We also talk about the importance of supporting women, of refusing to compete with other women for the attention and approval of men, of supporting other women who experience sexism, misogyny, and oppression. Many of the women of my generation, and many women the age of my mother or grandmother, find it important to mentor younger women. We try to model feminism in our words and actions and provide opportunities for younger women—our students, allies, friends, and families—to explore, excel, and act on their own behalf and toward social justice for others.
But another thing that we discuss is how women can uphold the values of patriarchy, even without realizing it. Even when espousing feminism. Even when trying to do the right thing by other women. Gloria Steinem's gender-infused support might have inexorably hurt Hillary Clinton’s bid for candidacy. But Hillary will survive. In cases closer to home, the damage may not be so easy to overcome. But it gives us more fuel to fight.
This brings me to a current and ongoing example of the ways in which women—whether we identify with and use the term feminist or not—can do more harm than good when we try to help younger women, when we try to make decisions in someone else’s best interest. There is a difference between being supportive or being an advocate and acting in a paternalistic way. Some women--even when they have good intentions--fail to see the difference.
Last semester a student came to me during finals week to discuss some of the work she owed me and ended up reporting how she was being sexually harassed at her place of work. The harassment had been ongoing and had escalated from comments about other women’s bodies, to outright propositions for sex, to unwanted touching. She had waited too long to report the sexual harassment, which had been going on for months. I told her she should report it immediately. Since the employee who was harassing her was leaving for another job, she decided not to report it. I respected her decision, but—in retrospect—I regret that I did not convince her to report the abuse regardless.
This student prides herself on being open and honest—on supporting other women and on being true to herself. After a lifetime of abuse, she deserves to have the space and time to find herself. That’s one of the reasons why she is attending college, majoring in Interdisciplinary studies, and working as the student intern for our Women Invigorating Curriculum and Creating Diversity committee. She advocates for herself and other women on a daily basis. She has been there for friends and for other students as they have dealt with abuse, stalking, and violence. But she also needs to work off-campus to support herself and pay for her education. She has learned a lot about herself over the past four years and is less naïve and sheltered than she was when she began college.
This student is also conventionally attractive and uber-friendly. She often dresses in short skirts, tight shirts, high heels, and a variety of fashionable ensembles. She wears a lot of make-up and puts a lot of time into her hair and outfits. She stands by her right to dress in the way that makes her feel comfortable even though she has also had to deal with other people’s inability to honor that right. Professors have asked me to talk to her about the way she dresses, to remind her that she is sending the “wrong message.” And her employer has attributed her appearance to the ways in which men act around her, flocking to the front desk and lingering to talk to her. She is regularly sexually harassed. In fact, it is a kind of a norm in her life. For instance, when her friends (and she has many male and female friends) found out that she had broken up with her boyfriend, she got several “dic pics” and an erotic story sent to her in a matter of a few days. She is regularly approached by men who want to give her things or take her on dates. She is still learning that these offers are not always what they seem at face value.
So, when she began to experience sexual harassment that went beyond playful banter (that she admits engaging in sometimes), it was difficult to identify it as something more sinister. Further, since this harassment often happened when she worked alone with her male co-worker and when the management staff had already gone home, she was isolated and rendered powerless and fearful. And, since this employee harassing her was widely liked and praised by many co-workers and patrons, she thought that she would not be believed.
But the biggest reason that she did not immediately come forward has to do with a previous incident at work, when she was shamed for her too-friendly behavior (which is her job) and blamed for the ways in which male co-workers and patrons treated her. This shaming and blaming was done in a way that couched the criticism as a “life lesson.” The female head of the company actually blamed her for potentially breaking up marriages and asked her to be less friendly and to leave the desk when certain male patrons entered the building. In other words, it is the same story told time and time again—blaming the woman for men’s uncontrollable sexuality.
She could recognize the problematics of this shaming and blaming. Not only was this “lesson” from the management sexist and discriminatory, it was something that she had heard before. So, it was no wonder that when she began to be sexually harassed, she brushed it off. The sexual harassment often took place in front of other employees who did not recognize the harassment as problematic. More than one employee had overheard him making comments about wanting to “tap that” when referring to women patrons. More than one employee had been harassed.
But then he decided to stay with the company and the head of the company sent an email to all employees praising him for his superior customer service skills, hinting at a promotion and raise, and referring to his bright future at the company. And, so, this victim really had no choice but to come forward. In fact, I also work for this organization and I ended up reporting it to our shared supervisor during my performance review along with a sexual harassment incident I had experienced. Let's just say, things did not go so well and I have been working to support this student and to give her opportunities to tell her story and to fight for her rights. Her story is long from over.
The story from this point is long and more complicated than I can capture here. It is a universal story of women’s experiences that has been told a million times in all of its iterations, and it is a story that will continue to be told. The outcome (for now) boils down to the “he said/she said” situation of so many stories like this. The outcome was not immediate termination of the sexual harasser despite the fact that Maine is an at-will state and the fact that the employee had violated multiple workplace policies. This was the only acceptable outcome. Instead, schedules were rearranged, sexual harassment training was implemented, and she was expected to just get over it.
While (female) management claimed to believe her in private conversations, and while they sanctioned him and punished him, the official written response from the head of the company is that they did everything that they could possibly do, but also explicitly states that they are not admitting that any harassment took place. In fact, in private conversations management revealed that the reason that they did not fire him was because they wanted to protect her. He had threatened to sue her for defamation of character if he was fired. The “HR lawyer” said that she would be crucified in court, and they decided that she was “too fragile” to deal with something like that. Never mind that such cases (usually reserved for public figures) are difficult to prove and take substantial investment up front. The decision was made for her and she was left in the dark.
Further, her privacy was not protected; they said they were legally obligated to tell him who reported the claim of sexual harassment. When she tried to stand up for herself and requested a written statement of the information she was legally entitled to, her request was ignored. Instead she was pulled into a meeting where the head of the company tried to justify her actions while continuing to shame and blame. When the written statement finally followed, it was incomplete at best.
The process that was followed is symptomatic of our patriarchal culture. And it has been questioned and will most likely be questioned again. But the point here is that on at least two occasions a woman, claiming and believing that she was acting on the behalf of a younger woman, supporting her and teaching her life lessons, was really acting in the interest of the company, of patriarchy, and—as the head of the company who had praised and promoted the harasser—for herself.
There is no easy answer or solution to this situation and others like it, but when we work to support other women (especially the younger women we wish to mentor) we need to remember that we are fostering their voices, empowering their actions, and providing opportunities for growth and empowerment—and, ultimately, we cannot control the outcome any more than the playing field. We can fight for justice side by side, but need to let them speak for themselves, find their own paths, and wage their own battles. We need to get over ourselves, our experience, our earned positions and our honed expertise—and remember that this thing that holds us down is bigger than we are, and we are stronger together.