‘Radically Listening’ to Young Women

February 28, 2018
‘Radically Listening’ to Young Women
HDS alumna Vanessa Zoltan

Vanessa Zoltan graduated from HDS with a master of divinity degree in 2015. She is currently a research assistant at HDS and, alongside fellow alum Casper ter Kuile, co-hosts the popular podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” She delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard’s Memorial Church on February 8.

For the last few weeks, Larry Nassar has haunted me.

As a proctor, I live in the Harvard dorms with 18 young women. I have two little daughters in my life. Larry Nassar, who assaulted hundreds of young women gymnasts, often with their parents in the room, is a signpost of how clear it is that I cannot protect the young women in my life whom I love.

What do we do in this moment, in which we feel like the forces we are fighting are too big to be fought by our lone two fists? Since the world is constantly showing us how vicious it can be to young women, the question becomes: What can we do in the little, daily moments of our lives to be on the right side of this revolution?

I treat Harry Potter as a sacred text. Week after week, my friend Casper and I host a podcast in which we, along with our 50,000 listeners, treat a chapter of the Harry Potter series as if it were our liturgy. And in this week’s chapter, I noticed an interesting and informative moment that I think speaks to this question of what we can do to counter the violence of the patriarchy.

In the chapter, the three main children of the series—Harry, Hermione, and Ron—go down to visit a teacher and friend named Hagrid. These four characters are very close; although Hagrid is in his 50s and the kids are young teenagers. It’s a beautiful friendship that has spanned many years.

When the kids get down to Hagrid’s hut, they knock, and Hagrid opens the door. When he does, the first thing he says is: “About time. Thought you lot had forgotten where I live!” And Hermione, a 14-year-old young woman, starts making an excuse to him—taking care of him.

"We’ve been really busy, Hagrid," she says.

This moment has passed me by the previous three times I’ve read the books. But this time, it stuck out like a sore thumb. It bothered me that the adult, Hagrid, opened the door with accusations and the child, the young woman, Hermione, had to take care of him.

In this moment between a 50-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl, I think we clearly see the possible intervention that we can take on a day-to-day basis to help in this “Me Too” moment: Start radically listening to young women. If you are male, or you are even one year older than the woman you are speaking to, try this strategy.

Give them the first word. Give them the last. When you want to interrupt them, don’t. When you want to change the subject, double down on theirs. When you disagree with them, listen harder and harder before you say anything. When you feel yourself getting ready to counter their point, stop and try to listen instead. If there are three minutes left until the end of the meeting, and a woman who is younger than you says something, let the meeting end with her words last.

My theory on the persistence of the patriarchy is simple: we get trained for it every day, everywhere, and we strengthen its power each and every time we make a younger woman take care of us when it is our job to serve them. We put young women into situations in which they feel as though they have to be small and apologetic, to not tell us what is going on with them, to stay silent on what matters.

Obviously, it is a small minority of men who take their socialization around women to an extreme. Most men are not predators. But a lot of men, like Hagrid, have learned to speak first and listen second. And that is a small habit that sets a dangerous precedent. These habits, these tiny, nearly invisible injustices, when compounded across communities and nations ultimately can manifest in atrocities like those committed by Nassar.

Hagrid should have opened that door and said “hello,” and then listened. We should all open our doors to young women, say hello, and then listen. It won’t keep them safe, but I pray that it will let us hear their concerns much sooner.

—Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv ’15