Jessica Bennett, author of the bestsy essay Feminist Fight Club, has been a gender editor at The New York Times since the end of 2017. A new role of which she explains the scope, also evoking #MeToo, gender equality in France, ordinary sexism or masculinity.
« I’m used to saying that my job shouldn’t exist. But as long as it’s needed, I’m happy to keep it busy, » Jessica Bennett said on March 6 at a meeting organized by the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Lean In France and Cheek Magazine. On October 30, 2017, three weeks after the publication of the new York Times’ first investigation into Harvey Weinstein, Jessica Bennett took up her duties as the newspaper’s gender editor. An unprecedented role in the press, whose birth had then challenged us. Until now, we knew the journalist for her bestseller Fight Club Feminist, Manual of Survival in Sexist Environments, translated into many languages including French at Other in March 2017, a valuable and humorous essay, tackling in the first place ordinary sexism.
Jessica Bennett began her career at Newsweek, where she stayed for seven years, before writing for various publications including Time Magazine, in which she coined the neologism « manterruption » or « the untimely interruption of a woman by a man » in 2015. We took advantage of the journalist’s presence in Paris to meet her.
Usbek – Rica: What exactly is your role as a gender editor, since it is cross-cutting? The New York Times is a gigantic machine: 1,550 journalists, a print edition every morning, 150 articles published daily on the site, impossible to reread everything!
Jessica Bennett: It’s funny because no one understands what gender editor means. Sometimes I don’t understand either! But I have a formula, I say it’s like a normal editor,’ but more angry. The « business » objective of my work is to involve our female readership more because we know that we have a gender gap among our readers. The editorial objective is to make sure that we cover the topics we should cover, and to use gender as an angle of view, a prism through which to articulate all our storytelling.
« The central idea is to better treat women in our pages »
More concretely, when you open the log, you don’t come across new pages called « Gender, » we didn’t want to. We wanted it to be present in all the topics, but suddenly it gives something invisible and a little confusing that you see sometimes and sometimes not … The central idea is to better treat women in our pages. I write from time to time, but I’m mostly a kind of advisor on a lot of things. I started a newsletter on #MeToo, we organized a great editorial project on what it’s like to be a girl and to be 18 years old around the world, first published online and which gave rise to an exhibition in Australia and will soon be a book. We also organize conferences, many events. Every day is different. In a sense I am a kind of small entrepreneurial branch of the editorial staff.
Can you give us a concrete example of this advisory role?
I don’t want to be the one who comes in after you finish your article and says, « Oh, you miss X, Y or Z, » no one wants to work with an editor like that! I try to work with people upstream. To give you an example, I worked with the department that handles the « Letters to the editor » pages. Traditionally, they receive a lot more proposals from men than from women, and it’s everywhere, the forums are dominated by men, and it’s not because publishers only publish men, it’s because men submit a lot more texts.
For my part I have not written a column since an editorial exercise that I was asked in high school, because I was simply speaking on Twitter or in the comments of the articles. The stands have an outdated side, in a sense. But they are still important, your words are printed in a paper newspaper and it is authoritative. Journalists in charge of Letters to the editor were concerned about the issue. I have worked with them to commit to achieving parity in these pages. At the end of January, they issued a public message calling on women to submit more texts, in which they pledged to ensure that as many women as men published each week. In that case, the initiative came from them and they asked me for help. I encouraged them to announce the process and publish a response rather than try to improve the situation in private, because it seemed to me to be a good message to send publicly.
Since you were hired in October 2017, there have been no other gender editors on the horizon. On the other hand, more and more journalists are now dedicated exclusively to gender issues, a specialization that not many people claimed until a few years ago. Do you think your example will be followed?
I think I’m still the only gender editor indeed, but the Washington Post has named a « gender correspondent, » I just read that AP has appointed two new editors exclusively dedicated to covering gender-related topics, and I think a lot of publications also have gender editors who aren’t named as such, but who do the job. The media generally recognize that they need to better address women’s and gender issues. Some have decided to declare it publicly through hiring, others have done so in silence, and still others have traditionally dealt with these topics better, so perhaps they may not need to do anything.
In your book « The Feminist Fight Club », you tackle what is called in France ordinary sexism – a first report on the subject in France was delivered by the High Council to equality between women and men in January 2019 – and which you call « double sexism ». How would you sum up its specificity?
It is more difficult to identify, and more difficult to express. The book was published two years ago, and it’s pretty crazy to think that what we’re fighting against today has absolutely nothing, but then nothing subtle. It’s in the face, it’s declared, sometimes it’s illegal. We’re talking about sexual harassment in the workplace, #MeToo, a president who brags about catching women by the… But that doesn’t mean that ordinary sexism has disappeared, of course. So the challenge is to identify it and then be believed when you express it. What is difficult is that these are things that make you feel crazy, like: « My ideas are not heard », « I swear I am the origin of this idea and this guy took it up as if it came from him and he will be thanked and rewarded », « why do I feel that I do not belong in this place, that I am not in my place? or « I’m the only woman in the room and I’m not comfortable, and I don’t feel listened to, is it my fault? Am I just a loser? ». It’s easy to get to those thoughts that loop around in your head.
« We need to read the academic research that links feelings to sexism rooted in each of us »
For me, what has been so strong is to read all the academic research and studies that explain these feelings and link them to institutionalized and rooted sexism in each of us. In the book, there is not a situation that is not associated with academic research that explains why it exists. Understanding why these feelings occur can be incredibly helpful.
I always rely on numbers, because it is too easy to argue emotions on the ground. On the wage gap, which many still doubt about, I can explain the figures in every way. I also often recall that a woman only applies when she has almost all the qualifications claimed for a position, unlike men, I recall the figures showing the under-representation of experts or those on the perception of leadership, which is still perceived in male terms, and leads to penalize women quickly deemed « aggressive » if they are asserted. If we had an equal number of women and men in power, we could judge leadership qualities only, not the fact that leadership is « feminine » or « male. »
The « #MeToo » wave seems to have shaken France less than the United States. Moreover, a few years ago, the lightness with which France had dealt with accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn – until the scandal broke – shocked the United States, as pointed out in the documentary French Bashing (Public Senate, 2018). What do you think?
Even in the United States we re-evaluate these things that have long been thought of as jokes. Whether it’s Bill Cosby, or R. Kelly. Three years ago I was listening to R. Kelly. And I’m a feminist! And I deal with these topics. But even in my head it was somehow « ok. » Until this documentary (Surviving R.Kelly, broadcast on Lifetime from January 3 to 5, 2019: several of his victims testify, his former wife, abused and deprived of liberty for years, and underage women at the time they were raped, ed.) people revisit the issue and think it was madness. We are all re-skitmining events that we ignored a few years ago.
For France, of course, I can only observe from afar. But I think some people thought MeToo wouldn’t even take it in France. But there have been changes. I have read that there have been oppositions, with all the debate around seduction, but it is also very interesting to see that there have been cultural and legal repercussions, such as the street harassment law, which has no equivalent here in the United States. Even with the LOL league, it’s a group that existed for years, the men seemed to fear no repercussions by using their real names, which is pretty crazy, and the women, who knew about it for years, only felt comfortable now to talk about it. And not only do they talk, but we listen to them. So I think there have been cultural changes in the sense that when a woman speaks, the automatic answer is not that she is lying. There is certainly still a lot of work to be done, but I think there are encouraging signs.
« In the United States, we are still talking about the Equal Rights Amendment, which could guarantee equal rights for men and women in the Constitution »
I have read about the history of French feminism, and I see that you have many things in the law that we do not have. Like the Equal Pay Act. Yet in many ways we are seen as being culturally more progressive. But the idea of a French company being fined if it does not prove that it respects equal pay is incredible. In the United States, there is always talk of the Equal Rights Amendment, which could guarantee equal rights for men and women in the Constitution (the text, accepted by Congress in 1972, would enshrine gender equality in the U.S. Constitution, and the battle returned in early 2019). The debate has been going on for decades!
For your part, you have some really progressive laws, and at the same time, I was reading yesterday that the French Academy has just accepted the feminization of trade names. I thought, « Oh my God! Didn’t it exist until now?! ». Besides, your president has made women’s rights an important issue, it can only be better than a president who says we have to catch them…
We recently dedicated a portrait to Jordan Peterson, an American author whose bestseller diagnoses a « crisis » of masculinity. What do you think of this idea, which a documentary like The Mask You Live In (Netflix) shows a certain reality, but which is also used by masculinists who believe that the questioning of patriarchy leads society to « chaos« ?
Any idea can be distorted and instrumentalized in one way or another. But I think the fact that we are talking about masculinity is a good thing. Because while there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve gender equality, people generally know what it is, but masculinity is much less talked about. Yet this idea that there is a very rigid way of being a man narrows reality, and does not reflect it. Women need men, and vice versa. You can’t talk about equality without talking about masculinity, I think it’s very important to talk about it. As for « toxic masculinity », it’s the new buzzword, for six months everyone has only that word in their mouths in feminist circles, and it’s a good thing to talk about it but it’s going to take time before it’s more than a confidential term.
In your book The Feminist Fight Club, you associate the men you address a specific chapter with advice. This raises the question of men’s involvement in the feminist struggle…
Men receive a lot of conflicting messages. Some say, « Shut up! You can hear enough of the men, you’ve done enough. » But the reality is that if we take the example of the professional environment, where men continue to dominate, and continue to occupy the majority of leadership positions, their silence or passivity will not help. I always encourage men to listen to their female colleagues, which is not always the case, but also to talk, to identify what power they have and to use that power to make things happen: if you are a male leader, you can decide who you hire, you can decide on salaries, you can decide who you let talk to in a meeting. , you can decide if you will take your parental leave, and thus set a precedent, etc. You can send very strong messages, some are small but important. And why wouldn’t you? If we really want egalitarian workplaces, men are crucial. But these things often come back to women: they are considered women’s subjects, but they are human subjects.
You said that with The Feminist Fight Club, you wrote the book you would have liked to have read at the beginning of your career. What advice in particular would you have liked to receive, or what advice would you give to women who are starting their professional lives?
I spent so much time not believing in myself. I’ve learned to trust myself with time, and experience, but when I think back to all those times when I didn’t believe in my intuition, I realize that this one was the right one. You learn to doubt yourself, very young. I could have saved a lot of time if I hadn’t doubted myself so much. It’s also the book I would have liked to read at the beginning of my career because to come to consider what happened to me as a matter of sexism, it took me 10 years! I thought it was me. It was while talking to other women that I realized that these experiences were not only individual, but collective. I have two tips, so trust your intuition, and talk to other women about your experiences. And start a feminist fight club! As for journalism, I do not have specific advice, but it seems to me more important than ever to practice this profession, especially in my country where the president is constantly undermining everything that is being done and denying the facts.