‘Gaslighting’ – the idea of undermining an opponent by suggesting that they are over-reacting, imagining things, paranoid, hysterical, is not a new term; it’s been used as a verb to mean psychological warfare since at least the 1950s. But it has achieved a new currency in the #MeToo era, as women have emerged in their millions to speak out about the daily degradations, fear, and assault, that are all but universal for the female population, and to insist that their voices are heard.
It rapidly spread from the US around the world. In the UK it has encouraged women to speak out against systematic sexual abuses in Westminster, to speak up (again) about the gender pay gap at organisations like the BBC, but it has also more broadly prompted conversations about creating safe and respectful workplace environments, naming serial abusers and rapists.
Balancing our systems
It’s about redressing the structural imbalances that still enable men so easily to dominate social and professional environments. It’s about protecting women’s safety, and it’s about identifying the systemic reach of male privilege. It’s about recognising the institutional limits still placed on women’s capacity to advance professionally, the degree to which women are still judged not by their professional ability, but by their gender and sexuality. It is not a coincidence that this issue has come to boiling point the year after Hillary Clinton was subjected to a gaslighting campaign of epic scale, and a confessed sexual assaulter voted into the White House.
None of this is new: Me Too, Everyday Sexism, and Time’s Up, are all campaigns building on the foundations of generations of activism fighting for the recognition of women’s rights in the world, which include the right to have their experiences, especially experiences that deprive them of their rights, taken seriously by their society. It’s also about whether women’s perceptions are validated in our culture, about whether our voices are heard. And it's about whether women are able to advance, how women can take the lead.
Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature and chair of public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby and The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. She writes regularly for newspapers including the Guardian, New Statesman, Financial Times, Times Literary Supplement and New York Times Book Review, and comments on arts, culture and politics for television and radio, where appearances include Question Time, Newsnight and The Review Show. She has judged many literary prizes such as the 2017 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and she was co-winner of the 2015 Eccles British Library Writer's Award. Her new book, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2018.