I am dedicated to not turning my blogs into something political. I mean, how political can chicken wrangling and goat poop be? However, sometimes things in my monkey mind toss and turn and I know that if I don’t put it down, and get it out, like an earwig it will eat its way through my brain. So forgive me for taking a turn down a dark avenue, but it’s important, I believe, to share my first-person story.
At 22, I was eager to make my way into the world. Fresh faced, full of promise, excited about the world outside the safe walls of Cal Poly University. Actually, I had no plans, no clue, but a heck of a lot of dreams.
A friend recently started a job working as a buyer in a popular retail fashion clothing chain. And she reported that the in-house advertising agency was looking for a copywriter. I interviewed and was immediately hired. Wet behind the ears, scared to death, I hid in the bathroom several times a day because I was sure if the boss found me, he’d fire me on the spot for incompetence.
It never happened. In fact, I was promoted, led the copy department for a decade, won “Employee of the Year” and became the best copy chief the company ever had, according to corporate officials. When I accepted the position, my father asked what they were going to pay me. I said “I don’t know. But what does it matter? They are paying me to write!” I couldn’t believe that life could be so amazingly wonderful.
And it was. Life was good. I had a job writing. Writing! In a department that was wildly creative and quirky, in a position that was fast paced and unpredictable. I loved every minute of it.
But in every bright light lurks some dark corners. While this wasn’t quite the “Mad Men” era of advertising, it was still the early to mid 70s. The rules of the day were there were no rules. It was still a male-dominated business world, and we had barely passed Roe vs Wade, Title IX, barely heard Helen Reddy sing what became the female national anthem. Equal pay for equal work was more of a theory and sexual harassment was neither a coined phrase nor a legal term.
And I was sexually harassed.
To those who say “it’s just words” or “boy talk,” I say, it’s not. For every comment about how the air conditioning made my “assets perky,” for every poke with a pencil as I walked by, for every man who spoke to my chest instead of my face, or called out “hey little woman, whatcha wearing today?” I felt a little less sure, a little less lighthearted, a little less exuberant each day, and just … a little less.
I was not the only one. In an office with a dearth of women, the few of us were singled out. If we didn’t laugh and go along, we were “on the rag.” If we did, we were fair game in what was clearly a one-sided game. These are not “just words.” These are attitudes. Attitudes that make us feel we matter less. We are worth less. That if you want to “play with the boys” you have to accept that “boys will be boys.”
One company employee also starred in the TV commercials, making him somewhat of an instant “star.” He was smart, funny, goofy and the fans loved him. He was a jokester in the office and left everyone laughing at his antics. Some of those antics were not always appreciated. Rob continually cornered women, and seemed to focus on me especially. Each time I was opening a file cabinet, walking down a hall, or standing in a closed space, Rob would make a production out of “squeezing” by me, saying “Oh, Excuse Me” loudly as he rubbed up against me sliding by. To uproarious laughter by the male crowd.
During a department Christmas party at the boss’ house, Rob caught me putting my coat in the spare bedroom. He grabbed my shoulders, told me I looked beautiful, and promptly kissed me, pushing me down on the coat-laden bed and laying on top of me. I didn’t yell, we were fully clothed and so I was not scared, just embarrassed and horribly uncomfortable. I felt stupid and helpless. I bit his lip, left the room, told my best friend and we spent the rest of the party close together, watching each other’s backs.
I endured daily jokes, catcalls and leers for a decade. I loved the work, I loved the field, and it was some of the best times of my life, but it was also a time when my self esteem was slowly whittled down. I started feeling angry, not really knowing why. My writing was still exemplary, but my heart just wasn’t there. I kept at it because it was the first time in my life I was supporting myself and on my own, and the work was fulfilling and exciting for a young woman just starting her career. And, as I said, it was not a time that “harassment” was even a concept, let alone a term. So I had no compass leading me to understand that this was not the norm.
Years later I met up with my best friend from work, Cathy. In our conversations, I experienced what is referred to as the “Ah ha” moment. I blurted out “Cathy, you know what? We were sexually harassed!” She looked down, looked up and said, “Susan, you’re right. I never thought of it, but that’s exactly what happened to us.”
I’ve made my career with words. And those who say “they’re just words” are not truly understanding the power of language. For every time someone calls someone fat, or ugly, or stupid; for each time someone remarks on a person’s clothing, or shoes, or car or home; for each time a person demeans because of race or looks or profession or sexual preference – all those who fall in the “different” category who don’t fit into the norm – just toss it off as “just words.”
Better yet … remember back when someone made fun of YOU, by using “just words.” And suck it up. Get on with it and pull up your big boy pants. Sticks and stones … and words can never harm you.
OR – take a moment to think. And not react. Think about how vehemently you feel when someone doesn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance. After all, they’re only words. Think about how you so adamantly defend your second amendment rights. After all, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s only words. Think about how you want a “Bible Loving Presidential candidate”. Why? It’s all only words.
Then, tell me again why words don’t matter.