As I read about yet another charge of inappropriate behavior in the workplace, I know that we have lost sight about why any of these stories matter.
Because it does matter.
It is not about Liberal or Conservative or Democrat or Republican. It is not about media glitz or headlines. It is so much more.
And it matters.
It matters because it is the same story, again & again & again.
It is about the world & cultural norms that value patriarchy & power & perceive all Others, especially those without the power & value of a penis, as less.
A less & an absence that threatens & subverts & is too risky to embrace. Except as an object to be conquered.
I write this as the mother of two amazing, loving, wonderful sons. Neither of whom find that ingrained perception of absence in the Other than phallus threatening or too risky.
That men, in real or perceived positions of power use their position & its influence to feel free to claim any Other, usually a female, is not breaking news.
That Others from every background, socio economic groups, traditions & education, too often young women, still are reluctant to speak out until now, to say no & refuse to be intimidated should be breaking & startling news.
While we spend a great deal of time striving to raise strong, fierce daughters, perhaps we need to spend even more time on how to raise strong, fierce, respectful sons.
Who value difference & Otherness & don’t fall into the patriarchal myth that Adam was seduced into sin by his female Other & that female was responsible for the ultimate demise of mankind’s perfection & position with God.
This conversation is not just about actresses or people who work in the media industry or in the political spectrum. It is about some who spoke up, some who were paid to be quiet, some who spoke up after others spoke first. About those who are still speaking up.
It is about the stories that happened before & continue to happen.
In every industry, in schools, in churches, in families.
And it is about me.
About a skinny, clueless girl with freckles, without breasts or any fashion sense.
I remember that little girl & the young woman who grew out of her (also with freckles, still skinny, without breasts but with better teeth thanks to two orthodontists) & I remember why these stories matter.
It was in time when no one spoke of sexual harassment, when the term was virtually unknown, the concept dismissed.
And still being dismissed.
I remember being that young woman at a company party. I remember exactly what I wore – a fabulous grey silk blouse with pearl buttons in back with a collar up to the base of my neck & skinny black crepe pants & shoes I could not afford but bought anyway at Neiman Marcus.
I remember the venue – a rooftop club overlooking the still iconic inner-city neighborhood called Montrose, with fabulous food & a jazz band & too much alcohol.
Sitting on the edge of an oversized ottoman, looking at the view, when a VP of the company sat behind me & and whispered an inappropriate suggestion.
While unfastening the pearl shaped buttons on the back of my blouse.
People were all around us. I froze. I could not move, could not look for help. I did not work directly with this company vice-president, I had never shared a lunch with him, I rarely saw him to say hello. I only knew his secretary & his position.
He was halfway through the pearl buttons when two men I could not face took him away, put him in a cab & sent him home.
Jazz kept playing. I still held my wine glass. And someone joined me on the ottoman & said, “I am so sorry. He is gone. And now, with your permission, I am going to button up your blouse. Take a sip of wine. He’s gone.”
And then the President of the parent company, who always reminded me of a French version of Peter Sellers as Inspector Coustau in the Pink Panther movies , buttoned up my blouse.
Somehow managing not to touch my skin.
He asked me if I needed to go to the ladies’ room & when I nodded, he took the wine glass & then walked with me.
He was waiting after I threw up & rinsed my mouth & for the rest of the evening, sat next to me & we talked.
I don’t remember what we talked about. Except that he told me This should not have happened.
That night was not the first time a male touched me, assuming that as a female, I was available to him. It happened to me as a child.
It happened when I was married & told my husband, who did not intervene or stand by me, but talked to the man who had grabbed my ass, only to come home & tell me his friend denied touching me.
It was not the first failure of his role as husband. I was too young, too inexperienced. Outraged, but clueless. I am quite sure I am still not over that betrayal.
Dismissing me, writing it off to my imagination, to my interpretation.
Looking back at that young version of my Self, I still wonder. That young woman was intelligent.
I did not understand how this world turns. I was in college before I first learned that my mind was not necessarily something of value in the interaction between men & women.
When my college roommate told me: You would attract more guys & get more dates if you just pretended not to be so smart.
After the incidents of ass grabbing & public disrobing, I still did not understand.
While I no longer remember what caused me to lose my mind & leave a firm where I felt secure & successful, I do remember myself facing a subsequent supervisor in a computer room, pushing him & his groping hands away.
And trying to leave only to have him block the door, lock it, & remind me he was my boss.
I kicked him in the cojones & found the key he dropped on the floor & let myself out of a locked room.
And went home, downed several shots of tequila & took out the typewriter my parents had given me to take to college.
I didn’t call a friend. I didn’t call my parents. I called an older, seasoned woman, a principle player in the firm I had left in anger.
A woman who drank too much scotch, was lined with too much sun exposure, who had a married lover, who raised two children by two different men & who once leant me so many diamonds for a New Year’s Eve party that I hid them in lettuce leaves in the fridge after the party & could not sleep until after I had returned them to her the next morning.
My older friend laughed.
Darlin’, you never accept diamonds from a man unless he tells you he has insured them.
When I called my friend Betty, I truly did not know what I would say. She began the conversation, asking me if I would come back to the firm.
And the rest spilled out.
The next morning, I followed every instruction Betty gave me. I went to work with two letters, one a complaint against my supervisor about sexual harassment & inappropriate behavior, addressed to the company’s CEO.
The other, my resignation. Because Betty warned me:
The men will not believe you. Stand your ground. You are strong. Stronger than you know.
As Betty predicted, the powers that be that were in charge, all male, did not believe me.
The CEO directed the meeting & began with,
This is a serious allegation you have made. An aggressive allegation. Why. are you so aggressive?
They had numerous excuses, you misunderstood, you are confused, you were tired & did not understand after a long day . . . it was a harmless . . . a joke . . . you are too aggressive.
In other words, it was a good ole’ boy engaging in locked room banter.
I listened. I heard the words. I watched the male faces surrounding me & felt the same fear I always felt on stage in a play in my childhood.
I stood up, looked each of those men in the eye & said:
I did not misunderstand what happened. What happened was not a joke. I was locked in a room & groped & told by my supervisor that he was in charge. This is not about my aggression. It is about sexual harassment & it is against the law
I handed the CEO my resignation & the next Monday morning, I returned to a place where no one groped me or unbuttoned my blouse or locked me in a room.
I stood up because I had a seasoned, experienced older friend who told me I was stronger than I knew & believed I would rise to that strength.
A man called me aggressive.
As if that was a bad trait in a woman.
Because I am sure, he admired aggression in the men he hired to support him.
I always want to believe myself as fierce & stronger than I know. I do not apologize for being what Others see as aggressive.
I remember a day, the last time I spent time on a boat with my father as captain. My sister & a few of her friends were with us.
I was unmarried & pregnant & had not shared that information with anyone but my youngest brother. My main focus was about the speed at which my father was driving & would it cause a miscarriage.
One of my sister’s friends began to flirt with me. I was not amused. When I did not respond, my sister leaned in & advised her friend,
She will chew you up & spit you out.
I once sat in a meeting with my boss of many years & our client & a consultant the client hired. Both my boss & I thought the consultant was not a good idea or in the best interests of our client. And a pompous ass.
And we made an agreement, initiated by my boss:
If that idiot says anything offensive to either of us, we both get up & leave together.
And that idiot began his presentation, by announcing:
The only difference between rape & rapture is in the presentation.
I was speechless, immobile & never heard another word he said.
If I had moved, my boss would have followed me. But I truly could not think, much less move.
I don’t remember at what point later that my boss & I asked each other why neither of us moved. We were just each waiting for the Other to stand up.
But eventually we did talk & the next day, I skipped an English class ( Jaki Jean skipped an English class ! ) & went to the office, not in my Accountant clothes, but in my school clothes & wrote a letter to the idiot consultant.
Explaining the difference between rape & rapture. Explaining the toxic environment, he created. Explaining the legal definition of sexual harassment.
I wrote it on my own letterhead & took it to my boss.
Who told me to have it delivered, with a carbon copy to our client & himself.
The aftermath was fierce & instant. The idiot was furious, calling for me to be fired. The client called me. Furious.
I stood my ground, I went over the fact that the idiot consultant had no idea if any woman or man at the table had been raped, or any member of our families had been raped. I kept telling her that it was an inappropriate beginning for what he was there to suggest & recommend.
It was a two-hour conversation.
At the end of several hours of conversations, she told me her husband had weighed in, explaining that he worked for a large, successful company & every month was required to attend meetings about sexual harassment. He told her I was right.
In the end she did not insist I be removed from her account or be fired. Because a male told her I was right.
The idiot consultant truly imploded, accusing my boss of grabbing the client’s ass after the meeting ended. And was recorded making his rant & accusation.
As his wife pointed out, my boss was not an ass man. Boobs, yes.
For years, at my boss’s request, I kept that recording in a drawer in my bedroom.
Our client fired the idiot & we continued to represent her.
The “Me,Too” stories are about me & too many Others.
It is about how we raise our sons & daughters.
It is about men & women supporting one another.
It is about change, about refusing to be silent or compliant. It is about speaking out & empowering other victims to speak out.
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