Sometime between the Weinstein revelation (or maybe it wasn’t such a revelation) and the Matt Lauer firing, Bruce and I were driving into work listening to NPR. Yet another man was being accused of sexual assault or harassment.
“Is there any man who has never sexually harassed a woman?” I said in anger.
“I haven’t,” Bruce said.
“That’s why I’m married to you,” I said, smiling despite my year-long, low-grade, feminist rage boiling inside me.
In the course of six months which included numerous men being accused of sexual assault including liberal stalwart Al Franken, a Senate candidate from Alabama being accused of being a pedophile, the #MeToo campaign taking the internet by storm, and the one year anniversary of Trump’s election, I found my emotions riding a roller coaster. On the one hand it finally felt like we were no longer pretending sexual harassment doesn’t affect ever woman who walks the earth. On the other hand, even men I’m a fan of, like Franken and Garrison Keillor, appeared to be going down.
I didn’t post #MeToo in the fall feeling, like I think a lot of women do, that my experiences of harassment were too mild to count as something serious. I try not to think about that time when I was fifteen and went camping with a classmate, her older sister, and a friend, only to discover they trip was about meeting a group of older boys they knew and drinking every night. I sat on the edge of the picnic bench the first night, with a twenty year old young man next to me, who kept sliding closer and closer to me. First his knee pressed against mine. I slipped closer to the edge of the bench. Then his leg pressed against mine. I was sitting half off the end of the bench now. Then he reached over and slid his hand up my leg.
My mind was racing so fast, I couldn’t think. Saying something like, “get your fucking hands off of me,” just wasn’t polite. Not something nice girls did. That my body was my own, and I had a right to not be molested, was present in my thoughts. I was after all a fifteen year-old feminist. But that I’d actually have to assert that ownership, that authority, had never occurred to me. I resorted to a well-placed elbow to his ribs disguised as a stretch.
He got the hint and left me alone, thank whatever goddess exists. The next day I walked five miles to a payphone and called my mother to come get me. (This was long before the days of cell phones.) The friend never spoke to me again. Not for the next two years of high school.
Since then, I’ve had men I barely know kiss me on the lips. I’ve had random men walk up to me on the street and ask me if I want to make $10 (hopefully, the price has gone up since then.) I’ve had guys try to pick me up when I was walking home from work, minding my own business. I’ve had bosses suggest I do a striptease for them for their birthday. I’ve had interviewers for jobs ask me why they should hire me as I could get pregnant and need maternity leave. I’ve had employers who called me into their office and berated me for hours, threatening to fire me every week for months, simply to show they were the ones with the power. From my experience, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that women face harassment every day for no other reason that that we were born female.
Feminists are continually accused of being man haters, but what is totally surprising to me is that women, including myself, aren’t man haters. Many of us actually have husbands we love and respect. We are friends with men. And despite a whole lot of evidence to the contrary, we still know there are good men out there. We have to finally admit though, that we live in a society that belittles, disrespects and oppresses women. We teach boys to do it from a young age. We teach girls that “boys will be boys” and they just have to put up with it, or disregard it, or be sure not to do anything to trigger that “boyish” behavior. We teach girls that being harassed is simply part of being female.
I had hoped, having gotten past dealing with male bosses (I’m the boss now,) and having reached the age where men aren’t vying for my attention, I wouldn’t face this sort of discrimination and intimidation anymore. Then I began to be harassed by thirteen year old boys coming into the library where I work. They pee in the bathroom, everywhere but in the toilet. They drink out of the water fountain and then spit the water onto the floor. These aren’t simply childish antics. Even at thirteen, boys already are acting like men who “like to see a woman on her hands and knees.” Forcing a woman to clean up after you is the ultimate in exerting power and privilege. When I confront them, they call me a bitch, not realizing that female dogs are powerful and they bite. Still, at fifty-nine years old, I can’t bite them. And I haven’t found an easy way to deal with thirteen year old misogynists, any more then I could deal with their older counterparts when I was fifteen, or thirty, or forty-five.
Now though, these boys come into the library and make lewd gestures and sexual remarks to the young women who work here. So, it’s not only me they are harassing but also the younger women I employ, the younger women I should be able to protect and help.
When Donald Trump won the election, I literally wanted to die. I felt too old and too tired to continue to live and fight in a world that hated women so much it could place in office a man who openly harassed, oppressed, disregarded, disparaged, demeaned, and bragged of assaulting women. But I can’t die. I have responsibilities to the other women in this world. Young and old, women of color, cisgendered, transgendered, gay, working class – all my fellow women.
We need a better world – for women, for people of color, for the working class, for immigrants, for members of the LGBTQ community, for everyone. We need power shared equally – not consolidated into the hands of a few rich powerful white men. And we will not get that world unless men commit to fighting for women’s rights, unless whites commit to fighting racism, unless those of us who are born in this country commit to fighting for immigrants, unless cisgendered people commit to fighting for transgendered people, heterosexuals fight for gay rights, middle-class folks unite with working class, and everyone gets a decent education. So let’s do it people, because I’m too damn old to have to be fighting a bunch of misogynist thirteen year old boys by myself.