Anita Hill was braver than me.
Anita Hill was so very strong to have come forward and share her story at that particular point in time -- politically and historically.
Did you watch the Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas movie "Confirmation" on HBO recently?
During the Sixties, I, too, suffered from sexual harassment when I attended architecture school. The subject of sexual harassment was never a topic for discussion among one's peers, and certainly not with college administration. The subject was considered your problem best swept under the rug.
Having graduated from a small country high school in upstate New York, I thought I knew everything and decided to attend a large college in the Midwest known to have an amazing school of Architecture. As the only female in a class of 200, I felt alone yet very determined. I admit -- I have a strong ego -- but that soon melted at this big school where I had a lot of catching up to do.
Only forty of my fellow classmates would eventually graduate, and as I was threatened to be cast aside with others who didn't measure up, I reminded the Dean of Architecture that I won many of the school's design competitions. The level of stress and intense competition was at an all-time high. I was determined to become an architect no matter what -- not even being subjected to sexual harassment.
My first encounter occurred when I was a freshman and a rather portly professor suggested that we sleep together. One needs to remember that at that time one was not able to obtain a legal abortion. I was terrified of taking so great a risk, besides, I had never 'slept' with anyone and wasn't about to comply with his wishes. Throughout the semester, I played along with this professor laughing off his requests until I turned the table on him and demanded an A on a project. This seemed to change his tune and he no longer approached me. Because of the times, I kept this to myself and could not even share this with the Dean of my curriculum. Little did I know that this first encounter would be the easiest to dismiss.
In both my junior and senior years, there were two professors that approached me for sexual favors and who were insistent that we be close. One professor whom I previously admired, continually grabbed and kissed me. I felt frozen. I wanted to graduate; I wanted to please my professors, and my instinct at that time was to play along, ask for their assistance with design projects, and give them a hug (as if that might appease them). I went out of my way to let them know that I cared about them. But it truly hurt my psyche and degraded me to be in this situation. I held my ground and never let the relationships go beyond a hug or the occasional kiss. So distasteful -- and disturbing.
Another professor in my senior year was an excellent teacher and I so enjoyed working with him, but he wanted to date and spend time together. I shared that I was working so hard on my coursework that it would be impossible to take time away from my studies. Of course, I felt uncomfortable, but pretended everything was wonderful. Being confrontational and honest was out of the question. All one could do was smile and persevere.
During senior year it also became necessary for me to take a break from my studies as I needed to work for a year to raise the funds to pay for my tuition. At the time I had a boyfriend and lived with him far from the campus (as any student found to be co-habitating was expelled -- which seemed to me like such a dichotomy in light of the kinds of behavior by staff that was tolerated). Upon graduation my boyfriend and I got married, yet it surprised me one day when a former school mate shared that my senior professor had been upset to learn that I was living with someone off campus. How he found out this information shocked me for I thought my living situation was a private matter. Please understand: I liked my senior professor, but you could not engage in a dating relationship and remain a student in that curriculum. I couldn't risk my reputation and education by spending time with him on his terms: behavior that astonished me then and saddens me now.
Years later returning to that campus for a class reunion, I marveled at the trees that graced the grounds, replacing those killed off much earlier by Dutch elm disease. The campus looked beautiful and renewed. And, as I walked towards the architecture building, I suddenly burst into tears -- my past vividly colliding with the present. Against all odds, I had fulfilled my dream of becoming an architect and thanked my lucky stars for having endured all the roadblocks along the way. Perhaps my life would not be lived so fully now without the negatives that marked my rocky road to graduation.
Still, that was an extremely painful and tumultuous time in my life in which I struggled alone and even felt guilty about the behavior I was subjected to, believing [wrongly] that I was somehow at fault. Women today can speak up freely, enjoy more respect in the classroom and the workplace, and know that there are protections in place to ensure that they advance based purely on merit. We've come a long way.