Shortly after I arrived at my Masters program in History, I was warned by female graduate students about the “four horseman,” the four men in the department known as sexual harassers. These men had never faced consequences for their actions and likely never would. They were highly respected scholars in their fields, some of whom held endowed chair positions. It was up to us to protect ourselves: to never allow the door to the office to be closed, to never end up in the department alone with them, to cut them off if they began flirting. I wasn’t his type, said my friend, as a way of comforting me about an upcoming meeting with a horseman. Little comfort that was.
This is my fourth year in graduate school and I have experienced sexism in the form of micro-aggressions and sexual harassment in many forms. I am one of the lucky ones. I have never been sexually assaulted or raped or stalked. But my day-to-day experience has been shaped and created by the ways women in academia have to navigate a world made convenient to sexual harassers.
In my second year of graduate school, I was expected to navigate a party thrown by a professor filled with men drinking too much and laying around on the floor sipping homemade mead. I was expected to be “chill” as one of three women in a hotel suite full of drunk men. At the same conference, I somehow became responsible for carrying the programs and wallets of male colleagues in my purse, for helping them find conference-appropriate outfits, or for explaining to them why drunkenly flirting with other conference attendees was a bad idea.
I have overheard fellow students brag about sleeping with drunk woman at conferences (when what they are actually bragging about is rape). I have been charged with redecorating rooms in the department and pulling together social events. I have been talked down to or talked over by the very men who make navigating academia difficult, or even dangerous, for me and other women. And I have been the only woman in the classroom more times than I can count.
I have been called a “joyous presence” by a male professor who never skips an opportunity to flirt with me or speak to me as I am making copies alone in the mail room. I have had awkward conversations with my adviser, trying to explain to a man my experience with inappropriate professors without “getting anyone in trouble.” And I have decided not to report inappropriate behavior, because I am close with the professor, because they are essential to my work or have connections and have good ideas. I have had to defend glass-front office doors to male professors, who don’t understand the situations female graduate students find themselves in day after day. Situations that force them to have friends on call to “save them,” to rearrange meetings for when others are present, and to “suck it up” as to not jeopardize their career.
And in a few days, I plan to warn a few first-year women about their potential adviser, who regularly “flirts” with female students. The department won’t protect them, so we need to protect ourselves and each other.