By Charlotte Galpin
CW: sexual harassment
This is a story of resisting as a woman, and as a feminist, in a public space. Of being, to use Sara Ahmed’s words, a feminist killjoy.
I gave a public talk at a university and afterwards I was sexually harassed. What followed my talk was a response to the content of my research, punishment for explicitly naming, challenging, resisting toxic masculinity in public spaces.
My talk drew on initial findings from a small-scale, qualitative study of pro-European activism during Brexit using in-depth interviews. I argued that Brexit, and Euroscepticism more broadly, is deeply gendered. It is, amongst other things, underpinned by a highly confrontational, toxic masculinity in British political culture that has not only marginalised women (and of course also many men and non-binary people who do not conform to cis/heteronormative gender norms) from debates about the country’s future but, through violent online abuse, driven female MPs out of politics altogether.
Pro-European activists, I argued, are not merely opposing the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, they are also resisting this gendered dimension of Brexit. By applying a feminist approach to citizenship, I contended, we can understand the way in which the public sphere, the sphere of politics, of national security and the economy, has traditionally been a masculine space, rooted in colonial notions of the “rational man”, while women are confined to the private sphere of emotions and irrationality, of love, family and sexuality. Pro-European activists, I maintained, contest Brexit in a number of ways that break down the public/private divide.
One way they do this is in their calls for a kinder and more caring society and economy. I told of the women I have spoken to who have been verbally and even physically abused on the street while campaigning but who show a phenomenal resilience and determination to carry on, to continue their resistance. I spoke of activists who campaign in informal, creative, small and personal ways that allow them to fight back and reclaim public spaces for themselves in the name of Europe.
The first comment. A man at the back, a known trouble maker as I found out later, announced that I had confirmed gender analysis is “complete nonsense”, I should focus on the real problems, immigration and EU bureaucracy. The next questions. This time from the front, from two important, powerful men linked to the institution hosting my talk. Pro-Europeans, actually. Powerful men I had been asked to personally thank in my opening remarks. Their comments wilfully misunderstood my arguments, implied I had intentionally misled the audience, discredited my claims. It is not scientific research, one proclaimed to the audience of 120 people, it lacks statistical analysis, it is not representative. This was a demand for “rationality”, the Enlightenment’s assertion of the natural scientific method. A rejection of the 20th century -male- German sociologists who recognised society cannot be studied using the methods of the natural sciences, that social science should explore subjective experience, values, social norms. The personal, the private, the emotional.
These two important men confirmed and legitimised the response of the first. They did not merely criticise my work, they tried to delegitimise it, to discredit me as a scholar. Declaring my work unscientific, they wanted to exclude me from the academic community, to strip me of my qualifications. A denial of my right to the public space of the university. Their comments were a reaction not just to a woman entering into the public sphere, speaking with authority and a platform. Women may be tolerated in public spaces, after all, if they do not kick up too much of a fuss. If they acquiesce, not shake the boat too much, leave masculine structures intact. They were responding, rather, to a woman who was resisting. One who had openly and explicitly challenged male domination in the public sphere. It was an attempt to discipline, to silence. And it created an environment in which I was subsequently sexually harassed.
A man approached me in the crowd of the wine reception as I split off from another group. How can such a young girl could have the title of Dr already, he asked, was I married, did I have children? No, I answered, but I have a partner, they are here in the room. A shame, he said. When will you be back in the city, hopefully you will not be married by then, he pondered, you really have such a lovely figure. Should we go somewhere together afterwards, just the two of us? I walked away.
In this context, I had been given a platform. I had authority, the power to educate. I had been given a formal introduction. My name and photo appeared on the event posters that guided attendees to the room. Like all forms of sexual assault, this incident was not about my relative attractiveness to this man, but about power, about his need to reduce me to my body, to demean me and objectify me in a context in which I was the one holding the power. But that power had already been challenged. My rightful place there as a scholar had been opposed by powerful, important men. What was left for him was a body to be sexualised, to be transported out of public sight to the private sphere of sexuality. Back to bed, back home, back where I belonged. Silent.
But I will not be silent. And after Britain leaves the EU on Friday, pro-European activists will not be silent either.
Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the European Public Sphere, European identities, EU citizenship and Euroscepticism. Her monograph, The Euro Crisis and European Identities: Political and Media Discourse in Germany, Poland and Ireland, was published with Palgrave in 2017. Her current research is exploring pro-European mobilisation during Brexit.