When the Harvey Weinstein story broke and a flood of women telling their stories of sexual misconduct followed, I couldn’t help thinking back more than 40 years to my experience with sexual harassment and how it changed my life.
Fresh out of college in 1974, I applied for a job teaching eighth-grade English at a middle school in the New York metropolitan area. I could never have anticipated what would happen during my initial meeting with the principal of that school, nor did I know how to handle it.
About halfway through the interview, the principal asked me out on a date. Even though I turned him down, he hired me, to my amazement. When I shared the story about my interview with some friends, one cautioned me about taking the job. I thought she was overreacting and didn’t heed her advice. I desperately wanted to teach and had been job hunting for five months. And I wanted to live on my own and move out of my mother’s apartment. I thought this was an opportunity I couldn’t afford to pass up. And I was naive enough to think that his asking me out was a one-off. I had turned down other men for dates, and none had retaliated against me. I just didn’t think that my refusing to date the principal would have any consequences. Shortly after I began teaching, I asked my fellow teachers if the principal was married. He was. And he found out that I had let it slip that he had asked me out. That was in November 1974.
I was told the school’s standard policy was to place new teachers on probation for two months, then if their teaching evaluations were satisfactory, they would be hired for a full-fledged position. Eight weeks after I started, my evaluations were more than satisfactory; they were excellent. In January 1975, I signed my contract and became a full-time teacher at the school.
After I was hired, the principal showed an unusual interest in my personal life. He would call me down to his office on a regular basis and ask me if I had a boyfriend, where I was living and other details about my life. When I told him I had a boyfriend, he asked me his name. He knew my boyfriend’s family because his brother had been a student at the school. I thought that when I told the principal I was involved, that would deter him from asking me out again, but he then advised me to end the relationship, claiming that the brother had behavioral issues. I refused and walked out of the principal’s office. His queries into my personal life made me angry. Also, he knew that I had just signed a three-year lease on my apartment, leaving me vulnerable if I lost my job.
Then one day behind the closed door of his office and without any other witnesses, he said, “Schwartzman, I’m going to see to it that you never teach again.” I was shocked, but when I started to question him as to why, he dismissed me, refusing to answer. I was convinced that my refusal to break up with my boyfriend and to show any romantic interest in the principal was the reason he threatened to fire me.
After that day, the visits to the principal’s office escalated. He began to berate my teaching ability, even though I had just received glowing evaluations that resulted in his hiring me full time. When I argued that it didn’t make sense that I had been considered an excellent teacher when I started but, with two months’ experience under my belt, I was suddenly incompetent, he responded, “Why are you becoming so defensive? You’re not to question what I say. You are to sit here and listen.”
One day behind the closed door of his office and without any witnesses, he said, ‘Schwartzman, I’m going to see to it that you never teach again.’
What followed was five months of emotional harassment and abuse, which included his visiting my classroom unannounced on a regular basis. He wrote up negative evaluations about me in order to build a case to prove that I was an incompetent teacher. Many of the other teachers started to avoid me, but one of the older ones said, “Susan, you are being harassed. Go report this to the union representative.” But the representative was not sympathetic. Rumor had it that she was up for an administrative job and was part of the principal’s inner circle.
On Friday afternoons after school had let out, when the rest of the faculty would go out to a local bar to unwind, he forced me to remain in his office, sometimes for well over an hour, demeaning my teaching ability. When I refused to go into his office without a witness, the union representative told me if I didn’t go into his office, I would be fired for insubordination. So the weekly rituals, in which he criticized everything I did, continued until the end of the year. You hear about people who derive pleasure from hurting others, and I believe this principal was one of them.
I knew I would never be able to use this job as a reference. In 1975, teaching positions were hard to come by, and without listing the job on applications, it would be a struggle finding another teaching post. Undergoing the constant abuse and trying to maintain a professional demeanor in front of my students was taking its toll. I was stressed out, upset, depressed and scared about how I would support myself should the principal succeed in firing me. Breaking my apartment lease and moving back home were not options. It was probably the most stressful situation I’ve ever encountered in the workplace — and in my life.
On the last day of the school year, when the principal handed me my paycheck, he told me I was fired. I shot back, “I’m going to fight you on this.” I took my paycheck and marched straight away to the office of the president of the teachers’ union, who told me that I was a victim of sexual harassment and that the union would file a lawsuit with the human rights commission. I had never even heard of the term “sexual harassment” before.
A few months later, the field investigator who presided over the case took me aside and said, “It’s your word against his, but I’m inclined to believe you.” She slipped a piece of paper into my hand with a phone number on it and said, “If you want to win this case, call this lawyer.”
By that time, I had lost confidence in my lawyer at the time, who seemed completely uninterested in my case and was allowing the other side to make all sorts of objectionable comments without once raising an objection. She even had the gall to ask me, “Why would this principal go through all this trouble just to get into your pants?”
At that point, I immediately called the number on that slip of paper and hired Jeffrey Bernbach. When he subpoenaed another administrator in the school district, he testified that the principal had asked him at a Christmas party, “Should I hire her or have sex with her?”
After that particularly damning testimony, it surely seemed the odds were in my favor. Then the female field investigator told me that she was being replaced because the superintendent of schools claimed she was biased in my favor. The first words her male replacement said were, “Do you realize that your lawsuit could result in the principal losing his job?” That I had already lost mine didn’t seem to matter to this investigator.
To my lawyer’s utter amazement and to mine, the principal boastfully admitted under oath that he had asked me out. His defense was that the question was part of a so-called stress interview to see how I would react under pressure. He also testified, with the same assurance and self-satisfaction that he demonstrated in our closed-door meetings, that I was an incompetent teacher and that’s why he fired me. With his admission, however, that he had asked me out, my lawyer and I were confident that I would win the case. But this was 1976 — long before Anita Hill. The judge ruled in the principal’s favor. My lawyer appealed, and again we lost.
My case was the news story of that day: It was reported on the front page of the New York Post, and it was part of Walter Cronkite’s evening news summary. Other than that, it was a blink in the history of sexual harassment cases. When the Me Too movement started getting traction, I wondered if my lawyer was thinking about my case from all those years ago and how things had changed.
My sexual harassment case not only forced me to change careers but also made me aware of just how challenging, if not impossible, it was for a woman to speak out against sexual harassment.
When I called Bernbach, who has since published the book Job Discrimination: How to Fight, How to Win, he barely remembered the outcome of my case. “Susan,” he said, “1976 was more than 40 years ago. Since then, I’ve tried many sexual harassment cases, most of which settled before trial. One need only watch TV or read a newspaper to see how vastly different things are today from 40 years ago, when even hearing officers at the New York state division of human rights were reluctant to rule in favor of a victim of sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. Not only have courts and human rights agencies become much more sensitive to the issue, but employers, many of whom learned the hard way, routinely provide training to managers on the issue.”
It was hard for me to believe that my sexual harassment case, which was a defining moment in my life, barely registered in Bernbach’s memory. It not only forced me to change careers but also made me aware of just how challenging, if not impossible, it was for a woman to speak out against sexual harassment. And it woke me up to the fact that as a woman, I had to navigate the male hierarchy with caution and even doing so was no guarantee I wouldn’t become a victim of it.
Now, over 40 years later, I can thank that principal for being the impetus for change in my life. But at the time, I was angry, scared and depressed: angry and depressed that he had such power over me and that I didn’t receive justice and scared about getting another job that didn’t just pay the bills but was also fulfilling. Eventually, after months of unemployment and several years of tedious, unfulfilling entry-level secretarial jobs, I worked my way up the ladder to a fulfilling career in book publishing that has enriched my life. And I have never regretted taking my case before the human rights commission.
The strong, independent woman I’ve become is proud of the young, naive and idealistic girl I once was who had the courage and temerity to fight for her rights. I am also proud of my sisters who have had the courage to speak out after being silenced for so long. It is our collective stories that are fomenting change in the workplace. Each woman who goes public with her story validates not only my struggle but all our struggles. It is through our collective stories that women are finally being taken seriously. My story and every other woman’s story are stepping stones toward a larger victory for all women in the workplace. And although I was once among the ranks of women who learned to keep our mouths shut, I am proud to be a part of the larger ranks of women who are making changes in the workplace by finally speaking out.
Susan Schwartzman is an independent book publicist. She is currently working on a memoir. For more information, please visit her website.