A personal history of taking back the night.
By Sophie Poole
CW: mention of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment
My mother recently sent me a newspaper clipping from March 20, 1990. She was featured in The Daily Trojan for her work as an undergraduate with the newly-founded Women’s Issues Advocacy office at the University of Southern California. She stumbled across an announcement for the office’s establishment, and found herself, as if struck by a spell, walking into the Student Union building and asking for a job. The office was cramped, with one Macintosh computer, so she sat wherever there was room—often a small settee in the corner. She organized CARE (Creating Attitudes for a Rape-Free Environment) Week, and the daily paper covered the first event: At a table set up on Truesdale Parkway, USC’s College Walk, my mother and other students encouraged their peers to sign anti-rape pledges. The image alongside the article pictures my mom (referred to as “Sheri Davis of CARE”) as she “explains the anti-rape pledge to Risa Field, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism.”
She wore her hair differently then—longer, with blunt bangs. The quality I recognize most is her posture. She leans across a table, holding the pledge out to Risa. Her outstretched hands reveal her characteristic sensitivity. The shot is overexposed, but there is something about her figure that glows with newfound purpose. A social worker now, my mother often works with women and adolescent girls; to complete her Masters in Social Work, she wrote her thesis on domestic violence in the Jewish community. In this photo, I imagine she arrived at an understanding: She could do something for those who felt scared, or hurt, or abused, or angry, or exploited.
Along with her work with the Women’s Issues Advocacy office, my mother led the Women’s Assembly and organized Take Back the Night on USC’s campus, an annual event protesting violence against women. TBTN was born in the 70s and quickly became emblematic of second-wave feminism. The event was a mainstay on college campuses by the 80s and 90s: In April 1988, over 350 Barnard and Columbia students organized and attended the school’s first TBTN. A photograph on the official website shows a swell of students cascading onto Broadway, headed toward sites where “men prevent us [women] from walking alone.” On 114th Street, with its string of fraternity brownstones, Carman Hall, and Riverside Park, choruses of “Women unite; take back the night” and “We’re gonna beat, beat back those sexist attacks” punched the air. One participant wielded a sign with the message, “Even in the stacks we’re not safe.” In the following year, and on the opposite coast, a young Sheri stood in a crowd circling the Tommy Trojan statue. She also chanted: “Claim our bodies, claim our right, take a stand, take back the night!”
Once galvanizing to college students in 1988 and 1989, these feminist rhymes seem hollow today, as if a throng of protesters were screaming into a cavernous space. Echoes begetting echoes. Elegies of upskirting, mattress-carrying, Lyft drivers masturbating behind the wheel, apartment stalkers, Sarah Everard, “fifth female victim reports random attack at NYC subway station.” Violence continues, undoubtedly, despite TBTN protests, self-defense classes in Central Park, hot-pink pepper sprays dangling from keychains, Denim Days, and safety jewelry cuffed to our wrists.
Lounging at a rustic eatery, former Bachelorette Becca Kufrin posted a picture to advertise Flare, a company specializing in bracelets “that could save your life.” The bracelets, which received a special mention for Time’s “Best Inventions of 2020” award, can mimic emergency phone calls, text friends for help, blast the wearer’s GPS location, and (optionally, the website insists) dial 911. In the ad, Kufrin nestles her chin into her palm to show off the bracelet on her slim wrist. Beneath the photograph, in which she wears a ruffled, blush-colored top and matching makeup, her caption reads: “Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to come up with an exit strategy with your bestie before a first date in case it goes horribly wrong or you start to feel like maaayybbbee your date is a potential serial killer. We’ve ALL done it.” The elongated “maybe,” surely intended for a cutesy—even softening—effect, reads like a sinister proposition. Instead of striking a relatable tone, the emphatic capitalization of “all” is foreboding, as if to say, “If not already, then soon!” Kufrin wears her $130 Flare bracelet everywhere, she assures her followers, even on walks with her corgi.
Somewhere beneath this dystopian sheen of safety jewelry and coiffed influencers, however, is a kernel of truth: Despite movements shattering silence, the violence continues. Are we screaming too loudly? Are we screaming at all? Are we saying the wrong words to the right people? Or the right words to the wrong people? Are we screaming in the wrong direction? In the wrong cave? In the wrong orbit?
I first met Maya Corral, BC ’22, at a Barnard send-off event in Seattle for incoming first-years. Maya had traveled by car from Eugene, Oregon. It was a still, hot day. My mother drove us to the luncheon. Sitting in the passenger seat, I turned around to see Mount Rainier as we drove across I-90. At the venue, we drank tea, nibbled on lemon loaf, and spoke to elderly Barnard alumni about their memories. I wore a dress and, when I noticed the other students’ more casual ensembles, fretted over the choice. Maya and I chatted briefly, just long enough to learn we would be taking the same section of First-Year Writing in the fall. When I spoke with her recently, I was reminded of this time before university, before New York, before the knowledge of my own vulnerability.
Maya grew up in Eugene, home of the University of Oregon, and she attended her first TBTN event at fourteen. Arriving at college, she sought out Barnard and Columbia’s chapter and quickly joined its ranks. Now, as she concludes her junior year, the community has dissipated. She laughed when I explained my happiness at finding her name linked to an old TBTN Facebook event—my previous attempts to reach the club via Facebook Messenger and email had been unsuccessful. Maya is an administrator on the group’s Facebook and has access to its official email address, but checks the accounts inconsistently. She is in the process of combining TBTN with another student group—one committed to restorative justice, like No Red Tape CU—hoping to “try and fold in some of our events into the work they’re already doing.”
Before Maya and I set foot on the Barnard quad, the University’s TBTN was in the process of redefining itself, reckoning with the tradition they maintained. The event became completely gender-neutral starting in 2012. To distance themselves from NYPD supervision, the 2017 march was canceled; from then on, the event was solely an on-campus rally and Speak Out. In the last two years of the event, attendance dwindled. In 2018, around 50 students attended; by the last TBTN the following year (and Maya’s first), “about 20 students” trekked through the rain to Low. The organizers were primarily seniors, and Maya was the only first-year—evidence that incoming students were no longer flocking to the organization.
While the overarching structure of TBTN has been abandoned, Maya believes the Speak Out (the portion of the evening when participants share their stories of sexual violence with the group) “is fundamental to Barnard and Columbia eventually having some sort of system of restorative justice practices on campus.” A now-inactive Instagram account started last July, @cusurvivors, borrowed the Speak Out model, with a few key differences. While the Speak Out was conducted in person, the Instagram collective maintained the anonymity of survivors and their stories.
As the group remains inactive, the need for the tradition wanes. It is no longer a thing of the present or even a performance of the past, but a bona fide relic. Anne Valk, a professor of History at CUNY’s Graduate Center, in her essay “Remembering Together: Take Back the Night and the Public Memory of Feminism,” notes the centrality of memory in TBTN. Current posters, for example, still include imagery used in the first TBTN events: women dancing, crescent moons, raised fists or hands, and the color purple. Barnard and Columbia’s TBTN logo is a sketch of two hands holding candles, bending toward each other, melding into one flame. Valk illuminates the problematic function of memory in the tradition and criticizes TBTN for its selective amnesia. By conveniently forgetting critiques of the movement, such as playing into “racist stereotyping by law enforcement” and carceral feminism, TBTN curates an amended history. History is even integral to the name, which “suggest[s] an unnamed era when women could safely walk the streets after dark.”
TBTN at once foresaw a safer future and recalled a fantasied past—an unsustainable dialogue. As TBTN persisted, it thrived on the passing down of tradition, often from women to girls within families. This image is appealing: mothers and daughters, old and young, holding hands to forge an intergenerational link in the effort to stop violence against women. Mother-daughter storytelling, though not intrinsically a problem, indicates the role of memory and nostalgia, both personal and public, in TBTN. Through its interest in preserving the past, TBTN became a symbol of second-wave feminism and its centering of whiteness, trans-exclusionary practices, and carceral response methods characteristic of that era. Barnard and Columbia organizers attempted to adapt the model, but TBTN’s origins rendered it obsolete.
Safe Walks NYC was established after a string of violent attacks targeting women at the Morgan Avenue L train station in January. Anyone can request an escort to or from a subway station or bus stop, and a volunteer from the community will arrive. This is one example of community-led safety initiatives as an alternative to police departments. It requires planning ahead, asking for help, placing trust in a person you may not know. Moreover, it creates a system for communal care, challenging the need for a police presence that, for many, instills fear instead of assurance and perpetuates the violence it claims to prevent.
When the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994, it focused on bolstering police responsiveness to instances of gender-based violence; the Act was conjoined with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. As abolitionist, journalist, and author Vikki Law writes in “Where abolition meets action: women organizing against gender violence” in the Contemporary Justice Review, VAWA’s focus on police force ultimately places women “who are politically, economically, or socially marginalized … at further risk of both interpersonal and state violence as well as of arrest, incarceration, and for immigrant women, deportation.” To provide an avenue for help outside of carceral responses, organizations like Sista II Sista, a collective of women of color in Brooklyn, and Safe Walks NYC have emerged in their stead.
In the 70s, alongside the first whispers of taking back the night and the expanding awareness of violence against women, self-defense programs cropped up, like Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts in New York City and Feminists in Self-Defense Training in Olympia, Washington. While at USC, my mother remembers organizing a self-defense class on the job at the Women’s Issues Advocacy office. “They talked about not being afraid to use your voice to, you know, be loud, to call attention to yourself,” she recalled when I asked her about it. “A lot of people who prey on women, mostly men—they assume that you’re going to go along with them and be scared and not do something that’s going to call attention to yourself because that's how women are socialized: to be nice to people.” My mother smiled sadly. “I think you and I both, we’re nice. We don’t want to cause a fuss.”
After I learned about the attacks at the Morgan Avenue station, I recalled the first time I feared for myself, the first time I felt unsafe and alone, was also in a subway. It was two summers ago, and I was sitting on a Manhattan-bound C train. From Nostrand Avenue to 14th Street, a man slowly trailed me across the subway car. He stood over my bowed head, his knuckles hanging close to my shoulder. When the doors slid open, he followed me. I galloped away from him, stretching my legs three stairs at a time, grabbing onto the handrail to propel myself. I looked over my shoulder to find him on the platform, his pursuing eyes caught between the slats in the staircase. Even after I lost sight of him, I ran for blocks. This image imprinted itself in my memory: His face flattened and split into tidy segments. I did not “cause a fuss,” I did not scream, I did not ask for help. Instead, I made myself an island, small and remote, glancing back through the slats of a staircase as I fled.
I first read Hélene Cixous’s 1975 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” in an English class, and I immediately shared the PDF with my mom, my grandmother, and my sister. The essay proposes a feminine way of writing, overflowing with jouissance—pleasure, love, otherworldliness; to write ourselves, to write our body, and, therefore, to lay claim to a whole and embodied self. Her final sentence rings in my ears, like my own chant: “In one another, we will never be lacking.”
While rehearsing for the Thesis Festival this spring, I walked home every night with my three castmates. Our characters lived a century before us in a Catholic reformatory on the Lower East Side, where the play allowed their unhinged creativity and violent fantasies to unfold. Outside of their dormitory, they endured sexual abuse from their priest. When we finished rehearsal, we waited for each other to take off our skirts, collect our scripts, and return stray papers, overcoats, and plastic oranges to the prop cart. Like pallbearers in a funeral procession, we would roll the cart down the hall to the storage closet. Then we would set off into the night, forgetting our characters, walking down Broadway together.