‘Never be the most feminist person you know’ – Laura Bates meets Cynthia Enloe

The 79-year-old professor and activist has tackled marital rape and changed the language of feminism. She remains a force to be reckoned with in the fight to make sure all women’s voices are equal and heard

‘Patriarchy’s beneficiaries,” Cynthia Enloe tells us in her latest book, “count on us getting tired.” If that is the case, then patriarchy had better watch out because Enloe herself seems utterly tireless. At 79 years old, the professor has published her ninth feminist book – The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy – and has packed her visit to London with meetings, guest lectures, teaching and catch-ups with comrades. She is a force of nature. Later on the day we meet, we are both invited on to Channel 4 News to discuss sexual harassment. Will the Harvey Weinstein scandal act as a tipping point in public awareness and attitudes towards sexual violence? Enloe replies drily. “How many tipping points have we had?” Looking back over the decades, she asks: “Why wasn’t Dominique Strauss-Kahn the tipping point, or more importantly Anita Hill [who accused her boss and US supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment]?” She pauses to notes the grim similarities between Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour and Weinstein’s. “It’s all bathrobes, God, honestly!”

The abuse of power, and of women, continues to drag on in part, says Enloe, because of the “sustainability of patriarchy”. This is a theory she uses in The Big Push to describe how patriarchy nimbly adapts and reinvents itself to survive. She gives a wry smile. “I’m not trying to name the persistencies in patriarchy so we can all be depressed. But it does say you can never sit back on your laurels. That makes me put ‘tipping point’ in inverted commas. It makes me nervous when people say we’ve got momentum. You can’t stop.”

Remembering her own personal tipping points, Enloe vividly recalls the enormous impact of the first time she heard the term “sexual harassment” used to describe unwanted and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. Naming the problem felt revolutionary. She remembers watching an auditorium of faculty students in the early 80s listening to a presentation on the potential for rape within marriage and “trying to grapple with the seemingly outrageous idea”. Thirty-seven years later, she notes, most US state laws finally acknowledge that marital rape exists. She speaks of watching, riveted, “glued to the set”, as the Anita Hill hearings unfolded. Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter’s line of questioning so incensed Enloe that she immediately signed up to donate to the female opponent running for his seat.

When I ask Enloe if we are getting anywhere, she points to recent feminist initiatives such as the Everyday Sexism Project as positive steps and welcomes the fact that mainstream news organisations are now discussing sexual harassment and assault. But on one point she is unequivocal: “There’s no end in sight.”

On the other hand, she says, we are making slow but sure progress. “It’s harder and harder to fool us. It’s harder and harder for people in authority to throw ... tokenism at us and make us think we should applaud.

“There is much more transnational feminist learning and listening. Women who feel threatened locally can use growing international understanding to open spaces for discussion in their own societies.”

Enloe, whose work has long spanned intersectional analyses of gender, race and class, is pleased to see that the feminist movement is “much more diverse in its voices now”. But here, too, she cautions against premature self-congratulation. “I’m hopeful, but I’m not comfortable. There’s much more work to do.” Social media, she says, though a breeding ground for misogyny, also opens up the discussion. “It is an opportunity to ask: ‘What does a Kurdish feminist sound like and what does she want me to take on board?’”

Throughout her book and our conversation, Enloe repeatedly questions which things society pays attention to and which we consider insignificant. With typical laser focus, she pinpoints, for example, the linguistic sleight of hand performed by those who use the phrase “women and children”, instead of the quite different “women with their dependent children”. Through this elision, she points out: “The children don’t become women. The women become children.” When feminists within the UNHCR pushed for the term to be altered, she says, the difference seemed tiny, but the impact was huge.

Enloe encourages us away from distraction by caricatures such as Donald Trump. But I can’t resist asking what she makes of the preening brinkmanship between the male egos of Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. She is both scathing and foreboding. “They are such extreme versions of masculinity, I’m afraid. It’s going to let all the other men acting out forms of weaponised masculinity off the hook … and that’s really dangerous.”

She repeatedly emphasises the importance of feminist collaboration and curiosity; she coined the term “feminist curiosity” when lecturing in Tokyo in 2003 and says it was a way to encourage students to “go ask a question I haven’t even thought of. Investigate something I hadn’t even realised needs investigation.” Indeed, she is self-effacing to a fault, declaring in The Big Push: “Self-reflection can be indulgent. It can place one at the centre of the universe. Always a bad move.” She is self-deprecating, too, about her own feminist credentials, describing her slow, “winding journey to feminist consciousness” and noting that she initially spent decades in teaching and research examining issues such as class and race without any attention to gender at all. It was only after her feminist awakening, which she says was spurred by her young female students, that she revisited the life of her mother, Harriett, choosing to write about her life and experiences in many of her subsequent books. Enloe movingly writes of revisiting her mother’s diary “with fresh eyes”, and realising the burden she had quietly borne as the wife of a veteran of the second world war. “I began then to see that the US government depended on my mother for its waging of that globalised war.” Enloe dedicated her first feminist book to her mother, who received the page proof of the dedication the day before she died.

Enloe remains an inspiration; she is closely concerned with encouraging and supporting students and younger women. “Every feminist I know, in any country I’ve spent time in, their biggest challenge is how to pass the baton.” For her part, Enloe has sage advice for the next generation of activists: “Never be the most feminist person you know. That’s not going to get you far. You need to have people around you who are differently feminist or more feminist than you are. It’s only depressing if you’re doing it all by yourself.”

The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy by Cynthia Enloe (Myriad, £9.99)

Contributor

Laura Bates

The GuardianTramp

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