Roiphe hasn’t said whether she originally intended to identify the woman who brought the list into being. The answer to that question would tell us how to view the brouhaha of the past 24 hours: as an example of the rumor brigade running amok, or as a rallying cry for female solidarity that achieved its aim of squashing a dangerous article. In any case, the uproar offers a lesson or two — and a heartening sign that women in media are ready to stand up for each other and make the #MeToo movement last.
When Business Insider’s Max Tani reported amid all of Tuesday’s speculation that Harper’s had a piece from Roiphe slated for its March edition, the news inspired more cringing than confidence. Roiphe rode to fame 25 years ago on her claim that the so-called campus rape crisis was one big overreaction, and made a name for herself among the left as the embodiment of that aphorism about women who don’t help other women. Of course, furious tweeters speculated, she’d want to write an article lambasting the list.
But the real problem was never that Roiphe might have been planning to pen a piece that many right-thinking people would probably disagree with. Yes, perhaps publications should spend their time investigating the men who appear on the list or cleaning their own houses. And, yes, the most valuable critiques of something like the list are the ones that recognize its purpose while pointing out its problems. Yet commentary that takes the opposite side, so long as it is well-informed, deserves some space, too. And it would be wrong for people to try to get those arguments yanked off the printed page rather than listen to them.
No, the problem was that, according to early reports, Roiphe was going to identify the list’s individual creator. And calling out the woman who started the document would have laid bare exactly what made it necessary in the first place. As Tortorici, writer Nicole Cliffe and countless other women pointed out, exposing the list’s creator would put her at risk of torment and perhaps physical harm. And for what — clicks from drama-hungry readers? To make a critical point, or even to delve into how the list developed, a writer shouldn’t have to name names, unless there’s extraordinary news value to the revelation.
Women had seized on the spreadsheet as a safe way to warn each other about the predators around them, because going public meant questioning and shaming and maybe another round of abuse. An article jeopardizing that safety would have told them to stay silent. Writing it would have ripped at the support women must show each other if they’re going to make the #MeToo movement last. Approving it, as editors at Harper’s would have to have done, is just what an institution should not do if it wants to cultivate a workplace where women don’t have to worry about all those sh–ty men.
And that’s where the good news comes in. The article commentators imagined was going to appear would have been Exhibit A for women not standing by each other. But the backlash to the backlash crystallized into just the opposite. Online, women in and out of media called Harper’s and expressed their concerns. Many threatened to cancel subscriptions. Cliffe even offered matching pay to freelancers with pieces in the same Harper’s edition if they withdrew their articles. Several took her up on it, and she started to help find their stories somewhere else to run. It was enough to make any advertiser think twice.
Maybe an angry Internet misjudged Roiphe. Maybe it made her change her mind instead. (She didn’t respond to my email requesting comment.) But we will know that at least some members of the media cared enough to answer a threat. The saga of our sexual politics is a long one — it wasn’t complete 25 years ago when Roiphe came onto the scene, and it won’t be complete 25 years from now. But this week’s events are reason to hope for a happy ending.