Make Your Voice Heard
Ending 100 Years of #MeToo Silence
Her generation accepted groping bosses. Today she claims "#MeToo" for her grand kids
Decades before #MeToo and even years before Anita Hill, in the late 1950s, my turn-of-the-19th century-born mother was smart enough to sit me down for “the sex talk.” But it wasn’t the sex talk; it was a conversation about how men in the workplace treat women. Her lesson came in the form of her own story, as it’s now being called, #MeToo.
Her story, her first #MeToo, took place 100 years ago, a century, before the #MeToo movement would begin.
To make sure a job advertised was on the “up and up,” my mother’s older sister, went with my then seventeen-year-old mother to the job interview. After a Q & A with the potential boss, my mother was offered the stenographer job on the spot; my aunt determined that the boss and the job were legitimate. The boss asked my mother to start immediately. My mother accepted and my aunt left the office.
Her new employer asked my mother to take a memo. As he began to dictate, he moved his chair closer and, within a few minutes, his hand was on her knee, moving up her skirt. My seventeen-year-old mother’s stomach dropped.
A quick-thinker, she said, composed, “I was so nervous about this interview that I never ate breakfast. My stomach keeps rumbling and making so many embarrassing noises I can hardly hear your dictation. Do I have permission to eat an early lunch, just for today? As soon as I get back, we can continue.” My mother walked out of the office and never returned.
She found out early that when a young woman needs a job there is an expectation: men have “permission,” without permission given, to take advantage of, mistreat, sexually harass (though no one called it that then) women. Unfortunately, because of the culture of the 1950s, my mother’s story was more of a “heads-up,” a lesson in tolerance, rather than a feminist moment or a lesson about how I, as a “working girl,” should fight back, speak up, change a broken system.
A half a century later, I was working at a prestigious New York City public relations firm. On deadline and focused on a press release, I was unaware that someone had entered my office. Without warning, from behind my back, two hands grabbed at my breasts. I screamed.
I screamed, first and foremost, because I’d been in a work-trance and was shocked by the intrusion. Almost simultaneously, my arms whipped off the typewriter keys, over my head and down onto the space invader’s forearms. I jumped from my seat to see one of the top executives of the firm standing at my desk; and, just as quickly, I saw him run from my office.
Many heard me scream.
Many saw the man dash out of my office.
But no one saw what happened.
No one said anything. No one asked me anything.
In a prestigious firm in Midtown Manhattan, an executive stood in my office, his unwanted hands cupping my breasts and not a word was spoken about it.
And I spoke to no one about it.
Who would believe me? And, who would I tell? A male boss? A boys-club colleague of my surprise attacker?
And then, decades later, came Anita Hill.
In the years before the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, nobody spoke openly about sexual harassment, even those who had spent a lifetime being harassed. However, it was because of Anita Hill, that women of my generation, including me, finally began to tell their own stories to each other, privately. It was a tsunami of words: friends told friends about what had been happening in their worlds. What was remarkable was that we were all surprised to discover that we were not the only ones. How had we believed that we were the only ones? And those of us who had #MeToo’s (and there were so many of us), believed Anita Hill because we’d endured what she had endured.
I have one daughter and three granddaughters (23, 22, 16). I cannot imagine any of them having to suffer the assaults my mother and I suffered. I could not bear it. We’ve lived this way for way #toolong.
On behalf of my mother, #MeToo.