Why Sexual Harassment is Alive and Well in 2015

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anita-hillTwenty-four years ago Anita Hill testified before Congress about the alleged sexual harassment she experienced from the then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. Last year a documentary, called simply “Anita,” was released which chronicles the whole affair in painstaking detail.  I haven’t seen it so I can’t comment on its accuracy or objectivity, but I have to wonder why the film was made at all, and why it was made now. (See trailer for “Anita” here. See here and here for YouTube videos of Day 1 of the Clarence Thomas Second Hearing.)

Surely this is old news. After all, politicians don’t sexually harass their employees or colleagues anymore, do they? Didn’t they learn from the media circus that erupted when Anita Hill’s charges came to light that they don’t dare invite the same public scrutiny? And haven’t men from all walks of life learned that sexual harassment is a no-no in this society?

Hell, no. Sexual harassment is alive and well in 2015 America. The only difference between now and then is that sexual harassment is more frowned upon—in principle. Most companies now have strict anti-sexual harassment policies, for instance. But just because sexual harassment has been exposed as an evil, at the very least illegal, practice doesn’t mean that it isn’t still going on. People just hide it better (unless they’re incredibly stupid).

With all the attention that the problem has received over the years, the public censure of and consequences to the perpetrators, you would think that victims would feel emboldened to step forward. But too many women (and men) are still afraid to complain about it. Why?

  • Often the person who does the harassing is in a position of power over the person who was harassed, making the victim feel that his or her job is at stake if he or she reports the harassment.
  • Even when the perpetrator is a co-worker, the victim may fear retaliation or shunning, for the simple reason that no one likes a “snitch.”
  • The victim is either not believed or is blamed for the harassment. (“He is just making it up to cover the fact that he willingly participated.” “She must have done something to encourage it.”)

[When the alleged perpetrator is a man and the victim a woman, the man is more likely to be believed for the simple reason that men are generally seen in a more positive light than women are. Traits like truthfulness and integrity are ascribed to men while women are seen as deceitful and unstable.]

  • It’s very difficult to prove. The person who has been harassed needs to keep meticulous notes about the harassment: who, when, where, what exactly was said or done. Witnesses are rare, either because the harasser was careful to avoid having his actions or words witnessed or, more likely, because potential witnesses themselves are afraid of retaliation if they testify against the harasser.
  • Denial. What disturbs me the most about the way sexual harassment is treated is that people still persist in minimizing it, in shrugging it off as no big thing. “She’s just oversensitive/can’t take a joke (or a compliment).” (The same people tend to minimize rape by insisting on using the term “forcible rape,” as if the level of violence is what matters, not the fact that the woman said “no.”) Many people complain that it’s hard to tell exactly what constitutes sexual harassment. But the truth is, it’s not rocket science; there are some very clear guidelines. Once it’s established that the action or comment is, or appears to be, motivated by sexual interest, one of more of the following needs to also apply:
    • Is the action or comment unwanted (signified either by out-and-out rejection or by obvious discomfort)?
    • Does the action or comment make the work climate uncomfortable or unprofessional?
    • Does the action or comment cause a worker’s performance to suffer?
  • But perhaps the biggest reason why people don’t report sexual harassment is because they just don’t believe that anything will be done about it. Sexual harassment policies are only as good as the willingness to follow them, including acting on complaints decisively. Employers talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Oh, they’ll refer the offender to some kind of counseling or sensitivity training, or move one of the parties to another location. But often what happens is the complainant is the one who is moved, or even later let go, for some “unrelated” reason. Sometimes an employer finds it easier to settle a few lawsuits than to do all that is required to avoid sexual harassment in the first place. However, the smart employer realizes that tolerating sexual (and other forms of) harassment has other costs that affect his bottom line: low morale, absenteeism, high turnover rates and low productivity.

For more information about sexual harassment, including what recourses victims have, read the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday to the Founder of Modern Feminism

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Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.

Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.

Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority.

These are all quotes from the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, British writer and social theorist, who was born 253 years ago today. Think about it: that was before the American and French Revolutions. (She was living in France and had just had her first child as the French Revolution waged around her.) At the time of her birth, there was no such thing as a public railroad or telegraphs. The suffragette movements in England and America were decades away from materializing.

When she was 33 years old, in 1792, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Five years later she died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her second child and daughter (who later became the author of Frankenstein). Although the book was well-received, it fell into disfavor after her widower published a memoir about his wife in which he was unsparingly honest. The problem was that Wollstonecraft had led an unconventional life and in those days, “unconventional” translated into “immoral.” And immorality disqualified you from being considered a serious writer or philosopher, especially if you were a woman.

Not all people view Vindication as a feminist text. That could partly be because Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist. But then, there was no such word as “feminist” in the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft was that ahead of her time.

When I read about a woman like Wollstonecraft (and there were millions like her), whose life’s work was denigrated because of her supposed immorality, I wonder how far we’ve come. Yes, we are more accepting of couples living together and even having children without being married. That alone wouldn’t be enough to condemn Wollstonecraft if she’d been born 200 years later. But it’s still true that a woman can’t get away with what a man can if she wants to be taken seriously.

I say it’s time to give credit where it’s due: Mary Wollstonecraft was both original in her views and courageous in her life. She dared to say and do what she believed in. Her life wasn’t always happy, but she lived on her own terms and left a legacy for all women. Not many of us can say the same.

Why Fight the War on Women?

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There’s been a lot in the news lately about the War on Women. What most people don’t realize is that this “war” isn’t only about abortion. It’s a series of battles over a woman’s right to live her life purposefully. This doesn’t just mean her right to birth control or abortion. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Women are still having to fight for these things and more:

  • access to education
  • jobs, promotions
  • health benefits
  • reasonable rates for life and health insurance
  • maternity leave and other accommodations for child-rearing
  • effective prosecution of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence
  • elected office and other positions of power

Many people think that the War on Women was fought in the ’60s and ’70s and that women won it. They point to female CEOs and other professionals, to the number of women obtaining higher education, to greater attention being paid to women’s health issues and  to greater protections in general under the law. But these advantages are not being given equally to all women.

As long as there is one woman who is treated wrongfully and unequally because of her gender, the war has not been won. And the fact is, there are still millions of women who need things that many of us, privileged as we are, take for granted. Not only that, but women who feel that they have never suffered gender or sexual discrimination are either unusually fortunate or delusional.

One of the most insidious ways to keep women down is socialization. It’s hard to point a finger to the culprit here when the entire society participates in the practices that keep women from fulfilling their full potential. Even women themselves cooperate in their own socialization and often seem proud of it. The woman who drops out of college to get married, the professional who stops working to have children, the mother who praises her daughter for being pretty, but not for her participation in sports—all of these women are shortsightedly dooming themselves and their children to discrimination in the future.

These women protest that they have the right to choose to work part-time or not at all (except for in the home of course), to have as many children as they want and to raise them however they see fit. I’m not saying that they don’t have the right to choose whatever they want to do with their lives. I’m just asking them to think about the long-term effects of their choices.

The War on Women can’t be fought only by the people who already have the advantages some women only dream of. It has to be fought by all women. Each woman has to think purposefully about her life and do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She has to stop thinking about what everyone else wants her to do and start thinking about what she wants.

Some say that the feminist movement has done nothing but create a society of self-centered and selfish women who think nothing of abandoning husbands and children and who could care less about their families’ fates. There will always be those who think only of themselves (female and male), but the feminist movement didn’t cause that. And that is certainly not its goal.

All that feminism asks is that women think and act responsibly with an eye to the future, both their future and that of their children. Do they really want their daughters (and sons) to be saddled with children they didn’t want and can’t care for? Do they want their daughters to continue to have to bear the brunt of housework and child-raising? Do they want their sons to take women for granted, even to the point of abusing them?

Maybe the War on Women will never be over. Patriarchal attitudes are ingrained in nearly every society. Add to that the resistance people have to change. But humankind’s progress doesn’t depend on staying in the present or even going back to the past. Progress means to go forward. What was “usual and customary” for our ancestors has to be re-examined and reworked in order to serve our future.

 

 

Three Anti-Choice Bills in Ohio

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This is an email I received yesterday from Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Ohio:

Today is a sad day for women in Ohio.

This afternoon, the Ohio House passed three bills that drastically restrict a woman’s access to vital health care options:

House Bill 125, the “Heartbeat Bill,” would ban all abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detectable via ultrasound. This is before most women even know they are pregnant.  There are no exceptions in the bill for rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, or even the health of the mother.  This would be the strictest abortion law in the country.

House Bill 78 would ban abortion after a pregnancy is viable. There are no exceptions in the bill for rape, incest, mental health complications, or fetal abnormalities.

House Bill 79 would exclude abortion coverage under the new health care reform act. Women would not even be able to use their own money to purchase abortion coverage for themselves.

As if this wasn’t enough, we learned late today that Sen. Kris Jordan will soon introduce a bill to completely defund Planned Parenthood in Ohio.  This attack on women’s preventive health care has already been tried in Indiana and Wisconsin.  Low-income Ohio women will now face losing access to basic health care from Planned Parenthood.

What I totally resent about these bills is that the people who voted for them are not representing my position on abortion, nor the position of a large number of their constituents. But what bothers me even more is that the anti-choice position is ultimately an ideology. It is not a sound medical stance. Women sometimes do need abortions and they should not be penalized for or prevented from obtaining them just because some holier-than-thou, heads-in-the-clouds politicians feel more comfortable with a world that is all black or white. To them, abortion is always wrong and carrying a child to term is always right. No ifs, ands or buts.

Anti-choice activists love to recount anecdotes about women who cavalierly use abortion instead of birth control, who feel nothing but relief when they get one, or who could care less about “killing” a baby. This reminds me of when Ronald Reagan spread the story of a mythical welfare queen who drove a Cadillac and lived high on the hog by taking advantage of the system. Funny, no one could actually find that lucky welfare queen.

I’m not saying that there aren’t selfish reasons for having an abortion. But what do we accomplish when we take away the right of millions of women to have a necessary or recommended abortion just to prevent the few who don’t feel bad about it from having one?

Anti-abortionists are trying to make the whole world see the issue the way that they do. But life doesn’t work like that. And neither does democracy. I should have the right to do anything I choose as long as it doesn’t infringe on another’s right to do what she wants to do. Pro-choicers are not trying to force everyone to have abortions. Anti-choicers should not be trying to force everyone to have babies.

Second Wave Feminists: We’re Not Dead Yet

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As I navigate the Internet searching for feminist resources, I come to an unpleasant conclusion: Second Wave feminists are either all dead or might as well be.

I understand about the generation gap. I do. I know that younger feminists are eager to find their own way in the world. They don’t want to do feminism the way their mothers (and grandmothers!) did it. But do they have to shut us out so completely?

Everything I read is seems to be geared toward girls (or Grrls). Which in itself is weird to me, since feminists from the ’60s and ’70s fought so hard to get people to stop using “girl” or “lady” for “woman.”  (Can you imagine Helen Reddy singing “I Am Girl, hear me roar”? Do you even know who Helen Reddy is??) We felt that to be called a girl was a way of infantilizing us. We wanted to be treated like grown-ups.

I also understand that young feminists don’t give a shit what others think of them, including other feminists (especially older ones). If they want to dress sexy or be obsessed with fashion and makeup, that’s their right. If they want to stay home with their children instead of having careers, that’s their right, too. That doesn’t make them less feminist in their way of thinking.

But what they don’t realize is that older feminists get that. We even admire it to some extent. What we resent is being treated as if our take on being feminine is obsolete. We stress(ed) not getting caught up in the societal attitudes that objectify us.  We didn’t want to be seen as just another pretty face or to be judged by our appearance. We worry that younger feminists are playing into the hands of men who want to keep us in categories they approve: sexual partner, mother, wife, girlfriend, servant.

Which brings us to another difference between Second Wave and subsequent waves of feminists: we blamed men for everything. Or at least we are characterized that way. Actually, we felt that men were as trapped as women were by role expectations and that everyone would be better off if we could break free from those expectations.

I’m not saying that today’s feminists don’t see the sexism in our society. They’re just less likely to blame it on patriarchy. They believe that women have been somewhat complicit in the downgrading of women. And they’re all about taking responsibility for their own choices in life. They don’t want to be hemmed in by what older feminists think is acceptable feminist behavior.

We should have anticipated the generation gap and prepared for our own obsolescence. But instead it seems as if Second Wave feminists have retreated into our middle-aged shells. There’s barely a peep from us on the Internet.

Is it just because we’re old fogeys who haven’t kept up with the times? Is our age to blame for our lack of relevance in the world today?

I’ve used the past tense almost all the way through this post to describe Second Wave feminists. That just goes to show you how even we have bought into the idea that we’re has-beens.

But I for one refuse to lie down and die. I think the Second Wave still has a lot to offer. I even think that Third and Fourth Wave feminists owe us. Without us, they would have neither the opportunities nor the respect that younger women enjoy today.

First Wave feminists prepared the ground for women’s advancement. Second Wave feminists planted the tree. And now today’s feminists are grafting other species onto that tree. What that will mean for the future is anyone’s guess. But we could all use each other’s help to tend what is being created.

The Paycheck Fairness Act is DOA

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While I was celebrating Eid Al-Adha on Tuesday, the Senate was voting on whether or not to proceed to a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act. This is called voting on a motion to invoke cloture and is used to end a filibuster. Because cloture requires a two-thirds majority to push it through, it only takes 41 Senators to revoke it. And on Tuesday, that’s exactly what happened.

Since there are only 57 Democrats and two Independents in the Senate now, it would have taken one Republican breaking the ranks to achieve cloture (assuming that the Independents voted with the Democrats). Not only did that not happen, but Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson from Nebraska sided with the Republicans. (Sen. Lisa Murkowski, newly-elected Senator from Alaska did not vote, but since she’s a Republican, it’s assumed that she would have voted along party lines, which would have given the Republicans 42 votes. But even if she would have broken ranks and voted with the Democrats, cloture would still have been rejected 59-41.)

In Great Britain it only takes a simple majority to invoke cloture, but that has been rejected in the U.S. because it’s thought that a simple majority doesn’t do enough to protect the rights of the minority. Silly me: I’ve always been under the impression that in a democracy a simple majority rules. Apparently that’s not the case when it comes to ending filibusters, which is one reason why they’re so hard to end.

Sorry for the civics lesson, but if you’re like me, you find this whole process confusing.

So why would anyone vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act? Because it would put too much of a burden on businesses. In other words, businesses should be allowed not only to pay their female employees less but also to hide the fact that they’re doing so! And people say that there is no more gender inequality in this country.

Another objection to the bill is that it was unnecessary since legislation already exists that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender (although it has yet to be determined if this means that transgendered people are also protected). (Read Nancy Pelosi’s comments on the issue of wage discrimination.) However, the Paycheck Fairness Act includes many provisions that would make it easier to enforce laws that already exist, provide for research and training, and give women the right to sue over discriminatory practices. (At present, they are only able to collect back pay, or double that amount for willful violation.)

Of course, another objection is that the bill would increase litigation against businesses. Again, if businesses don’t want to be sued, then they should pay women and men the same pay for equal work. It’s as simple as that. Maybe it will take a few lawsuits before businesses finally decide that it’s not in their best interests to shortchange their female employees.

Read more here (Huffington Post)and here (Wall Street Journal). Also, see these statistics about the wage gap. You’ll be astonished.