I am a 51-year-old woman who entered the workforce in the 80’s. Big hair, pantyhose and teal eye liner were part of my professional look. “Working Girl” was a popular movie when I was a young professional, the story of how an attractive young woman rose through the ranks of corporate America without using her sexuality. Because, ladies who are much younger than me, sexual harassment was the norm instead of the exception for many women – from secretaries to lawyers – during my coming of age years.
For me, it started when I was still in High School, I worked a few hours at my sister’s office to earn extra money one hot summer week. My responsibility was to answer the phone and take messages. I was excited to have a “professional” opportunity and wanted to do my best for my sister and her boss. One afternoon when the office was empty except for me, one of the boss’s friends stopped by and we started chatting. He was in his 30’s, which to a 19-year-old is a very scary “old man.” He started talking to me about my eyes and how nice it would be for us to be alone together without anyone knowing. Terrified, I became quiet because I had no idea how a “professional woman” was supposed to respond to this. He warned me not to “tell anybody” that he had asked me out, there was no need to “upset anybody” because of our age difference. It would just be fun between the 2 of us. Our secret. Ick ick ick ick ick!! Repulsion and shame washed over me as this loser/predator departed from his friend’s office with confidence. Who knows, I may have given him my phone number because he was an adult and I was completely caught off guard. I told my sister a couple of days later but begged her not to “make a big deal” out of it because I was ashamed. I had been wondering what I might have done to cause this man to behave badly and I did not want to get either of us in trouble by exposing the incident. Clearly, looking back on this as a middle-aged woman with a teenaged daughter, I am angry and appalled by the casual way this man was able to dismantle my self-confidence and enthusiasm about doing good work and getting paid for it. He made it feel despicable. I took on the responsibility for both of our behavior that day, because, being a good Catholic girl, I must have done or said something to deserve it. I had just finished Driver’s Ed, for God’s Sake!!!! Finding my bearings in a large city and getting parked in a busy downtown parking lot were my major concerns – but then I had to listen to that creep? I was starting to dislike being a “professional” at the tender age of 19.
Moving forward from that big week in the grown-up office setting, I at least was aware that it was always possible to be caught off guard and mistaken for a Bimbo instead of a real professional.
Time went by and I encountered creepy professors in college who wanted to “take me to breakfast” (on a Sunday morning!) to discuss life or “have a cup of margarita” (yes, someone actually called it that) instead of giving me the grade I had earned in his class. Again, these guys got by with it because I did not know any better and there were no University guidelines protecting students from sexual harassment.
I want to end with the BIG one and sadly admit that, after all these weeks of “#ME TOO” posts on social media, my experience never once occurred to me until TODAY. That’s how long it has been buried within the vault of shame hidden inside of me for 25 years. I was working over a several-month period with a man I considered a friend, from whom I was learning a great deal and whose company I enjoyed. After work one Saturday afternoon, this man, whose wife and child I knew, invited me to Dim Sum – I was hungry, we had worked hard, it was daylight out, etc. – no concerns, right? During Dim Sum he casually mentioned that his family was gone for the weekend and there was another restaurant he really wanted to take me to that evening. STUNNED. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and immediately made up an excuse for not being able to go. We said an awkward goodbye. Several months later, when this man was soon to be leaving town for a job across the country – a package arrived at my home with his name and return address. I opened it and found a VHS (it was the 90’s!) tape with no label. We used VHS tapes in the classes we were teaching, so I thought maybe he had hastily returned one he thought belonged to me. WRONG. It was the most disgusting pornography I have ever seen! And my MOTHER was visiting me the weekend it arrived so she was sitting in my apartment with me when I put the video in!!! Immediately, I was hot with anger, fear, shame and embarrassment. We discussed it for a few minutes and I threw it in the dumpster. She had never had a job before so certainly her advice was not, “take this immediately to your work and report the SOB.” This ass NEVER paid a price for humiliating and frightening me.
In the wake of all the recent accusations leveled against powerful men in Hollywood, my “# ME TOO” may seem irrelevant or self-pitying. I am astonished and saddened that the incidents I have described (and a few more I am not recounting) took place as I was trying to build a professional career and reputation for myself yet the fear of being blamed for causing these things to happen on purpose kept me silent all these years. I have been reading the wonderful Glennon Doyle’s memoir this week, “Love Warrior,” and she writes passionately about the importance of being bold, brave and true to our stories and experiences. Otherwise, as women, our silence diminishes us as human beings and hurts others in ways we cannot predict – for instance, my children on the brink of adulthood. They need to know the world does not always treat you fairly or respectfully and it is up to us to make things matter in a time where people in positions of power can no longer bully and shame the less powerful in the comfort of darkness.
So the next time you think to yourself, “Gee, middle aged women sure are bitter and angry,” think about the things women my age have endured just to have the privilege to earn a living. I’m so glad my children will enter the professional world understanding that there are limits to the kind of power and authority their superiors may wield.