Time Magazine named its Person of the Year this week, opting to honor the many individuals and groups of people who had come forward with sexual harassment cases this year. After decades in which accusers of high-profile abusers had been disbelieved by the majority of bystanders, the “silence breakers” of 2017 shifted the narrative. Remarkably, it is the year after “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in which these victims of abuse have finally been believed.
One thing that undoubtedly helped turn the tide of belief was the sheer number of silence breakers. No longer could claims of harassment be belittled as a “he said-she said” toss-up. CNBC correspondent Christina Wilkie summed up the situation best:
Correction: It’s he said, she said and she said and she said and she said. https://t.co/szoz8j0TSL
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) November 9, 2017
As more men in powerful positions are rightly toppled, I find myself breaking for the backlash. One of the ways to defend against the argument that these scandals are somehow faddish is to build the historical record of sexual misconduct ranging from assault to repeated harassment. By showing that this is not a new problem, activists can buttress their outrage against those who would belittle it. Archival research is one way to do that.
An archivist at Colorado College recently rediscovered extensive evidence of a past college president’s repeated crimes against women. The evidence was collected by James Hutchinson Kerr, a professor at the college in the 19th century, during the investigation into President Slocum’s abuses which forced him out of his office of 29 years in 1917. The papers, part of Kerr’s bequest to the college, had not been cataloged, perhaps intentionally. While the Slocum scandal was seemingly common knowledge throughout the 20th century, it was often spoken of in inexact terms, without the frank testimony of some of his victims. In 1954, after Slocum’s death, the college even named a dormitory in his honor. Today there is an active campaign to rename the building.
The Mennonite Church has had its own travails with the crimes of powerful men. John Howard Yoder, the leading 20th century Mennonite theologian, was censured and stripped of any official position in the 1990s after his victims were eventually believed and after various previous intercessions had failed to publicly deal with his abuse. More recently, a Mennonite missionary in Haiti was arrested for sexually abusing minors. The church has a long way to go in its reckoning with abuses it has long ignored or covered up. The blog OurStoriesUntold has been a powerful collective voice to draw attention to these abuses and call abusers to account.
All of this context made a recent post on AnabaptistHistorians very important, I think. In a relatively brief essay, David Neufeld shared a centuries-old story of sexual violence within the Anabaptist tradition. Remarkably, two women in Zurich in 1630 went on the record against Jakob Zehnder. Their testimony remains on the record though their abuser avoided serious consequences for his misdeeds.
That the phenomenon of men preying on women (and men), wielding their power in fundamentally violent ways, is centuries old should not come as a surprise. Neither should it blunt the outrage at more recent abuses. Instead, we should seek to expose these crimes in the past and present where we, as researchers, archivists, and citizens, come across them in order to begin some process of justice.