Although she may not have recognized it, I don’t know a single woman that has not experienced sexual harassment at some time in her life,
Growing up, I had no idea what sexual harassment was. It seems impossible now, but in high school, Wolf Whistles and boys “looking you up and down” were a kind of sexual validation. Sexual ideation was the norm. Beauty contests were hotly competed, Marilyn Monroe was idolized; young girls aspired to be Playboy Bunnies. Social acceptance required sexual validation, and thus male approval. Spinsterhood was a specter to frightening to consider. Popular magazines gave tips for girls to attract boys and young women to get husbands.
Merriam Webster defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate…” obviously descriptive of behaviors taken for granted in the 1950s. So why were we not outraged?
In order to understand why otherwise intelligent women would allow, if not invite, this kind of behavior, it has to be viewed through the lens of the time. The ability to “get and keep a man satisfied” was a life skill. Home Economics, a required course for girls taught the fine arts of cooking, sewing, cleaning and ironing. (Yes, ironing.)
Charm Schools and Finishing schools completed the work with instruction on how to walk, sit, and converse with boys.
If it all sounds like a manipulative trap, it was. For both partners. “Head and Master” law in Louisiana until 1979 gave a husband authority over all household decisions and jointly owned property without his wife’s knowledge or consent. In practical terms, this meant that any purchase, even groceries, could be subject to approval by one’s husband. And jointly owned property could be disposed of without the wife’s knowledge or consent!
This archaic system was undergirded by a fiercely fundamentalist covenant in the marriage vows that husbands would love, honor and protect their beloved, sainted wives; and wives love, honor and obey their benevolent, upstanding husbands. Women, poorly educated for the most part, exhausted and housebound because of birthing and raising children, needed respect and protection, and obeying someone who adores you and has your best interests at heart doesn’t sound so bad. Such a system might have worked for Sleeping Beauty and her prince. But most mere mortals didn’t handle it well. Men took advantage, women retaliated.
So, over time, in self-defense, women and especially southern women, refined their “feminine wiles” into a high art form in an attempt to gain control over their lives. We’re talking about sex. (Except that no one talked about sex.)
Navigation of these treacherous waters required superior skill, handed down from mother to daughter in hushed whispers. The tension between withholding sex at the risk of “losing” the man had to be carefully balanced against the risk of pregnancy upon awarding the sex prize. Birth control methods ranged from the risky to the laughable. And if a woman became pregnant, it was her responsibility, not that of her partner. In the best case scenario in which she and her man were planning to marry anyway, they simply moved up the date and produced a “premature baby,”
Her other choices, however, were dismal. She could disappear discretely to a “Home for Unwed Mothers” and emerge alone months later having adopted the child, she could choose to raise the child on her own, (social suicide for both) she could risk an illegal abortion in a dingy back street clinic (God Forbid) or, often with parental input, convince the young man to “do the right thing”, a sure sentence for a lifetime of misery.
Marriage only led to a different kind of dependence on men. Husbands needed to be “managed,” My grandmother was fond of saying ” I have no respect for any woman that can’t handle one little ole man.” It was a badge of honor with her. Implicit, but never spoken, was the understanding that one rationed favors, especially sexual favors. And it worked enough of the time to keep her demons at bay. Still, crude, sexist and offensive behaviors from her husband and sons were simply dismissed as “how men are.” Not worth making a fuss.
She was a master at it. However, even she was no match for my grandfather in the end. Despite her bargaining and pleading, he moved her in middle age from their comfortable home in town to a remote farm with no electricity or running water. She had no recourse but to go. Her soft hands became worn with the harsh farm work, her smooth face lined, her lace collars replaced with farm aprons. She died early, I suspect, from the harsh conditions and the pain of isolation.
Happily, we have moved a long way forward since those days. Birth control afforded women unprecedented freedom. Now able to plan the size of their families, women entered the workforce and began to enter previously all male professions. But there was a long road ahead. Men still controlled the workplace and therefore its rules. Too many of us tolerated sexual harassment and abuse and sadly some even participated, believing our physical attributes more valuable than our intellect.
This tawdry history, in my opinion, helps to explain why it took us so long to realize that in the 21st century, we were still hearing the furtive whispers of our mothers, anxiously passing on their knowledge in an effort to protect us. We didn’t notice that when we were called a “hottie, ” or were the subject of a wolf call, we were being objectified. (The underlying assumption being that we welcomed this kind of attention, or at least didn’t mind.) That it was OK to separate our personhood from our bodies. It was just “what men did.” Nothing we couldn’t handle. We didn’t see that ignoring the “hottie” comment was for some men, an invitation to drape an arm over our shoulders. “He didn’t mean anything by it.” And overlooking the arm on the shoulder could, to such a man, lead to a hand on the skirt. And so on. You get the drift.
At long last and at great cost, women are being defended against sexual harassment. Many have shared horrific stories at great cost to them and their families. New offenders come to light almost daily. And inevitably, some of us have become hyper vigilant, picking apart every comment for a trace of harassment, leaving honorable men who have never offended confused and unsure of their footing. It’s going to take time to find the balance.
But it’s not complicated, really. As is the case for most of our problems – if not all of them – it comes down to simple respect for one another. We call that the Golden Rule.