"The Silence Breakers"

It is happening so often it is barely “news” any more. A well known male figure is accused of sexual harassment or assault and, with notable exceptions in the political realm, is fired or resigns from his position.

And Time Magazine named “The Silence Breakers,” the women who have spoken out, as the 2017 “Person of the Year.” These individuals represent a huge cross section. “The women and men who have broken their silence span all races, all income classes, all occupations and virtually all corners of the globe. They might labor in the California fields, or behind the front desk at New York City’s regal Plaza Hotel, or in the European Parliament. They’re part of a movement that has no formal name. But now they have a voice.”

What struck me about these women was what they had to overcome to come forward. They were bound together by feelings of shame, that perhaps they had unwittingly brought this upon themselves, and fear, of physical violence or of losing the job they needed to support themselves and their children. They were also afraid that that their complaint, rather than their competence, would come to define them. Finally, however, they were compelled to speak out. As Wendy Walsh, one of  O’Reilly’s accusers, put it, “I felt it was my duty as a mother of daughters, as an act of love for women everywhere and the women who are silenced, to become brave.”

Even before the Time article, every woman I know was asking “ has this happened to you?” and more often than not sharing an example from her own life. They may not be posting at #metoo, but they are eager to share. The pervasiveness of these experiences at every level and in every kind of workplace is shocking, even to this long-time feminist.

And while I have never been harassed, I have been subject to what Rebecca Traister called in her article in New York Magazine “daily dimunitions.” Until I gained the skills and power to assert myself, my ideas were only taken seriously when presented by a male colleague. At the first Rotary club I joined “dumb blonde” jokes were a standard part of the announcements and the members were angry when I objected. I can vividly recall being told by a toll collector that he wouldn’t put the gate up unless I smiled. This seemingly trivial event stuck with me for years because I knew he would never have said that to a man. 

Of course the big question remains. Will this change?

There are still people engaged in blaming the victim. Ignoring the repercussions that have prevented women from coming forward immediately, they try to invalidate claims from the past. They accuse women of seeking publicity or personal gain. They imply a lack of sexual morals; they call them liars. Or all of the above. I do not think these naysayers will prevail in the cases that become public, but they will prevent women from seeking redress when the public humiliation is still so devastating. Those of us who are old enough will never forget Anita Hill.

Anita Hill, 1991

Anita Hill, 1991

 

Another appalling effect of all this publicity is a backlash among men who should know better.

“I am afraid to take a woman out to lunch.”

 “I won’t be able to mentor a younger woman.”

Really? Are these male executives incapable of distinguishing between advice and harassment? Between a friendly gesture and inappropriate touching? Perhaps they should ask their five year old sons what they are learning in kindergarten.  

Are men so lacking in impulse control they can’t be alone with a woman?

And if the underlying message is that they are afraid of false accusations, isn’t that just another way of preempting legitimate complaints?

This is not to take away from legitimate concerns that lesser examples of unacceptable behavior, such as a sexist joke, will be equated with criminal assaults. We can teach people to desist from the jokes and to call them out when they occur. Assaults must be punished. 

As the Time article points out, “We’re still at the bomb-throwing stage of this revolution.” Long-term social change, the reporters remind us, requires nuanced conversations, something I am afraid we are not very good at. I can only hope the anger will fuel the work that needs to be done.

Barbara ViniarComment