Why have women waited so long to tell their stories of sexual harassment, discrimination, pedophilia, abuse, and discrimination? How do we as individuals and as a nation process this tidal wave of information as people come forward? I’ve hesitated to tell my stories of sexual harassment because I’ve never been able to comprehend and digest them. The first time I experienced feminine vulnerability, I was four years old. While playing outside in the garden of our home in Bermuda, a teen-age neighbor squatted down next to me. Smiling, he reached under my skirt and stroked my privates through my underpants. Before he walked away, he made me promise not to tell my father.
His demand for my silence had a dark feel to it and I buried the scene deep in a cave of my consciousness. It would be fifteen years before I spoke of it to a woman psychiatrist. Her response reflected the times and was crushing, “Well, I bet you enjoyed it.” Not until today, have I been willing to share this story again.
I often wonder what would have happened if I had told someone back in the 1950s. My father was a former military intelligence officer, and did not tolerate bad behavior, especially towards his loved ones. My older brother Joe had moments of protectiveness almost as fierce. When we came to America years later, he wasn’t shy like me.
New to America, I was Britishly different and an inviting target. After being beaten up on the playground by a third-grader while his friends cheered, I ran home and locked myself in the bathroom. Overcome with fear, confusion, and shame, it was an hour before I stopped crying and came out with blood dropping from my bruises. Joe tracked down and threatened the culprit with God-knows-what. The schoolyard bully’s face-to-face apology with Joe standing behind him, arms crossed and stink-eyed, is one of my favorite elementary school memories. But the memory of his brutishness also stayed with me, as did the fear and a growing tendency to be on high alert.
My alertness to brute force did not save me from a third incident, a sophisticated version of the pedophile behavior. The situation involved a high school teacher with a favorite uncle demeanor. He kindly offered to drive me back and forth to school when I injured my knee and had trouble walking. I was cut off from my usual activities and couldn’t keep up with my friends. He also gave me presents, quite a few of them. The gifts helped ease the pain and the enforced solitude. They were thoughtfully chosen to appeal to my tastes, including a rare recording of Renaissance dance music.
When my father saw the record, he demanded that I return all the gifts and tell the teacher to get lost. I thought that was harsh, but dad said that either I cut this guy off or he’d go to the principal and have him fired. I was horrified at the consequences for this nice man. There was no negotiating dad’s position, so I reluctantly distanced myself from the teacher. Later, when he was discovered having sex with another student in her home when her parents were away, I woke up to how my father was not as crazy as I’d thought.
Thinking that my high school teacher was an aberration, I was not prepared for the intimidation level at Harvard. We Radcliffe women hadn’t yet officially combined with Harvard and were alternately treated as prime dating material, irrelevant guests, fascinating curiosities, and annoying interlopers. Most of my freshmen classmates were as clueless as I was, but the graduate students were not. The one that sticks most firmly in my mind was a graduate teaching assistant assigned to conduct breakout groups of a required seminar. The graduate assistant used Playboy Clubs as an example of capitalism to the group of twenty males and only two females.
Staring at my chest, he asked, “Shouldn’t I be allowed to hire only young women with large breasts?” Did I hear correctly? I looked around the room but my classmates simply stared stone-faced straight ahead. Confused by the silence, I considered the incident a fluke and tried to just move on. By now, I was well schooled in silently compartmentalizing sexually inappropriate behavior. Maybe that’s why I stayed after class to ask a question about my favorite philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Stretching himself out on the conference table, the graduate assistance inhaled his cigarette and blew it in my face. “You don’t need to know that for this class, honey. You don’t need to know that for anything.” Responding intuitively with a British “Quite,” I backed away and quickly exited, leaving him lying on the table.
This incident contributed to my decision to finish my senior year at New York University, live at home, and commute to the Greenwich village campus. It also propelled me to join the first Women’s Liberation March in New York City. My activism became a path to self-confidence and legitimacy. Unfortunately, the Women’s Movement did not the end the sex-based challenges. My first encounter with workplace discrimination was at an employment agency when I was looking for my first job after graduation. I was required to take a typing test and denied access to the men’s table where executives were being recruited.
I first experienced workplace sexual harassment when I finally found a job as a secretary. The salesmen in the office insisted that I wear tight clothes and carefully monitored my weight. They confiscated the cookies I kept in my desk draw. One of the salesmen lingered when everyone had gone to lunch and only the two of us were in the office. I found myself literally chased around the desk and grabbed. I wish I could say that I spoke up about the incident, but I told no one.
A decade later in Chicago, having completed my masters degree in urban planning, I was named student-of-the-year by the American Planning Association for my innovative class projects. I relied on education to raise me up and make me less vulnerable. But a mentor on one of those projects refused to hire me because I was “too sexy.” This man, who was well known and respected throughout Chicago, complained that he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands off of me and his wife would kill us both. Horrified, I didn’t just maintain silence about the incident, but I changed career paths and never did work as an urban planner.
I will be forever grateful for the men who did encourage, mentor, and promote me. With public recognition and powerful backing, the harassment decreased. Having said that, I was propositioned by a pastor at a religion conference where I was speaking. My success had changed my perspective and this time, I shared the story with a colleague and friend. She was a nun and I felt that my secret would be safe with her. I was astonished when she told me that she’d also been propositioned.
Our conversation was eye opening. I was not alone. I gradually began to share my experiences with others and knew that I would not be silenced in the future. I learned that sexual harassment is not uncommon in the workplace. It’s a stubborn, lingering fact of life, too often immune to intervention. A corporate colleague shared that her firm fired sexual harassers rather than waste resources trying to rehabilitate them.
My books and published articles gradually positioned me more as an authority than as prey. I’ve used my position to further women in leadership for more than three decades. Launching the Women’s Council on Diversity (now Chattanooga’s Lean In-Women GroundBreakers) and creating the Women Groundbreakers Storytelling helped develop new leaders. Publishing women’s articles in my American Diversity Report gave them a voice with a global reach. Advocacy and activism has been healing, for me and for them.
I do caution victims to find support groups when they choose to tell stories buried in their psyches for decades. Resist the tendency to feel that you are all alone in your predicament. Nurture yourself and your loved ones into the new consciousness. Yes, there’s a difference between pedophilia, harassment, discrimination, and abuse, but the emotional eruption in each case can be overwhelming and physically painful.
No one person alone can fix these overt symptoms of societies in which power and control are linked. The silence on sexual harassment and the demeaning of victims of sexual assault are embedded in the political arena as well as the social sphere. Leadership has tolerated and even invited excuses such as “She should have spoken up forty years ago”, “It’s all her fault that I couldn’t resist”, “She’s not believable”, and “She probably enjoyed it”.
As more men and women come forward with their stories, we are experiencing an increased emphasis on accountability. The #MeToo response is revealing the extent of the social and political collusion and it’s not pretty. Yes, the conversation is turning to the appropriate condemnation and punishment. We have seen movements in the past that seek a major shift in societal norms, laws, and practices. If this movement is to be more than an historic blip, we can no longer tolerate the silencing, intimidation, bullying, or abuse that has permeated our society at so many levels. Apologies must lead to advocacy and activism if we are to heal.