Wolf. I’m not really shocked to be asked. As a feminist, a women’s and gender studies major, and a former coordinator of the Yale Women’s Center; I am somewhat of a target, or a wealth of opinion, on the matter.
There are students, both male and female, who are raped, assaulted and harassed while at Yale, and there no question in my mind that Yale’s treatment of survivors could be much better in many ways. Sexual harrasment here, as everywhere, a system where “it is the woman and her ‘frailties’ under scrutiny, instead of the institution and its frailties” as Wolf states. However, that debate should be taken up by someone other than me; someone, for instance, who has first-hand knowledge of what it is like to prosecute a rape at Yale in this “post-Tailhook” era.
What I wish to clarify, as rumors and opinions fly about Naomi Wolf, Harold Bloom and “Sex and Silence at Yale,” is that the Yale that these students face, for better and for worse, is not the Yale that Wolf faced. Wolf was treated poorly by the administrators whom she contacted, but the treatment she received cannot, and should not, be perceived as indicative of what a current Yale undergraduate receives when bringing a charge of sexual harassment. Nor can her experience in 1983, as harrowing as it may have been, be taken as analogous to what Yale is like today.
Naomi Wolf’s article gives no historical context. Take Alexander v. Yale, the impact of which is vital to understanding what Yale was like in the early 1980s. Her mention of it is both cursory and misleading.
In June of 1977 four female students and a male assistant professor brought a class action suit against Yale University. They claimed that several faculty members had engaged in sexually offensive behaviors, ranging from lewd and suggestive comments to “coerced sexual intercourse” and that this was indicative of a trend that Yale had taken no interest in quelling. The male professor who joined the suit said in The New York Times that he was forced to teach women “in an atmosphere poisoned by mistrust.” They demanded under the auspices of Title IX that Yale institute a formal procedure specifically designed to deal with sexual issues.
The Yale of 1977 was not a Yale prepared to deal with this sort of claim. In August, The New York Times reported that Yale administrators saw the creation of a sexual harassment committee to be “redundant:”
“‘We’re probably the only university in the world that has a special harassment procedure written into the rule books,’ one official said. ‘In 1969 it was written specifically at the request of black students, but anybody can use it. What are we supposed to do, write a special sexual harassment procedure?'”
His statement, although ironic and almost humorous now, was indicative of the larger opinion at the time: all but one of the complaints from Alexander v. Yale were dismissed on the grounds that no proof could be brought in court. Yet the final charge, now titled Price v. Yale, went to trial, the first case of its kind. And in 1978 a (female) judge ruled that although the “alleged incident of sexual proposition” did not occur, Yale’s sexual harassment grievance procedure was inadequate. So Yale, under the advice of the court, instituted the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board. When the appeal from the original five-person Alexander v. Yale suit was finally heard in 1980 it was dismissed because Yale had already complied with the Court’s demands.
In September 1980, Naomi Wolf entered a Yale still grappling with the creation of a much unwanted committee, a Yale still under the auspices of an administration made up of men who said things in The New York Times like “if women students aren’t smart enough to know how to outwit some obnoxious professor, they shouldn’t be here in the first place,” a Yale where administrators could comment that “affairs … between students and professors go on all the time.”
Twenty-five years after Price v. Yale, affairs between students and professors do not go on “all the time,” at least, not in any way that an administrator would flippantly mention to a reporter. A professor (or TA, lecturer, dean or freshmen counselor) who sleeps with a student, or attempts to, will lose his or her job; a rule that the University not only cites often but enforces.
I do not mean to paint a rosy picture of Yale today. Policy can be written precisely as the court demands, but no administrative board can force people to change. I have certainly encountered faculty (and students) who hold opinions very much like that held by the administration in 1977. Yet these faculty are no longer the only power structure that exists. Wolf may have had nowhere to turn in 1983, but she has no right to assume that students at today’s Yale face the same problem.
Still, Wolf concludes that “if a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean.”
As a freshmen counselor, I am one of “those tasked with educating, supporting and mentoring” students. Perhaps Wolf would classify me as part of the problem. And perhaps she would claim my status as a feminist at Yale has sheltered me in some way — I have a list of faculty members whom I would, and do, direct concerned students to in a heartbeat: officials who I have seen go to great lengths for students who have been harassed, regardless of whether those students filed official complaints, administrators who themselves were once victims of sexual harassment, faculty who would rather leave Yale than teach alongside someone who treats students in this way.
If we do not urge women to speak up, the system will never change. It is part of my job to tell students where to go when they have a “bad secret to tell,” and I urge them to speak up confidently. There is a reason why I have this responsibility and Wolf does not: it is because I live, study and learn here, and I know how today’s Yale actually works.
Cyd Cipolla is a senior in Trumbull College.