Danielle Kurtzleben is a politics reporter at NPR.
I’m willing to bet that millions of women remember one particular moment from the #MeToo firestorm. Each one on her own came to a sudden realization: Seeing powerful men being called out one after another, she shook herself, rubbed her eyes, turned to the lady in the next cubicle and said: “Wait a minute. Did I ever tell you about this thing the boss did?” Or she said, “Isn’t it messed up that we all know that that one manager is a creep, and no one is doing anything about it?” And as it all sank in: “Wait — you mean we can complain about this?”
In my own, quieter moments, when I was limp from rage, another question came to me: How did we get here?
In “Reckoning,” Linda Hirshman tantalizingly offers to answer those questions. She starts in 1968 in Chappaquiddick, Mass., with Ted Kennedy’s infamous car wreck that killed Mary Jo Kopechne, and journeys through a packed half-century of feminist history — the earliest harassment cases, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the 2008 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Donald Trump’s election, the #MeToo movement, Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh — landing at the 2018 midterm elections.
“Reckoning” aims to be a cultural, political and legal history of all that. Which is a tall order for about 250 pages of text.
Hirshman, a retired philosophy professor and lawyer, does manage to accomplish what seems to be her simplest goal: showing us that yes, many threads stretch from those early harassment cases through decades of tangled politics to today’s #MeToo movement and its impacts.
This is not a book with an overarching thesis; instead, Hirshman weaves together a story of how harassment became A Thing and how society reached its recent #MeToo tipping point. “Reckoning” is at its most satisfying when Hirshman tells stories that 2019 readers might not know, like the early, trailblazing cases brought by women of color that set the stage for the harassment battles of the 1980s, ’90s and beyond. These sections let one see how the same people, ideas and roadblocks pop up decade after decade.
For example, when the Supreme Court, in 1986, heard a harassment case brought by Mechelle Vinson against the bank where she had worked, the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — one Clarence Thomas — led the agency in opposing Vinson. And the same type of questions Vinson faced (Did she encourage the harassment? Was complaining about it a form of “revenge”?) would eventually be asked of Anita Hill in her own harassment case against Thomas.
In laying all this out, Hirshman is clearly in command of the material, giving concise explanations of complicated court cases. It’s the kind of command that allows her to be conversational, even casual — for better and for worse. Mixed liberally throughout are irony-dripping jokes, acid asides and grand pronouncements. I found myself imagining Hirshman standing before a fireplace in a mahogany-and-leather-filled study, dictating her book into a recorder, gesturing grandly, Scotch in hand.
It becomes clear early in “Reckoning” that Hirshman as a narrator needs to be taken with a shaker or two of salt. On the one hand, it can be quite charming when she gives you a conspiratorial nudge and lets you know exactly what she thinks of a particular court ruling. On the other, that kind of nudging means that Hirshman is not writing a detached, analytical view of history. She is clearly biased toward — or against — many of the figures she writes about. For example, she is far more concerned with castigating Gloria Steinem and other 1990s feminists who stood behind Bill Clinton than with wrestling too hard with why mainstream feminism failed Monica Lewinsky (and how some feminists, in fact, sided with her).
That lack of authorial distance leads to some below-the-belt moments, as when Hirshman criticizes Joe Biden’s performance as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman in the Hill-Thomas hearings. That, in and of itself, is fair — today, many continue to criticize Biden’s handling of those hearings.
But then Hirshman takes it further: “Biden considered himself a friend to women. He certainly had reason to be, since his whole life was made possible by women who had put his career first,” she tartly explains, before telling of how his sister and two wives devoted their time to helping him climb the ladder. That may be true, but was it more true of Biden than of any of the other (many) men in the Senate at the time? Or did Hirshman decide to get in an extra dig at a senator she thinks failed feminists? The personal is political, indeed.
She even gets blatantly offensive when, in a list of alleged harassers, she includes “wheelchair-user public radio host John Hockenberry.” (Hockenberry does indeed use a wheelchair, but one wonders why Hirshman felt compelled to let us know.)
Hirshman’s penchant for big statements also damages her credibility. She gives former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who brought down Roger Ailes by recording his advances on her smartphone, a dubious place in the pantheon of history: “Every social movement, however incremental, passes inflection points. Rosa Parks on the bus. ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ Stonewall. Gretchen Carlson turned on her iPhone.”
Taken together, the personal barbs and overstatements make one wonder if, in “Reckoning,” attempts at wicked humor and uncareful theorizing win out over actual perspective.
For example, why was Carlson the inflection point and not, say, the women who accused Bill Cosby nearly a year before Carlson filed her suit? Did Cosby’s dozens of accusers play into later #MeToo revelations at all? We don’t really find out; Cosby gets only a few passing mentions in this book. Will Carlson really be the person we all look back on as the icon of the #MeToo movement? Again, that case doesn’t really get made.
After finishing “Reckoning,” readers might have more questions than they did going in. And perhaps it’s just a matter of time until scholars have enough distance to see #MeToo clearly.
Until then, readers may be best served to plow through Hirshman’s text and study the endnotes. The questions women asked themselves in 2017 had been asked before, after all, as when 1990s women suddenly realized that they, too, could complain about harassment. Hirshman knows this — she cites a selection of books and articles from other confusing times for American women: Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” (1991) and Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer’s “Strange Justice” (1994) stand out. Readers left asking how we got here might do best to add those books to their bedside tables.
By Linda Hirshman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
316 pp. $27