As I navigate my way into a new city, a new culture and a new year I am thinking about the choices I made this year and anything I would have, or should have, addressed that I didn’t. In the midst of all the changes in my life, I cut way back on my news consumption. I have been a fairly inactive citizen as I sort out where I am, how to build my business again, and how to find my way around town as Lance and I address our medical issues on several fronts. Doing a year-end “examination of conscience” has focused me on one subject I have ignored to the best of my ability. Though I have done a lot of thinking and feeling over the current arguments on the subject of sexual harassment, I have chosen to remain silent for reasons I don’t understand myself. I am a writer who covers what touches me, what angers me, what makes me happy—all strong emotional reactions. But on this one, I stayed silent.
In addition to my end-of-year evaluation of self, one small thing that motivated me to write was almost a non-happening. A husband and wife were discussing a politician who is accused of sexual harassment. It wasn’t a fight, and the voices were not even raised. Another person mentioned that there might be a long history of “silent knowing” about this legislator. What the husband emphasized was that one of the accusers had flirted with the man. The implication was that he therefore had no responsibility for his actions. The description of the flirting was missing and I had no desire to ruin the moment with that question. So the conversation died there with a shrug by the man and a sigh from someone else. After the festivities were over, I couldn’t get this small exchange out of my mind. I was already overflowing with comments and complaints from my counseling clients that I had shoved down in the “thou shalt not mention” part of my emotional world. Why now? In meditation about what to write here, several things came to the surface. Some of them surprised me.
This year I read, again, Virginia Woolf’s book “A Room of Her Own” which I have done often. In the book she describes being accosted at Oxford for walking on the grass since only men were allowed to walk on the grass. And she was not allowed in a certain part of the library. I was thinking as I read: “But that was in 1928!” And then I had the memory that I wrote down to share in my autobiography. It was in 1959 and I was a freshman at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
It is my first semester at the University. I met my future husband-to-be there the previous spring when I was invited to “Spring Fling” by my sister, a freshman. Mike took the two of us to church that weekend and breakfast after. When I came to Gainesville, we began dating at the Florida-Georgia Game. At some point on a glorious autumn day, he asked me to go with him to the library to research a paper he was writing for one of his engineering classes. Inside what was the Law Library, we sat down near the door with his books and my pads and pens and he showed me his list of sources.
Without warning, a low thrumming noise began to rumble in the room, building to the point where the vibration shook my chair. I looked up and every male in the room—and there were only males in the room—were looking straight at me as they beat their feet on the floor and their hands on the tables. Mike looked horrified, I was stunned, and neither of us had a clue what was happening. A librarian came over to us and announced that women were not allowed in the Law Library and we should have known that. My hands were shaking and my knees felt like they couldn’t support my weight as I tried to gather my things and stand up. I walked out, Mike right behind me, feeling for the wall for fear I might fall.
Outside, in the cold air, leaves crunching under my feet. I sank down on a bench. A kindly older man, a professor, stood over me. “How could you not know? Everyone knows. Women are forbidden to enter.” He smiled. “You don’t want to go in there anyway.” He walked away.
I never forgot that feeling of humiliation, though I buried it deep. In 1992, reading Virginia Woolf, I remembered and every part of me felt shame. She wrote the following in 1928:
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
In the midst of all this chaos in the relationships of men and women, I thought about the father of a friend who fondled my breast when I was 13. I thought about the boy who drove me into a cemetery, stopped the car and crushed me against the door. Only the reminder that my dad had power and a shotgun got his hands back on the wheel. I thought about Country Clubs and golf courses and libraries and places of learning that had locked out women of my generation. I thought about how we were unable to get credit cards or have bank accounts or own property without the signature of our spouses. I wondered how I had “forgotten.” When laws were passed to forbid that kind of discrimination, men’s sense of their superiority did not go away. They continued to rise up as they held the lion’s share of power in business, politics, sports, the arts and every other facet of the public world. They wielded that power over women and people of color in many areas. And still, as husbands, their power in the home lay over their wives and children. This is not to indict all men, but the ones who spoke about it were uncomfortable and defensive as they claimed “not me.” And yet they, mostly, didn’t speak out for their girlfriends, spouses or daughters. Like my husband-to-be, the whole thing was simply embarrassing, and somehow the woman’s fault–which brings me back to “they say she flirted with him” remarks.
I watched the Clarence Thomas hearings—which were mainly a witch trial of Anita Hill. Anyone who watched and thought that what she described as her life under Thomas was a piece of cake for her to relate, have no heart, empathy or understanding of second class citizen status. What it took for her to come forward, publicly, in that place and time was a warrior spirit. Later, she wrote in “Speaking Truth to Power”:
Women who accuse men, particularly powerful men, of harassment are often confronted with the reality of the men’s sense that they are more important than women, as a group.
Though the women’s movement had been strong in the sixties, women like me were on the edges. Those of us who chose to marry, have children and take care of them and the house were not the target audience of the liberation movement. Intellectuals wrote books, aimed for more power in the public domain, and many denigrated my choices. I was asked how I had managed to place my brain and my abilities on hold in order to have a family. I was the target of derisive and pitying looks as I pushed four children in two carts through the grocery store. My secret life of writing and the importance of raising the next generation was not visible—only my lack of value as a wage earner. I went to see Betty Friedan at the Tampa Jewish Community Center where she called what I did “shit-work.” It was then that my friend and I came up with my epitaph: “Oh shit, she didn’t fit.” It wasn’t fun to feel accosted on all sides of the spectrum, but it was common for women like me and built empathy for what women are still dealing with in this “enlightened” day and age.
My partner was in the city of Toronto and saw a sign behind the bar in a restaurant. It read: Sexual harassment will not be Reported but it will be Graded. If you translated that to any other kind of treatment of minorities, the law would forbid it. Yet women are still considered a fair target, and are no fun if they don’t “have a sense of humor” about these things. We have been silent for a long time, and the treatment of those who come forward is often brutal. This is one of the rocks turned over in the past year, and I am grateful for it. They no longer call us witches—at least publicly. I am encouraged that many people are giving accusers who come forward the benefit of the doubt, though it is more common when the perpetrator has a record of this behavior. Otherwise, with no video proof, even the president of the United States supports a man accused by many of being a pedophile. And even when there is video or audio proof of sexual predatory behavior—as in the tapes of our president—it is not enough. We are conditioned to laughing, turning our heads and making excuses for juvenile behavior from men. Good men everywhere should be incensed that their sex is considered so weak and unreliable that this behavior is normal. More self-respect on the part of men would change this situation faster than anything women can do.
Self-respect by definition is a confidence and pride in knowing that your behavior is both honorable and dignified. Respect yourself by respecting others. Miya Yamnanouchi, Author and Counselor
My wish for this year is that we all make note of that and get down off our “us” versus “them” horses and talk. I will continue to encourage that in 2018. Happy New Year to everyone.