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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does a Woman Need a Room of Her Own?

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Virginia Woolf wrote* that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write [fiction].” She was writing about writers, but what she said applies to being a woman, period. If a woman is to be her own person, she must have autonomy, which in this world means enough money to live on and the ability to make your own destiny. What does that have to do with a room of one’s own, though? And what does that mean anyway?

I noticed a couple of years ago that HGTV (Home and Gardening TV Network) began referring to “man caves.” These are set-apart rooms for the man of the house where he can pursue what he’s interested in and be himself. The implication is that a man can’t truly relax anywhere else in the house, as if all the other square footage belongs to his wife (and children, if there are any).

The other implication is that women don’t need “woman caves” because they have the whole house in which to pursue their interests and be themselves. The belief that the house is primarily the sphere of women probably dates back to the days when everyone lived in caves. The women stayed home and took care of the children, prepared the meals and fashioned utensils (and later, practiced agriculture) while the men went out and “earned a living.” The larger world was not for the female sex, but by the same token, men didn’t feel entirely welcome in the smaller world of home and hearth.

Even in this day when men and women both work outside of the home, women are seen as the primary housekeepers and men the householders (the ones who own the home). It’s a usually unspoken agreement between the sexes that women can do what they want with the inside of the house and men make the “bigger” decisions that have to do with the world outside the home.

I have a friend from high school who recently posted pictures on Facebook of the interior of his house. Some of the comments referred to his taste as well as his wife’s and suggested that they should both take up house staging (which is arranging the furnishings in a home so that it is more appealing to potential buyers). Apparently my friend had as much to say about how the interior of his home looks as his wife did.

I don’t think this is unusual. More men are taking an interest in home decorating (without automatically being thought of as gay). As a result, women are feeling pushed out of the house a little (until it comes to cleaning it—although that is changing somewhat, too).

The husband is no longer relegated to a workshop in the basement or garage. Now he is more likely to have a study, home office or man cave. But what about the wife? Where is her special place, where she can conduct her own affairs in private? I’m sorry, but the kitchen and laundry room just don’t qualify.

But the assumption persists that taking care of the home completes a woman in ways that would never be enough for a man. It is thought that all women have a nesting instinct and that they just tolerate their husbands’ presence, let alone his interference.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your home and feeling completed by taking care of it. The problem is that too many people, male and female, believe that that’s all a woman should want out of life. Even women talk themselves into believing that their priorities are skewed if they want to do anything but keep a house and raise children.

A room of one’s own doesn’t have to be a physical one; but it does need to exist. Autonomy requires the presence of privacy and the absence of interference. If you find that you can’t retreat into your own “space” where you can create who you are, then your personal growth will be stunted. You will only be a reflection of what other people want from you.

*Source: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, 1928.

A Personal Story

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I’ve been a feminist since 1971 when I joined a consciousness-raising group after I had my abortion. I didn’t think that I would ever tell anyone about the abortion, but as we all began to share our stories, I felt safe enough to share mine. Instead of shock or disapproval, I was met with understanding and support. I had had a decision to make and I made the one that I thought was best for me at the time.

The boyfriend who got me pregnant would never have allowed me to give the baby up for adoption, but he was okay about an abortion. I didn’t tell my parents because I felt like I should be adult enough to handle it myself. And, okay, I admit that I was afraid of their reaction, but that wasn’t the main reason I had the abortion. I was 19 and in my first year of college and I knew if I had the baby I would have wanted to keep it. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1971 it was still considered shameful to have a baby out of wedlock. All of the girls I knew in high school who had gotten pregnant (and not had abortions) went ahead and got married. I realized when I got pregnant that I didn’t want to marry the father and I didn’t want to raise a child with him. He could be cruel at times and I didn’t think he would be a good father.

Turns out I was right. For various reasons, I did end up marrying him after my first husband and I got a divorce (possibly partly out of guilt for having aborted his baby). And he abused the children I had from my first marriage. Not sexually, but verbally and physically. We divorced after three and a half years, which was three  years and five months too late. My children still have scars from the way he treated them. I’m not proud of what I allowed to happen to my children. But it was a kind of vindication that I had been right to not have a child with him in the first place, and I thank God that I didn’t have one with him when we did get married.

When my four daughters were old enough, I told them about my abortion. “Just don’t ever put yourself in that position where you have to make that decision,” I told them. When my oldest daughter became pregnant when she was 25 and unmarried, she told the father that she would never consider an abortion and I was really proud of her for that. Thankful, too, because her son is the only grandchild I have today. And I can’t imagine his not being in the world.

Sometimes I think about the child I didn’t have. He or she would have been 42 this year. I like to think that if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have terminated his or her life, but I don’t know that for sure. If I’d had the baby, I probably wouldn’t have the children I do have, because my life would have gone an entirely different way.

I understand where people who are anti-abortion are coming from. I don’t think abortion is ever a good thing. But I’m uncomfortable with making it impossible for any woman to have one legally and safely. Legal abortion doesn’t make women get pregnant because they think, “Oh, if I get pregnant I can always have an abortion.” All making abortion illegal would accomplish is that women who find themselves in tough situations would have illegal abortions or try to abort themselves. And then they might die, sometimes leaving their other children motherless. That’s not a solution.

Most people who are against abortion are against it on religious grounds. But they don’t take into account that not all people believe in God or have strong religious convictions. Here I stand on a principle of democracy: it’s wrong to force all members of society to abide by the convictions of a subgroup. Forcing women to have babies they’re not ready to have isn’t going to convert them. Only God can do that, just as only God is the final judge of all that we do. All we can do is try to live according to our own consciences.

Two years ago my oldest daughter had a miscarriage. But before the fetus died, she was told that it had both Down and Turner Syndromes. The doctor who informed her made it clear that he disapproved of abortion. My daughter was made to feel guilty at a time when she was in deep anguish about what she should do. The eventual miscarriage took the decision out of her hands, but she hasn’t forgotten how she felt when her doctor tried to force his beliefs on her. He wasn’t the one who would have to raise the child, if it lived. She, not he, was the best judge of what she could handle.

Those who try to dictate what a woman should do with her body are trying to play God. The irony is: not even God forces women to have babies. As I understand Him, He gave us free will for a reason. Other people don’t have the right to take that away.

 

Letting Men Off the Hook

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Melissa NelsonThree years ago, when Melissa Nelson was 33, she was fired by her boss because he felt that her beauty would tempt him to have an affair with her. (Apparently his wife agreed.) Ms. Nelson sued but her case was dismissed. The court ruled that being fired for being a threat to her boss’s marriage was within the law.

Excuse me? Where does it say that the law exists to protect men from their own sexual impulses? If that were the case, rapists might as well go free because, after all, they can’t help it. Especially if a woman dresses “provocatively” (a value judgment if I ever heard one). Why not expand that to “especially if she’s beautiful”?

I’m sick of the excuse that men are at the mercy of their “innate” natures. Girls are told that they have to be the ones to make sure that sex doesn’t happen between them and their dates or boyfriends, because “boys will be boys; they will always go as far as you let them.”

[This is insulting on two counts: it assumes that men can’t control themselves, and that women can (in other words, that they never want to have sex that badly). Both sexes are defined by their supposed normal sexual behaviors.]

I take issue with the attitude that it is the woman’s responsibility to keep men from temptation. If it was all right for Melissa Nelson’s boss to fire her because of the temptation factor, then every male boss could make a case for not hiring women at all.

Because, you know, men would behave themselves perfectly if women weren’t around.

 

What Femagination is All About

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A comment left on this blog two days ago* got me thinking about the views I hold as a feminist. Although I’m well aware of the fact that feminism is not a universally loved ideology, I still tend to think that most women (and many men) hold at least some of the views that a feminist does.

What woman, for instance, thinks it’s okay for a man to make more for doing the same job that she does? Or that women shouldn’t have the same opportunities for education, employment or promotion? Or that it’s all right to objectify and abuse women sexually?

Often, when I try to tell people who agree that all these things are wrong that they hold feminist views, they still resist the label. This attitude keeps them away as readers as well. That’s why I recently changed my blog’s tag line to “the feminine imagination blog” from “the feminist imagination blog.” I haven’t stopped being a feminist, but I am tired of people assuming the worst just because I call myself one.

I’m also tired of people refusing to see that a feminist slant merely means that this blog is about women and the issues that affect them directly. It’s not about destroying the institutions of marriage and the family. It’s not about hating men or blaming them for everything that’s wrong in society. Nor is it about women being masculine or non-maternal.

What this blog is about is how to be the person you want to be, unhampered by rules and traditions that prevent you from reaching your potential. Whatever your goals are in life, this blog is here to help you achieve them.

For example, I’ve written several posts about obesity and I plan to write more in the future. I’ve written about everything from abortion to the workplace. (See the drop-down menu to the right for all the topics I’ve covered in the 600+ posts included here.) Sometimes I view these topics from a feminist stance but more often I just view them as a human.

I’m not trying to convert anyone to feminism. If you’re already a feminist, you’ll find plenty here for you. If you’re wondering what feminism is all about, you’ll find that, too. But if you dislike, even despise, the notion of feminism, you should still give this blog a try. You might be surprised by what you find here.

* See the comment on “Why More Mothers Aren’t Feminists.”

Why Should We Care About Shulamith Firestone?

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Shulamith Firestone died sometime last week at the age of 67. She had been a recluse for years, which is one reason why no one found her body for several days. (Her sister confirmed that she died of natural causes.) The feminist community took notice, but the average person could have cared less. And that’s a pity.

Why should we care? What connection could she possibly have to our lives today?

Those of us who are Baby Boomers might remember her name in connection with the Women’s Liberation Movement. She helped to create several radical feminist groups in the late ’60s and was outspoken in her criticisms, not only of the patriarchy, but also of the political left, which she felt didn’t do enough (if anything) to liberate women.

But it was her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, published in 1970 when she was only 25, that earned her a primary place in feminist history. And it was also her book—or rather, the reception the book received—that drove her to withdraw from public life in the years following its publication.

To say that Dialectic created a firestorm is an understatement. Even many feminists felt that Firestorm had gone too far in her denunciation of family life and her assertion that women are enslaved by their biology. She felt that women should be released from the burden of reproduction by the use of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and artificial wombs.

Besides being one of the first feminist theories of politics, Dialectic also set the tone for how the general public perceived the feminist movement. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it helped to make feminism the dirty word it is to many people today. The book calls for a complete obliteration of gender differences and traditional patriarchal society (what many would now call “family values”). She wrote that pregnancy was barbaric and that as long as the traditional family existed, women would never be liberated.

It was strong stuff then and is even more so now. Most people have forgotten the woman who put forth these ideas, but they haven’t forgotten that feminism appeared to approve of them. They fail to make the distinction between radical feminists, which Firestone most certainly was, and mainstream feminists (as typified by the National Organization for Feminists, or NOW).

I’m a pretty traditional woman. I believe in marriage (although I don’t think it has to be restricted to male-female unions) and families. I think there is such a thing as a maternal instinct and that mothers tend to occupy themselves more with the care of their offspring than fathers do (or perhaps just in a different way). But I also believe that women are penalized in this society merely because they can have children, let alone if they actually have them.

A lot of people still think that feminists are anti-family, that they put down stay-at-home moms, or moms period. (Not to mention are bitter, man-hating lesbians.) But the vast majority of feminists get married (or enter into committed, long-term relationships) and have babies, work in and out of the home, and struggle with the same issues as non-feminists.

The difference is, feminists are also aware of the wrongs that are done to females in this society and are willing to fight to right them. Firestone recognized the problem, and, even if we don’t agree with them, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize her sincere attempt to formulate solutions.

She saw what a lot of people are unwilling to see: This society is not woman-friendly, especially when it comes to reproductive issues. However, the answer is not to give up on having babies. The answer is to take charge of our own bodies. We don’t need artificial wombs; we just need for (male) law-makers to keep their hands off the ones we have.