OFTEN LOST in this sexual harassment mess is a heartening upside: the generational sea change.
If you’re a woman over 50, stories like these may be painfully familiar.
When you were a little girl, your uncle hugged you too close against his chest at family get-togethers. You still remember his warm, wet breath on your neck. This did not feel right.
“Oh that’s just uncle so-and-so being friendly,” your mother may have said, if you told her at all. “He loves you. Don’t hurt his feelings.”
You got your first teenage job, maybe as a chambermaid at a local motel. One day your supervisor stood behind you, his hip leaning against the motel room door, his arms folded. He silently watched as you bent to make hospital corners on the king-sized bed, as you fluffed the pillows and smoothed the spread. Then he told you how firmly your 16-year-old body filled out your thin gray chambermaid’s uniform.
This felt shameful, much worse than not right. You started to tell your mother. She interrupted. “Did you do something to bring this on?”
In your 20s, you got your first real job. My jobs were at newspapers with cigar-smoking hard drinkers who weren’t thrilled about skirts in the city room. A boss at one paper took young women reporters to lunch and sat on their side of the booth, thigh to thigh. Another boss sent me to what we called a “dirty” bookstore and told me to stay there until I’d written down every raunchy title. When I returned, he called me into his office, alone, and told me to read those titles out loud to him.
He ran the newspaper. I loved my job. Who would I tell, and why, if it cost me that job?
Nobody I knew then told about anything to higher-ups at work. These humiliations were endured as the price of admission to an almost all-male world. Their message was clear: You pushed hard to work with the big boys, sweetheart. This is how it is.
Besides, such humiliations — no rough touching, no demands for sex — seemed like nothing compared to the horrors whispered among ourselves. The boss who sexually assaulted someone in her car. The office salesmen who aimed spitballs at a saleswoman’s breasts and hired strippers to perform, right by her desk, on Friday afternoons.
We all learned the price of telling when Anita Hill, as dignified and credible a woman as we could imagine, did tell 14 men on a Senate panel what Clarence Thomas said about “Long Dong Silver.” Then the senators made Thomas a Supreme Court Justice and Hill was dismissed as a “little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
If you’re a woman over 50, these stories, perhaps describing your history too, may sound outrageous to your daughters. It’s hard for them to understand your meekness, your weakness, your seeming enabling of harassment. But then you did not teach them what our own mothers too often taught us. That is, to quietly acquiesce to men in power, first as little girls at home, then as grown women considered lucky to be working at all.
Sexual harassment isn’t over. Low-paid women remain particularly at risk. Donald Trump, accused by 16 women, may never face the music. Roy Moore, banished from an Alabama shopping mall for hitting on teenage girls, may be elected a US senator yet.
Still, what we’ve witnessed across America of late is young women refusing to do what their mothers did. Put up with sexual humiliation and stay silent, so the predators go on and on and on.
And that is a wonderful thing.
Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”