How Margaret Atwood got in trouble with “good feminists”

The celebrated author has come under fire for her defense of former UBC professor Steven Galloway in her latest piece in the Globe and Mail



Margaret Atwood’s latest piece in the Globe and Mail asks “Am I a bad feminist?” 

Atwood is referring to criticism of her support for UBCAccountable, the petition that alleges the University of British Columbia did not follow procedure when it fired author Steven Galloway, the former chair of the department of creative writing who had faced a number of allegations of bullying and sexual assault. 

Atwood has made significant feminist contributions to the literary world. Being a key spokesperson for UBCAccountable does not make Atwood a bad feminist. But feminism requires an analysis of power.

The celebrated author notes that Galloway was fired following an independent investigation by retired judge Mary Ellen Boyd. 

But she fails to account for the significant power imbalance between Galloway and his complainants. 

At the time of the allegations several years ago, Galloway was an influential figure in the university and the literary community. He had cultural capital, and support for his cause from famous friends, including Atwood and Joseph Boyden (other signatories have since removed their names from the letter for various reasons) and access to legal counsel paid for by the UBC Faculty Association.

Atwood complains about the lack of due process – she has compared the proceedings against Galloway to the Salem witch trials – but fails to account for the fact that the procedure followed by UBC is standard across the country, and is designed to protect the rights of Galloway, not his accusers.

Atwood feeds the illusion that Galloway and the complainants were on a level playing field. The position of an accused and a complainant cannot be conflated, especially in the context of professor/student relationships or allegations of sexual violence. 

According to public reports, Galloway had a sexual relationship with a student. Galloway’s supporters have called it an affair. The student described sexual harassment and sexual assault

UBC has never released the report into its inquiry, citing privacy concerns. While Atwood may want to reserve judgment, the fact is the report will never be made public unless Galloway releases it himself. Galloway has refused the complainants full access to the report in relation to their allegations. 

This power play ensures that complainants cannot speak publicly about the details of the allegations or the investigation without risk of a defamation suit. The complainants in the case are the ones who are least protected.  

Sexual violence within the literary community existed long before the Galloway allegations were made public. 

In 2014, Emma Healey published Stories Like Passwords in The Hairpin. In response, a number of allegations came to light. These allegations were met with silence from the literary elite.

Atwood is suggesting that universities should allow professors who have numerous complaints for sexual violence to continue working until an investigation can be concluded. 

But removing Galloway from his position pending further investigation was not a breach of due process – it was a reasonable measure given the nature of the complaints against him. 

A feminist stance would advocate for transformation of the institutional structures that contribute to the silencing of sexual violence. This requires acknowledging the numerous social circumstances that contribute to sexual violence and shape institutional responses to their disclosures. 

Addressing the numerous barriers that complainants face requires a longer discussion. One way that students who wish to report sexual assault could be protected is by giving them access to independent legal counsel paid for by the university.  

Atwood states that UBCAccountable was never intended to quash the concerns of  complainants. Nevertheless, the petition has played a role in perpetuating harmful misinformation. UBCAccountable is really about protecting one man, which is how Atwood got into trouble with the “good feminists” in the first place.

Mandi Gray is featured in the documentary Slut Or Nut: The Diary Of A Rape Trial scheduled to be released in 2018.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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