Female historians share list of ‘would-be harassers’

Document circulated at annual conference of American Historical Association

January 7, 2019
Filing cabinet

Those who attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting last week saw something new in their registration materials: a policy that they were “expected to engage in consensual and respectful behaviour and to preserve AHA’s standard of professionalism at all times,” at any officially sanctioned activity. Reporting, investigation and due-process procedures back up the statement. Possible sanctions for violations include an association membership ban, a kind of professional death.

To many, it is a sign of how far anti-harassment and sexual misconduct campaigns have come in academia, especially in the last few years. Many women’s advocates say that conferences are high-risk times, given the social atmosphere and lack of institutional boundaries. Professional organisations generally have been slow to take decisive action, however, in some cases citing a lack of authority.

But in what is perhaps a sign of what work remains, graduate students and others quietly circulated a list of alleged bad actors – harassers, or worse – among themselves at this year’s conference.

The document was started about two years ago to warn women about potential dangers at AHA. It has grown significantly over time, to dozens of historians, by some estimates, and some literary scholars. Some of those on the list are big names; many are not. Some cases already are in the public domain. Others are not.

The list is closely guarded. A former graduate student who adds names to it but who was not at the conference declined to share the list for this story or otherwise comment, despite assurances that no names would be disclosed, accuser or offender. But it was advertised on social media ahead of the history conference and its existence was confirmed by several who had seen it.

One woman who added to the list shared why she did so.

“My reasons for contributing to the list were purely to protect other women from these men,” said the woman, who is now a junior faculty member, noting that the same motivation drove her to file a misconduct claim with her institution. “There’s really nothing deeper than that.”

The list appears to be somewhat common knowledge. In one instance, a senior historian at AHA having a soft drink with a female colleague at a hotel pub was overhead telling her, “I won’t help you put on your coat, as I don’t want to end up on the list. In my opinion, it represents the worst of well-intentioned reform.”

But the junior faculty member who spoke to Inside Higher Ed, who did not want to be named for fear of possible retaliation, said that the list was not about those who make “an inappropriate comment or engage in some light conference flirting”. Rather, she said, everyone on the list was alleged to have sexually harassed, stalked or assaulted someone.

“These are not isolated events but relationships that are reinforced, often every day in our profession and at our universities.”

She and others also expressed concern about more publicity regarding the list, saying that it could put those who contributed in emotional, professional, physical or legal danger. Others cited a confidentiality pact between accusers and the woman collecting names. Some cited the case of Moira Donegan, the creator of the 2017 “Shitty Media Men” list, who was sued by writer Stephen Elliott.

Mr Elliott, who was accused of sexual assault on that Google document-style list, claims defamation and is seeking to expose those who added to or circulated it.

Still, in academia, other lists have proved less controversial. Karen Kelsky, moderator of The Professor Is In, runs a Google document of crowdsourced incidents of alleged misconduct across academe. It does not name names, but it is possible to guess them from some accounts. Julie Libarkin, director of Michigan State University’s Geocognition Research Lab, has accumulated hundreds of substantiated cases, including names, in a more official – but incomplete – list based on publicly available records.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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