Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian
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On sexual terrorizing of women, communication, and what I learned about this in Yeshiva High School

They told me to get hat pins, long sharp hat pins, for those subway rides to Yeshiva high school
Illustrative photo of religious girls at study. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of religious girls at study. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

I went to Yeshiva University High School for Girls of Manhattan, then some blocks off Columbus Circle in Manhattan. I lived in the outer reaches of Queens; no subway line reached anywhere near my neighborhood. To get to a subway, I took a bus from its second stop to its last. From there, it was over an hour of subways during rush hour, going and returning. I was 13 when this started. I did it for four years.

When I began, older girls who did any version of this trip warned me about men’s behavior on the subways. They told me that some men would open their coats and expose themselves. That they would rub their fronts up against you, press their bodies against you — intentional behavior, not caused by the crowding, though enabled by it. There would be no mistaking this. Women did not do it. Men did.

I was told: get hat pins. Long, sharp pins. Keep them handy and use them, if needed. Show them; make it known you had them. Push the jerks off, shove them away, saying loudly, “get off me!” Others needed to hear. Embarrass them.

I was told.

And I did.

I remembered all this when reading about the Weinstein scandal, hearing people wonder why women did not report his abuse long ago; why so many were victimized and did not report; why “everyone knew, yet no one called it out. Sometimes, it seems like women live in an alternate universe. The oft-repeated phrase, “you just don’t get it!” hangs in the air, truly as if blowing in the wind. Hamevin, yavin, the rabbis say. She who understands, understands.

But, here’s a try. He was the immensely powerful boss, or hoped-for boss, who could make or break these women’s careers, and their lives. They were young wannabes; he was older, prominent, immensely powerful. They were set up, told, thrilled, that they were going to a professional meeting with him, and then ambushed in regular hotel, not meeting rooms, by outrageous behavior that they — unlike my 13-year-old self — could not begin to anticipate or defend against. Like any experienced criminal, he was a pro at this; for each of his victims, it was a shock. He had help, a lot of it. Enablers, facilitators. His victims were alone and set up. Confused, at a loss. And afraid. Rightfully afraid.

What made the difference for me on the subways was a universe of female discourse: older girls cluing newbies about what went on; teaching that it was not our lot to accept it, and how to resist.

The differences in the situations are vast. The experiences we girls had on the subways were not of one powerful person with a vast network, a man who held our hopes, livelihoods, and then us, in his hands. The abusing men we encountered were pathetic, individual jerks; cowards, losers, who invariably were horrified when we would indeed, say loudly, “get off me!” We had just exposed what they were doing and, at least until the next stop, they had nowhere to go but to take in the looks people gave them, even momentarily.

But here is what we did have and what women, Weinstein’s victims and so many others, yes, including boys abused, raped, by men (overwhelmingly by men though sometimes by women), did not and still don’t have. We were told that the phenomenon existed. That it was disgusting; that we should resist; and how.

Weinstein and so many others, including the now-president of the United States, could and can abuse because of a tremendous imbalance of power, gendered overwhelmingly male: power, whether literally, physical; or financial; or professional; or cultural and intellectual — or God knows, a combination of these — is an essential element of masculinity in every culture I know of, very much including Jewish. Women are set ups for abuse for this reason alone, given male dominance in areas of power. In traditional Jewish society, this imbalance is infinitely compounded by the insidious teaching that women should respect, not question, male authority, and submit to it. Boys abused in yeshivot suffer for the same reason. Rabbis who abuse tell their victims, female and male, that they are participating in something holy. They jam the victims own internal radio waves, which tell them that something terribly wrong is happening, and play the tape of values the victims have heard extolled all their lives.

What Weinstein did was well known in his circles; “everyone knew about it.” And yet, it was secret. That combination is what allowed his abuse to persist for decades.

The problem, and the solution, or at least, a basic element of the solution, is first, communication. I was saved from abuse by an adolescent, female culture — articulated, passed from one girl to the next. No adult told us to do this — I am not even sure the adults knew about all this. Somehow, we understood it was our responsibility as girls to one another.

There has to be basic education, from very early on and certainly in high schools, in college orientations, in professional schools, and in all work places, about sexual harassment and abuse. About abuse in situations of power imbalance altogether — which would include bullying of the wider variety. The phenomenon has to be identified, named, parsed. Parents need to discuss this with their children from the get go and not rely on schools and places of work to impart this education, even while demanding it. Darkness, physical and mental, is the abuser’s medium. We need to rip that cover off.

Girls and women have to be told first, that– this is a phenomenon. Unlike Weinstein’s and so many other victims, they need to understand that this is not about, much less because of, them. In fact, it has nothing to do with them. Predators feed on the atomization of their victims: their isolation, their unawareness that what they are experiencing is a social pathology and systemic, the very opposite of personal.

And girls and women need solidarity. Individual workers are exploited and abused; workers who join collectively can protect their interests, push back, create deterrence. We know this truth — the power of the collective vs. the vulnerability of the individual, or the minority — in so many other contexts.

This, in my small universe in New York, is what I had, and this is what protected me. This, in the large universe of women’s lives, is what Weinstein’s victims and so many others, lacked, and still lack.
To whom could Weinstein’s victims have turned — and been taken seriously, supported, and assisted in obtaining redress?

To whom can victims turn, even today? The next Weinstein is not next; he is already at work.

Women need a version of the Anti-Defamation League. A revived National Organization for Women. An institution with teeth (legal and political hat pins), outside of their places of employment or would-be employment, since these too often cover for the perpetrators.

It will not be enough to parse this scandal if we don’t come up with effective ways to prevent the next one.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book, the first history of agunot and iggun across the map of Jewish history, with a critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals for fundamental change to end this abuse, is entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains to Free Agunot and End Iggun." She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. She opposes the Kotel deal, which would criminalize women's group prayer at the Kotel and end the site's status as a "national holy site," awarding it instead, to the haredi establishment. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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