It’s a hard time to untangle our thoughts of snarled and snagged dreams. Do we hate the artistic effort of a man because he is a predator? And what constitutes a predator? I’m struggling as much as any other woman, trying find middle ground in a binary world. And that, I think, is the whole point. We keep trying to make the world black-and-white, yes-or-no, right-or-wrong, and our world is a lot more complicated than that.
Here are some ideas I’ve had, based on experiences. They are my experiences, and may be different from yours. Many of them are about communication, and how words and communication shape our culture. You do not have to agree with any of this. I’m writing it down to get a better look at it.
1. In my first out-of-college job, I was sent home for wearing a pants suit. (Yes, there was such a time.) I could wear mini-skirts (popular at the time), but when I wore them, my boss’s boss chased me around the photocopier. And not in a comic-book kind of way. When he touched me in an inappropriately, I complained to human resources. I was fired the next day. Editorial assistants were cheap; big money-makers were valued.
What I learned: Money not only talks, it sings the final chorus. He had denied everything. There was no hearing, there was no gathering of anyone in the HR office. I might have been believed, but I was not taken seriously.
What needs to change: This was not about sex (although I thought so at the time). This was about power. Men had it, women were kept from getting it at the time. Power made it OK for bad behavior to be excused. Still is, years later.
2. At my next job, when the boss got hands-y, I warned off my female friends, thinking to protect them. One of the women complained to HR that I was not a team player, and I was, again, fired. There was no hearing, no “let’s see what the real problem is.” She was promoted shortly after I was fired.
What I learned: Women compete for the attention of men. That is how to get promoted, protected, and praised. Men expect this attention from women. Women behave in this way because it is expected of them. We are trained not to rock the boat, not to make waves. And, of course, we can lose our jobs if we don’t “go along to get along.”
What needs to change: Still about power, not merit. As long as some women are willing to play along, this tactic will continue to work. And I worry about women who comply because their job is on the line. That happens every day. Still.
3. There is a long history in our culture of conflicting ideas of who women are. In the binary way, we are either saints or whores. We do not get to choose the label, it is assigned. By men. Neither of those categories work well in the workplace.
What I learned: To many men who hold power over women, over courts, over whole towns, loyalty is fear-based. Once fear is the determining factor, men will be able to decide (and tell women) who they are, and who they need to be. This is how “go along to get along” is perpetrated.
What needs to change: We are now swimming in a sea of “if I don’t get caught, I didn’t do wrong.” Or, worse, “If it isn’t illegal, it must be ethical and moral.” We need to bring respect to a level where it can be recognized. And that means believing women who report abuse.
Like every other injustice, there may be a very few women who lie for attention. Do not let those very few women blur the huge number of damaged women who are still too afraid to speak up. Women who speak up about abuse decades after it happened are still suffering from the results of shame heaped on their innocence.
Women need to protect other women from harm, even if they don’t like the other woman’s looks, religion, sexual orientation. Looking the other way is not helping. Saying, “Well, I wasn’t there, so I can’t have an opinion,” is not helping.
The problem is based in power and the perks of power. If the perks of power include forcing women to have sex, it’s not power, it’s a criminal act.
If power means exposing your genitals to someone who works for you, ask first if this person wants to see them. “No” means “no.”
Power is something earned, not seized, and not wielded with impunity. Power does not give you rights beyond the job.
There are two tropes about power that still apply:
- “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. . .” — John Dalbert-Acton, 1st Baron Acton.
- “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” –Jimi Hendrix
If you have power, you can change the dents and rust by behaving honorably. It’s not as glamorous, but it is more satisfying to the person you would like to be.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who teaches how to be heard through writing and how to heal through writing.