It was supposed to be different. Growing up, I was told a woman could do anything a man could do. That our mothers had marched and protested and burned perfectly good undergarments all to create a world in which women and girls wouldn’t feel like they should expect less.
This past year has been a harsh wakeup call. While I became more aware of it over the years, this year shone a spotlight on how bad it really is.
The first time I realized what I was dealing with was my first job in corporate America around twelve years ago. I had a boss who would rub my shoulders daily while telling me, “You drive me crazy, you know that? Did you tell him? Did you tell your boyfriend that if he messes up just once, I am all over that shit?”
Outraged, I told the other women in my office. They all were experiencing the same thing.
Why doesn’t anyone say anything?” I demanded.
“Oh someone did once. Upper management didn’t believe her, so she got fired. She sued but didn’t win. Now she still doesn’t have a job. She can’t get one anywhere because companies think she’s just looking for a payday.”
“Oh.” I thought. “This isn’t how I was told it works.” No one had mentioned in the PSAs, or the mandatory employee training videos that the bad guy sometimes wins. Quite often, actually.
I waited until my exit interview with the company to say anything. I was terrified when telling the company. I kept thinking,“You’re burning a powerful bridge. This is a small industry.” But also, “Oh sure. You waited until it wouldn’t inconvenience you to come forward. Real brave.”
It got back to me that he was shocked and angry that I “ratted him out”. He got a slap on the wrist.
Fast forward to today. The headlines are full of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. People are shocked and appalled as they should be. All my friends are writing #metoo on their Facebook pages, some including their stories. I tell a truncated version of mine, and immediately take it down, for the safer “#metoo.” I feel the same way I did as when I told HR with a slightly different twist.
“Who asked you?” my brain taunts. “Don’t be so attention seeking. People have had it so much worse. You’re one of the lucky ones.”
When I took it down I was disappointed in myself. “Real brave. Post the least controversial thing you can about it. That’s going to make a difference. I’m sure hashtags start revolutions all the time.” Some days my head is not a friendly place to be.
I hate that I’m so cynical. This year’s election was the plot twist I didn’t see coming. I believed that my son’s experience of the presidency in this country would be that he would know that was born under the presidency of a black man, and then the first president he would be fully aware of would be a woman. How would the world be different for him? Would he see people who are different from him — be it their skin or their gender – as equal without question? Probably a little starry-eyed and optimistic of me, but I hoped. It didn’t seem possible that Trump could be elected after all the racism, sexism, and generally disgusting behavior he’d exhibited.
And then he won. And all the times I’d been harassed, or mommy-tracked, or ignored were cast in a different light. “Wow,” I thought. “You really hate us, don’t you? I didn’t realize how much you hate us.” Suddenly it wasn’t just a few bad apples. We were in a bad orchard.
I know for a fact not all men hate women. Not even a majority. But maybe more than I thought. I look at my husband and my male friends whom I’ve known my whole life, and I know they are on my side. But I just didn’t quite realize what I was up against.
For a long while, it got me down. I was depressed and felt completely powerless. I have never felt like the ways my parents fought for change – protests, rallies, sit-ins, were particularly effective in this day and age. I don’t know why it worked then and doesn’t work now. “How am I supposed to raise a good man in this midst of all this?” I wondered. “How do I help him be different when the voices telling him that women are things are so loud right now?” What I have come to in these past months is somewhat simple. I do what I can. I try and walk the walk. Small children pick up on energy and I don’t want to be in a constant funk. So here is what I do when it feels like this world is a horrible and scary place to be:
Turn off the news
I used to be a news junkie. I had CNN or 1010 Wins on all the time in the background listening for developments as if current affairs were part of my job. I needed to be fully briefed so that I could spring into action at any moment! In reality, springing into action generally meant being outraged and getting into stupid battles in the comments section of Facebook. There was just one problem with this – I was getting angrier but nothing was changing! Imagine that.
I found I was getting anxious whenever I saw the news feed on my phone, so decided to try a week without it. I haven’t looked back. The important stuff finds its way to me whether I want it to or not.
Turn it over
The moment I admit to myself that this is not something in my control, the load lightens a little. I don’t personally have to sit down and figure out the solution to all the world’s problems. This doesn’t mean I should stand idly by and hope for the best. But I can change my perspective. What if my purpose in going to a march wasn’t to try to change the minds of anyone in power? What if it was just to show up so that a woman who is suffering sees that I am with her? That there are hundreds or thousands with her? What if I just make a difference for one person?
I need there to be good in the world and I need to see it. But I often feel like I have neither time nor money to donate to a worthy cause. But right now that’s okay. Sometimes your service is your family or your community. I need to teach my son to be someone who respects his fellow humans regardless of their packaging. He is two and not up for the big conversations yet, so the best I can do is model behavior for him. And that means taking a look at the ways in which I’m not so perfect.
Know where you are part of the problem
“Yeah, but everyone knew about this before in the industry. Do you really think that she didn’t know before? Just now it’s embarrassing to stay.”
Almost instantly I wanted to slap myself. Yes, she probably knew. And I’d imagine that’s a fairly humiliating situation. She also probably saw that everyone in the industry was turning a blind eye and that people didn’t want to piss off her husband. How well would it have gone for her if she had left before the public outcry?
I don’t think of myself as someone who blames the victim. I had to catch myself and correct it. I’m surprised when friends of mine do as I did and take down their detailed stories about this issue on social media. I guess I figure they’re braver than I am, but why should they be?
Children pick up on all of our prejudices, even those about ourselves. If I want to raise a man who respects women, then I need to respect women, including myself.
Isn’t that what all of this is really about? Not tearing down another human being for any reason. Disagree with them, fine. Yell if you must, but don’t belittle. They will never be any more or less human than you are. Being able to listen with an open ear and an open heart has helped me change more minds than I ever could have with my debating skills.
And I cannot say this enough – no other woman is your competition. You are living your life and she is living hers. You do not need to try to be better, smarter, richer or thinner.
I’m a great believer in the butterfly effect, but I’ve always thought of it more as ripples in a pond. The idea is that when you throw a rock into a pond, it isn’t just the spot where it lands that is affected. You can see the ripples spread outward, far past the point where the impact was made. It carries on.
We don’t ever fully know the influence we have on other people and their lives. The only time people tend to reveal how much someone has shaped their lives, it tends to be at the influencer’s funeral. Which is nice and all, but just goes to show — you don’t get feedback on this in real time. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. We can’t wait for someone else to make the world a kinder place.
So tune out the noise. Turn off the tv and Facebook. Look around you and do some small good things. And be kind to each other.