[I write this missive to my daughter with the hopes that one day she will read and perhaps learn something about me and our times, but also come to understand the conflict, the setbacks, the inspiration, the tenacity and focus that goes into pushing a society from thinking one way to ACTING another.]
I am weary. Yet another story. Last night, U.K. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned saying his standards in the past have “clearly fallen short” of those standards required of the Armed Forces, which he represents. The story circulating publicly pertains to a 2002 incident in which he repeatedly put his hand on a journalist’s knee. This, on the heels of an allegation by a brave young woman who says she was raped by someone senior within the Labour Party and was “warned” against pursuing the claim. And add to that Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, who have been accused of sexual harassment. The floodgates have opened. The amount of accusers suggests this lewd and gross misconduct was happening frequently and – by the sound of it – all of LA/DC/London seemed to have some inkling that these men were particularly slimy with younger people left alone in their lecherous hands. These men used their positions of power and influence to prey on and victimize those subordinate to them. And I am saddened, but rueful and cynical. I talk to my women friends and many of us have the same reaction. These revelations are not new (Bill Clinton, Dominic Strauss Kahn, Roger Ailes, Clarence Thomas, Senator Packwood, the list goes on…). We all assume Fallon resigned because there is more to the story or there are other women who have yet to come forward (“It can’t be just touching a woman’s knee?! Seriously? There must be more”). We have all worked hard for 20 + years in careers that inevitably brought us face to face with sexual innuendo and inappropriate behaviour and yes, sexual harassment by the textbook, legal definition. If you asked any one of us “was it wrong?” we would say absolutely, yes. Firmly, without a doubt. None of my female friends, family, and colleagues are shrinking violets. We are successful career women with families who do the juggle, the dance, because we can and we want to. Are we fighters? Yes. Has it been easy? Hell, no. Should any one of us in any of our #MeToo moments have reported the incident and sought recourse? Probably. But we didn’t. And the answer to “Why not?” lies also in that deafening silence that many in Hollywood and Washington and elsewhere kept (men AND women alike).
Silence about bad behaviour does not mean acceptance. We get by with the tools given to us to make us fighters. To survive, one must always pick and choose battles.
How do I explain this to you? I am complicit in this. Perhaps I am a failure to you and your generation, I think. If any of the things that happened to any of these women – to me – happened to you, I’d be outraged. On the other hand, I was brought up by a strong mother (and father) who taught us how to be feisty, independent and fight for a place in the male-dominated workplace. Some history and context here – we just went to see the movie Battle of the Sexes together, right? And I explained to you how bad the movie was on the broader issues, remember? The meaning of that one match was enormous to a generation of women and their daughters. There were ERA marches on Capitol Hill, women were pushing for equal pay, equal rights in the workplace, it was the “women libbers” vs “male chauvinist pigs” who thought women should stay at home in the kitchen pregnant. There was a palpable uprising in the air and I could feel the electricity in my mother as she lectured my sister and I about how “our generation will get what her generation missed – an opportunity to be anything a man could be.” A gathering at our house watched that match. And I remember, as an impressionable 9-year old, how ecstatic and triumphant the women were when Billy Jean King won. What I didn’t know – because my Dad was right there with my Mom telling us men and women are intellectually equal – was that there was an undercurrent of tension and resentment (probably rooted in fear of change, of upsetting the ‘status quo’) amongst men. I now understand the term “feminists” rolled off these men’s tongues with a sneer. Some of the younger men in the workplace at the time ended up being the older men I would work for once I graduated from university in 1986. So the winds of change do not come overnight.
Back to now, or rather to 20 years ago when most of these incidents coming out now occurred. A new generation of women populated offices across the country. But the residual effects of an earlier generation still existed. As Brit Marling points out, it was only in 1974 that women could apply for credit cards in their own name. Financial independence and career women were newly on the scene in growing numbers. And they were moving up. And yet, the social and moral attitudes, culture and laws were still playing catch up. If any one of us, at that time, had come forward, there would have been little – if any – recourse. The support systems and protection of the workplace would not have helped us. We would have been deemed annoying ‘troublemakers’ and become pariahs in our offices. We felt that our careers would stumble or fall if we spoke up, and if not immediately, then over time, we would be ousted.
We all do what we need to do, sometimes, to protect ourselves. But silence about bad behaviour does not mean acceptance. We get by with the tools given to us to make us fighters, to make us tough. To survive, one must always pick and choose battles. I was part of this system. My story is no different, although far less invasive than some of the horror stories I’ve heard. In my late 20s, a powerful and well-known man in Washington circles who was far senior to me (same industry but we did not work at the same place), followed me into an empty elevator. He shoved me up against the wall and attempted to grope and kiss me. Thoroughly disgusted and nauseous, I kneed him in the groin, told him angrily and firmly to STOP, and quickly got out of the elevator. I knew what was right and wrong. I had never liked this guy and my spider-sense always told me he was a slimy, nasty piece of work. He was physically overpowering to my 5 ft. 6 and a half, slim frame. But there was no way I was going to be a ‘victim’. And it’s that toughness, that fighter, that absolute belief in my convictions, that told me to fight back quickly and swiftly and extricate myself from that situation. But did I tell anyone? Did I do anything about this? I told some male and female friends in my circle. I might have even told my boss. But I knew making any sort of waves would jeopardize my career. And that was more important to me. I left with my dignity intact. I was not physically harmed. I had amazing opportunities with my career ahead of me. I was just beginning to be taken seriously as an adult. I was finally coming into my own as a career woman, and this was not going to stop me. I was luckier than other women (and men) whose stories we are hearing now. But I wonder whether they were thinking something similar when faced with the dilemma: Do I tell?
Millennials are outraged at things we all used to tolerate. Does this moral intolerance present an opportunity for change that should be harnessed?
So here we are in 2017. Are we at a tipping point? Has society caught up? Are there stronger social and support mechanisms in place to handle this swiftly, cleanly, justly? A confession: I am not a fan of the Millennials. Yet here is a question to ponder. Does the constant moral outrage of Millennials present an opportunity for change that should be harnessed? I have watched as this new generation, these so-called “snowflakes”, melt at the first sign of offence or insult. I hear from friends in the States that it’s a phenomenon sweeping the country – safe zones for virtually every individual on college campuses – university professors insulting kids in class without knowing what they’ve done wrong. Here in the U.K. it’s catching on too: At Oxford, professors send out announcements and alerts about matter being discussed in class ahead of time, just in case anyone might be offended by the subject and not want to come. To me, the pendulum has swung too far. We will all be walking on eggshells soon, but then who will defend the eggshells? Don’t they deserve a safe-zone too? I don’t know where it will stop but I find we’ve raised a generation of ‘bubble’ kids and I’m not sure what has happened to the toughness we grew up with in the 70s.
The Millennials are outraged at things we all used to tolerate. But, perhaps we have just enough of the older generations moving out and the younger generations moving in that the scales have tipped to favour the young and all that they bring to the workplace. Perhaps this over-sensitivity will have its positives, namely 100% intolerance to sexual harassment in the workplace. I don’t know the answer, but I am willing to be convinced. [And if so, PLEASE could we have this same confluence of influence, generational change and intolerance for the gun control issue too?]
It could be the timing is right (as my brilliant friend Muriel Demarcus points out, timing is everything). US Labour website says nearly 47 percent of U.S. workers are women (74.6 million of us toiling away), and women own close to 10 million businesses. 70% of mothers with children participate in the work force. And very interesting: Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in 1960. Men are more enlightened now, having lived and worked side by side with a growing workforce of women for 40 years.
So I think we must strike while the iron is hot. Some friends back home fear this new movement will cause a backlash amongst men who will be pushed to resent women working in the office and boardrooms. My husband says just the opposite. As he rightly points out, the majority of men out there are the good guys. They are the ones we have relied on, been supported by, and who live by the same moral codes. He says “if there is backlash, it’s likely to be amongst the older generation of men who are dinosaurs now. And they need to learn to moderate their language and behaviour, or retire.” That’s that. Change is good. And he feels most men aged 20-40, even up to 50, will feel the same.
I believe the confluence of our transitional generation, who grew up in the 70s and 80s along with the newer millennials is the perfect marriage for true and lasting change in our society. Left alone, both sides would flounder. We older folks are too cynical and jaded. I have one friend who works in finance who laughs when telling me she consistently fails her company’s “sensitivity” test because she doesn’t push “RED” (out of options Green = Acceptable, Yellow = Borderline, and Red = Unacceptable, Needs To Be Reported) when she should. She said if she pushed RED when they suggest, she would have to probably report something at least once a month, if not once a week. On the other hand, Snowflakes cry out at the slightest, often most unintentional, slight. I know someone else who was going into a lunch meeting with Millennials and as the meeting was starting he said “I should have ordered a salad. I need to lose weight.” As the meeting closed, a young lady pulled him aside scolding him, saying she was offended by his comment. He was flabbergasted. When explained, he was inadvertently maligning fat people. So I think we can help each other. We bring the years of experience and examples to share. Millennials bring their unswerving moral centre. This could be good.