As women have shared their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault on social media recently via the hashtag #MeToo, I have been reminded of my own file of #MeToo encounters. Most have been buried for decades in the dark recesses of my memory, and none is anything like the horrific experiences of many others. But still, I thought that bringing my memories to light might be helpful, if only to remind me that, when it comes to the ongoing quest for women’s rights, we truly are all in this together.
The worst—the only physical assault—was on a crowded subway platform in New York in the dead of winter when I was in my 20s. A man walking toward me as I hurried through the crush of evening commuters suddenly reached out and groped me through my heavy winter coat. Without thinking, I immediately punched his left shoulder with my right fist as hard as I could and kept walking.
A few steps later, I stopped and turned around, wondering if I what I thought just happened had really happened. To my astonishment, I saw that the perpetrator had stopped, too, and was looking back at me with his hands raised to his shoulders, palms upturned, and a slightly shame-faced, “Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying!” expression on his face. Stunned, I turned around again and hurried through the station toward home.
Another New York subway moment in my 20s, this time in the summer and on the sidewalk by a station stop in Brooklyn. I walked past a group of three or four men standing in front of a corner store, and one of them called out, in a cheerful voice, “Hey, Four Eyes! You’ve got great tits!” Needless to say, I said nothing in reply.
The most humiliating of my experiences might have been in a gynecologist’s office when I was in college. After my exam, the male doctor made a vulgar, belittling remark about my anatomy, phrasing his observation as a joke that only he found funny. I never went back to him, but I never told anyone what happened, either. In those days, who would have listened or cared?
And there were other incidents, including two more during my college years in Washington, D.C. One summer afternoon a man sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car on a residential street called to me as I walked past on the sidewalk. When I cautiously approached the passenger side of the car, he exposed himself to me. In response, I backed away from the car and ran, angry most of all with myself for falling for his ruse.
A year later, when I was 20, an employee of a federal agency where I had a summer job called the office from a conference he was attending several blocks away and asked me to meet him at a restaurant at lunchtime with an envelope of files he needed and had left on his desk.
This time the office manager, an outspoken gay man, came to my defense, objecting loudly to this plan within earshot of several other employees and warning me to be on my guard at the restaurant, which apparently was well-known in Washington (although not to me) as a place for lunchtime assignations.
I remember walking the several blocks from my K Street office to the restaurant through the Washington heat, entering the front door, making my way through the dimly lit interior and seeing the man from my office sitting by himself at a table in the back, nursing what looked like a noontime cocktail. As I maneuvered through the tables toward him, I noticed that the tablecloths were black, a fact that added to the hush-hush atmosphere and my sense that I was quite possibly in over my head.
I handed him the envelope, he invited me to sit down, and, not wanting to appear rude, I perched for a moment on the edge of a chair at right angles to the banquette where he was seated. He asked if he could order something for me, an offer I declined. I was acutely uncomfortable; I perceived that simply by sitting with a married man in this tell-no-tales restaurant I had somehow put myself at risk. After a few awkward minutes, I said I had to get back to work, and I made my escape.
To his credit, this man never suggested anything out of line then, and, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he might even have been a little embarrassed that he had asked me to meet him in this inappropriate locale. He was not my supervisor, and until that day I had thought of him as simply one of several pleasant federal workers in my office, someone whom I, a lowly summer employee, occasionally talked with during the workdays. But the discomfort I felt at the restaurant, coupled with the outrage the office manager expressed on my behalf, made me decide to keep a polite distance from this man for the rest of the summer.
As I reflect on these and other incidents from my past, I realize I am incredibly lucky. Aside from the subway platform episode, I was never assaulted. And even that encounter was brief, lasting only a second or two and leaving me physically unscathed thanks to my heavy wool coat. My stories don’t begin to compare with what many, if not most, women—in this country and around the world—have been through, merely because of their gender.
But the recent collective truth-telling has made me ponder the broader prospects for women in 2017, and what I see fills me with despair. A partial list of the obstacles women in this country face today includes the following:
A man who bragged on tape about using his position of power to sexually assault women was elected president of the United States last year;
Powerful groups in this country have mounted sustained attacks on women’s reproductive rights, including access to legal abortion and birth control;
Women are routinely paid less than men for comparable work—from blue- and white-collar employees to Hollywood film stars;
Women hold only a fraction of the elected political positions in this country, including state legislatures, governor's offices, and the U.S. Congress;
Women are in similarly short supply in positions of leadership in corporate American; and
Women in traditionally male-dominated fields such as the sciences and high-tech have recently reported being sexually harassed, intimidated and disrespected on the job.
In some other countries, the disregard for women is even more extreme. It includes genital mutilation, so-called “honor killings” of girls and women, child marriages, and limiting or outright denying education to girls and young women. Until September of this year, women in Saudi Arabia were banned from driving a car and they still must be accompanied by or have a note from a male guardian when they leave their homes, even if they are not driving.
The recent revelations of sexual harassment and sexual assault by powerful men in the U.S. entertainment and media industries have been deeply disturbing. And the #MeToo stories women and some men have shared on social media show these behaviors are also prevalent in workplaces far removed from the gilded realms of Hollywood and New York. Given the fundamental lack of respect, dignity and equality accorded women worldwide, however, these revelations are hardly surprising.
Attacks on girls and women take many forms throughout the world, from outright assault to curtailed education, restricted reproductive rights, limits on professional advancement and, above all, subtle but pervasive messages that females are not and never can be the equal of males.
Everywhere they turn, girls and women around the world see evidence that their lives are not considered as important or as valuable as the life of a boy or a man. Luckily, in this country, we can still march in the streets to protest these inequities. But it is going to take much more than peaceful demonstrations or exposés focusing on high-profile sexual predators to create a culture, in the U.S. and around the world, where women are respected and valued and treated as equals and afforded equal opportunities.
Sadly, I no longer expect to see this transformation in my lifetime. At this point, I am merely hoping for some tangible, sustained signs of progress in that direction. So let's keep speaking up and speaking out, and let's keep marching.
Copyright © 2017 by Susan Hooper
Photograph of the January 21, 2017 Women’s March in Chicago by Jonathan Eyler-Werve, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers: